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The Gibson Thunderbird—One of the Greatest!

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The Gibson Thunderbird—One of the Greatest!
The Gibson Thunderbird is the crazy drunk chick you won’t bring home to meet your mama. She’s wild, she’s the sexiest thing ever, she doesn’t do anything all that great, she’s fragile or broken, and she’s very expensive. She’s a one trick pony in a bad, bad way, and has a nasty attitude (like showing up at the prom in a leather jacket). She won’t balance, won’t intonate, and is big and clumsy—the bass equivalent of a blown Chevelle.

All that said, no other bass has the tone, sexiness, or attitude of a T-Bird, and that’s why I’ve played them almost exclusively for 30 years. Anytime I talk gear with my bros Tom Petersson or Baz Cooper, the conversation usually begins or ends by talking about a T-Bird. However, not all Birds are created equal, so let’s figure out what’s right for you.

Thunderbirds come in two variants and two shapes, and all were built during one of four series of production. The two variants are the single-pickup Thunderbird II and the dual-pickup Thunderbird IV. The two shapes are the reverse (which looks rather like a cut-down Explorer) and the non-reverse, which looks like a melted boat oar. My rule of thumb is to collect the IVs and play the IIs, though I use both. A cool thing about T-Birds is that they are one of the few basses that will sound great through an old-school amp or a modern rig. I’ve used them through Ampeg B-15s, SVTs, and Marshall Majors, as well as contemporary rack rigs with high-tech cabinets. Again, the big consideration is whether to play or collect. The majority of these basses have repaired headstocks, but if it’s a good bass with a stable and clean repair, I’ll buy it and use it.

1963-1965
These basses are the blue chip, crème de la crème of all T-Birds. They look great and sound heavenly with a midrange punchiness that really cuts through the mix. Keep in mind that trying to coax a J-bass-like high end will not happen with any T-Bird. These basses have balls even at low volume. The construction technique is shared with the ’70s basses, featuring a center plank that runs from the butt to the headstock, with glued-in wings. The neck heel is slightly squared and is unique to this series.

The bridge has a separate stop anchor mounted behind the saddle unit, but the bridge is mounted from the factory in the wrong position, and perfect intonation with the original unit is nearly impossible. Upgraded repro units are available, but to be honest, the intonation issues never really bugged me. The pickups on these basses are to die for, and are encapsulated in either nickel or chrome covers, though I have seen a mix of both from the factory on the same bass. These pickups are mounted to the body with two screws and no mounting basket.

1966-1969
The second series of Thunderbirds are by no means second-class when comparing them to their earlier counterparts. The construction technique and look of this series is way different, and the basses sport a solid body with a glued-in neck—a technique very similar to an SG. Because the heel shape is a glue-in, these basses will not be confused with any other T-Birds out there.

The hardware and intonation issues are the same as the ’63-’65 basses. Quite a few 1966 and some 1967 models have horrible action. This is the result of a design flaw from the factory, and I’m talking “fit-your-pinky-under-the-strings” action. Though the neck is laser straight, the bridge is bottomed out—and you cannot file out the saddle because you will not have enough break angle. The issue is simply that the neck angle is wrong, and Gibson had a habit of doing this on many models in the first year of introduction. The only remedy here is a neck reset—not a biggie if you want a player. The tone on these is a little different than the reverse-style models. The tone is still insane with this series, but these basses sound a little more open and have some “singiness” to them. The mids are a little sweeter, and though these models don’t have the massive punch of their forebears, they are still punchy.

1976 & 1979
Think Beatlemania Stage Show versus the Beatles. Beatlemania looked like the Beatles, kind of sounded like the Beatles, they were enjoyable to listen to like the Beatles—but at the end of the day, they were an emulation of the real thing. The construction techniques for the 1976 and 1979 basses were identical to the ’63-’65 series. The obvious changes were a rounded heel and the Gibson 3-Point bridge, which did a fine job of intonating the bass. The neck shape is rounded in a typical ’70s fashion and is quite fast. The tone of the bass is good, but does not compare to any of the ’60s basses—the pickups are sonically “level” and lack the chutzpah of the earlier models. The pickups feature three screws connecting to a mounting basket, and the basket is held in place to the body. Yes, these are good basses, but they are not great basses when compared to their predecessors.

Modern Birds
I bet you think I’m going to slam the modern T-Birds because they are new. You’re wrong! I actually love them. For the money, these are a best bet in both the new and used market. Structurally, they are almost identical to the ’70s basses, and the biggest change is that the headstock is about 35 percent smaller. This keeps the inertia down if you hit something and they will fit in a case properly— something all the previous basses could not do. The hardware is similar to the ’70s basses, except for the change to black chrome, and the tuners are lightweight, narrow-shaft units. The pickups are soapbars and produce a unique tone that’s modern, “middy,” ballsy, and cutting. This is a great rock ’n’ roll bass.

The Low Down
Bottom line is that Muffy and Timmy wouldn’t be caught dead playing these basses at the cotillion party. You also will not be slapping and popping on them. These are basses for “shot-and-a-beer players,” but trust me, if you get one, you will love it!


Kevin Borden has been playing bass since 1975. He is the principal and co-owner, with “Dr.” Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works (visit them online at kebosbassworks.com). You can reach Kevin at kebobass@yahoo.com. Feel free to call him KeBo.
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