Gibson made a Firebird before Pontiac, and its guitar was shaped like a car
Cars have been connected with rock and roll music since the original example of that genre, Ike Turner’s 1951 hit song Rocket 88, forever changed the sound of popular music with Willie Kizart’s distorted electric guitar backing a song about an Oldsmobile. Period photographs show Turner’s band playing Fender instruments.
A decade later, in 1962, Fender introduced the surf-music-influenced Jaguar. Leo Fender was past middle age by then, but he kept his ear close—literally, since he was partially deaf in one ear—to what we today call pop culture. The hot car and surf cultures of southern California in the early 1960s were an overlapping Venn diagram, hence the automotive-themed name for Fender’s new guitar.
As youth culture took over pop culture, though, the Gibson Brands musical instrument company struggled to find its place in the early 1960s. The original Les Paul guitar was associated with its namesake, who played jazz and country music, not the then ascendant rock and roll. It was also significantly heavier than the thinner Fenders, a disadvantage when you’re trying to sell guitars to young people. Today the Les Paul Guitar is an icon, but it would not become appealing to younger guitarists until the late 1960s, when Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page popularized it with their overdriven blues-based rock.
Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster electric guitars, popularized by rock stars like Buddy Holly and Dick Dale, had found more favor with young musicians than Gibson’s guitars. Leo’s “bolt-on” neck (which was actually attached with wood screws, not machine bolts) and mass production methods also made his guitars cheaper to make and sell compared with Gibson’s traditional luthiery, as in the set-neck, carved-top, original Les Paul guitars.
In the early 1960s, Fender was also busy developing a shorter, 24-inch-scale guitar aimed at the youth market. The Fender Mustang was introduced in 1964, the same year as the Ford Mustang’s debut—and in case you are wondering, no, the Fender Mustang’s name was not a coincidence. Interestingly, in 1999, when the Fender Custom Shop produced 35 commemorative guitars in honor of the Ford Mustang’s 35th anniversary, it made Stratocasters, not Fender Mustangs.
The Jaguar and Mustang model names weren’t Fender guitars’ only connection with cars. Leo’s factory often used automotive paints to finish its guitars. At first it was for convenience and economy, as the paints were easily procured from collision shop suppliers, but later it was to give the guitars the same kind of visual pop automakers gave their cars. Some of the most collectible Fender guitars are finished with paints that have automotive paint code numbers.
As a response to Fender’s popularity, Gibson temporarily discontinued the original Les Paul and applied the name to a cheaper-to-make, slab-bodied, double-cut guitar that we now know as the Gibson SG (for solid guitar). That didn’t really work out. The SG was still more expensive to make than Fenders, as it had a glued-in set neck, and similar to how the original Les Paul eventually became an icon, it would take years—and the SG’s later use by Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, and Angus Young—before it would become a popular body style.
Ted McCarty ran Gibson, at the time located in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Also located in Kalamazoo was retired automobile designer Raymond Dietrich. Dietrich had studied with Andrew Johnson, the father of American automotive styling, and worked for the Brewster body company before co-founding the LeBaron firm, which produced many outstanding custom and production bodies for leading luxury car brands in the 1920s and ’30s.
In the early 1930s, Dietrich left LeBaron, eventually being put in charge of body design at Chrysler by Walter Chrysler himself. While at Chrysler, like his mentor Andrew Johnson, Dietrich started a course in body design and engineering for the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. When Walter Chrysler suffered a severe stroke in 1938, Dietrich lost his patron. Fred Zeder, the head of engineering and Dietrich’s immediate supervisor, fired him.
He wasn’t unemployed for very long. Morris Markin at Checker hired Dietrich in 1938 as a consultant on tooling and taxi design. A number of sources say that his salary was $100 a day; adjusting for inflation, that’s more than $1800—almost $1 million a year. The $100/day figure likely comes from an interview with Dietrich in the late 1970s, reflecting inflation. The actual figure was probably closer to $20 an hour, which today would be close to six figures annually. So Dietrich’s talent was pretty well compensated.
During the WWII, when the U.S. automobile industry switched to military production, Dietrich designed a 45-ton-capacity tank retriever trailer with 24 tires on a dozen dual rims. He designed Checker’s first postwar taxicab (along with an early transverse-engined front-wheel-drive prototype), the A2, which was also produced as Checker’s first non-commercial passenger car, the A3. Dietrich also designed President Dwight Eisenhower’s bubble-topped parade limousine and had a hand in the work on the Tucker automobile. Dietrich retired from active work in the auto industry in 1960, at age 66.
Ray Dietrich had studied car design in Paris and ran a design studio in Manhattan, but he decided to retire to Kalamazoo. Dietrich had spent much of the latter part of his career in western Michigan, opening up a design firm in Grand Rapids, and working for Checker, which was based in Kalamazoo.
Ted McCarty commissioned Dietrich to design something new. As traditional as Gibson was, McCarty was an innovator, introducing Seth Lover’s humbucker pickups, as well as the radical Flying Vee and oddly-shaped Moderne guitars. He probably also drew the original Les Paul’s shape.
It was Dietrich who came up with the Firebird, which is almost as radical today as it was when introduced in 1963. Unlike nearly all other Gibson guitars, which are made using “set-neck” construction, with a tenon on the neck that is glued to a mortise routed into the body, the Firebird is a “neck-through” design, where the neck continues through the bottom of the body, with the body’s exterior shape made up from two “wings” glued to each side.
The construction isn’t the only thing that was different about Dietrich’s Firebird. It is an offset design, meaning the guitar’s waist is not horizontal. More radically, it’s a reverse design. Most electric guitars, whether with a single cutaway or two, have the lower horn either shorter than the upper, as in the Stratocaster, or the same length, as in the SG.
The Firebird, and the Gibson Explorer on which the general shape is likely based, have a lower horn that extends pretty far up the fretboard, giving the body an almost backwards look. Also reversed on the Firebird is the headstock, which has the tuning pegs away from the player, opposite of Fenders, and all in a row, unlike most Gibsons, which have three on each side of the headstock. For a cleaner line, Dietrich had Gibson spec planetary banjo tuning gears with knobs hidden behind the headstock.
Unlike the slab SG, Dietrich gave the Firebird some character lines, with the center neck-through structure a fraction of an inch higher than the wings. The wings and lower horn were shaped, it is said, to evoke automotive shapes, the curve of the bottom lower bout, and the way that bout’s upper profile and the lower horn are extended, like tail fins. Dietrich may have been going for an automotive look, but he was a very gifted stylist whose designs were of their eras, not dated.
By the time McCarty would have engaged Dietrich to design what became the Firebird, tail fins were on their way out, with 1959 being likely the year of maximum fin. Even Cadillacs had smaller fins in 1960, and by 1962, when Dietrich would have been busy with the Firebird, Caddy fins were practically vestigial compared to the ’59’s. If you ask me, the angular Explorer looks more like tail fins than the Firebird, and I think that’s how Ray Dietrich intended it to be.
The Firebird was capped with a bright white pickguard, perhaps to evoke the two-tone color schemes popular on American cars in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and it was finished off with a stylized phoenix-like firebird graphic engraved into the scratch guard.
Unfortunately for Gibson, the Firebird was never a huge success, probably due to it’s backwards shape. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was about the only famous guitar to use one when it came out, and by 1965, fewer than 3000 were sold and the original Firebird was discontinued. That year, Gibson came out with a non-reverse version of the Firebird, although it’s not clear if that was Ray Dietrich’s work or not.
Fortunately for music fans, however, the late, great Johnny Winter embraced the Gibson Firebird with a passion. In 1970, the Texas blues master spotted a 1963 Gibson Firebird V in St. Louis that would become his main recording and touring guitar for most of his career.
“I was initially attracted to the Firebird because I liked the way it looked,” Winter told Guitar Aficionado in early 2014. “When I played it, I discovered I liked the way it sounded too. The Firebird is the best of all worlds. It feels like a Gibson, but it sounds closer to a Fender than most other Gibsons.”
The Firebird became Johnny Winter’s signature guitar, and over the years Gibson has reissued the Firebird in various configurations, including a signature Johnny Winter Firebird, in 2008, that replicates his ’63.
A reviewer for music retailer Sam Ash described the Firebird as a guitar that “feels a bit like an automotive designer that never touched a guitar built it.” The proportions may look cool, but they’re a bit awkward for playing. The upper “fin” wants to poke you in the chest, and the balance is off, resulting in neck dive. If played while sitting, it forces you to stretch to reach the first fret and the tuning knobs are impractically placed. Still, the Ash reviewer said, “It all somehow works.”
Sources don’t say why Gibson branded the guitar as the Firebird. General Motors made a series of turbine-powered concept vehicles in the 1950s and early ’60s that it named Firebird I, II, III, and IV. Those cars featured stylized phoenix graphics, as did Dietrich’s Firebird, so perhaps Gibson or Dietrich borrowed the name. By the time the production Pontiac Firebird came out in 1967, however, the original Firebird—the guitar from Gibson—was long out of production.