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August Issue
more... Gear HistoryJune 2009Gibson

The Mysterious Gibson Moderne


Erlewine doesn’t subscribe to the theory that an original Moderne would have surfaced by now: “If there were only three allegedly made, it’s possible the owner doesn’t even care about guitars, or have a clue what it is. It’s a big world, and lots of strange things happen all the time.”

“I never thought about the Moderne myth very much. The most I thought about it was a couple of years ago, when a man flew to Athens, OH, to show us a ‘real’ one that he had come across—he was writing a book about it and wanted verification. He and the guitar’s owner paid to have experts Phil Jones, Tom Murphy and Michael Stevens flown in for the weekend as part of the inspection team. Michael was ill and couldn’t attend, but Phil and Tom came. We had seen at least fifty photos of it before the get-together took place, and they were good enough to warrant us looking at it. Once the case was opened however, we could tell it wasn’t real. Probably some of the color photos in Ron Wood’s book are of that guitar.”

Summing it up, does Dan Erlewine think the Moderne ever existed? “I have no idea,” he answers, “but I’m starting to doubt it.”

One Man’s Quest for the Truth
As previously mentioned, Gibson relented to requests and officially introduced the Moderne in 1982. Howard Leese, formerly of Heart, was given the first prototype, which was painted Candy Apple Red. He also purchased one for his guitar tech. Both later sold the guitars for a tidy profit. Only 183 Modernes were produced in this run, and the public reaction was generally negative. Other than the Korean-made Epiphone copies, Gibson has refused to manufacture the Moderne since.

This brings us to Ronald Lynn Wood, a guitarist originally from Flint, MI, and now of Gainesville, FL, who became fascinated by the Moderne as a young man and set out to unravel the mystery of this elusive guitar. His new book, Moderne: The Holy Grail of Vintage Guitars, has just been released by Centerstream Publishing, and it is the most exhaustive and comprehensive accounting to date of the search, the history, and the rumors and facts surrounding the Moderne. Wood saw what he believes was a Moderne hanging in a Flint pawnshop in 1978, and from there began his quest for the truth behind the mystery.

“It was like no other guitar I had ever seen,” he recalls. “I distinctly remember the lower horn was shorter than the top. I never did get that Moderne, but always wondered if it was real or not. When I was thirteen, I used to subscribe to the newsletter put out by Guitar Trader from Red Bank, NJ. From my earliest days as a musician, I was fascinated with vintage guitars. There was all this talk about the Moderne in various books and magazines, but very little substance. Did they make one? Where was it?”

Wood goes on to say, “I met Cohn Rude through an article he had written [on the Moderne] in Vintage Guitar magazine. He was very helpful and shared a lot of information with me, as did a good friend of his, Wayne Johnson. I had been collecting information about the Moderne for a long time, but after talking with them, it gave me the fire to finish the book.”

Wood started saving information on the Moderne twelve years ago, and it took him five years to complete the book. He claims to have a great deal more information that didn’t make it into the book, information that he could not substantiate.

“A few days ago,” Wood relates, “someone sent me a photo of a [Gibson] factory worker with a Moderne on her work bench in the final stages of assembly, so I absolutely think the guitar existed. I think at the very least two prototypes were made, but most likely four. Ted McCarty, John Huis and Julius Bellson, all Gibson management at the time, said there were several made. I spoke to an ex-Gibson employee, who refused to be identified, who claimed to have seen Modernes at the factory in 1963. Ren Wall of Heritage Guitars claims to have played a Moderne in the Gibson morgue in Kalamazoo in 1963, and borrowed it for use in a school dramatic production. Even some former Fender reps I spoke to said they saw all three futuristic guitars at the 1957 NAMM show.”