Save for a few dings, this beauteous ’Bird has retained the eye-appeal envisioned by historic industrial designer Ray Dietrich, whose largest impact was on the auto industry.
In 1962, Gibson president Ted McCarty was searching for new guitar ideas to compete with his company’s main rival at the time, Fender. The SG series in 1961 had helped sales, but McCarty wanted something even more exciting. He happened to hear Ray Dietrich—a prominent car designer who had recently retired to Kalamazoo, where Gibson was based—give a lecture in town. Dietrich was known for drafting car bodies for Lincoln, Ford, Packard, and Duesenberg in the 1920s, and working for Chrysler in the ’30s. While at Chrysler, he was responsible for many classics, including the Airstream. McCarty was so inspired by Dietrich’s speech on design concepts that he asked him if he’d be interested in making a guitar. Dietrich agreed, and developed what became known as the Firebird series.
In addition to its daring new offset wing look, Gibson gave the T-bird new and powerful humbuckers, made from freshly designed molds from earlier lap-steel pickups.
The new Firebird line (a name suggested by Dietrich) was introduced in the spring of 1963. The series was made up of four guitars (the Firebird I, III, V, and VII) and two basses (the Thunderbird II and IV). The guitars and basses had a unique neck-through construction running all the way to the bottom strap button, with asymmetrical “wings” attached on either side. The guitar neck/body center consisted of two long pieces of mahogany glued together, but the heavier tension of bass strings called for a 9-ply laminate on the bass neck/body. Six in-line banjo tuners were used on the guitars, while four in-line standard tuners needed to be used on the basses. The basses also had newly designed humbuckers using molds from earlier lap-steel pickups.
With four in-line tuners and a beveled outline, the headstock of the Thunderbird was as distinctive as the rest of the bass—
a departure for Gibson in 1963.
The 1964 Thunderbird II bass pictured has the original series specs used until 1965. These were listed in the 1963 Gibson catalog as: “1. Exclusive new body shape—solid Honduras mahogany with high-polished sunburst finish. 2. New nickel-plated pickup with nickel silver covers. 3. Separate tone and volume control. 4. Tune-o-matic bridge heavily nickel-plated and extra heavy built for rugged use. 5. Large wound bass strings. 6. Top mounted jack for instrument cord. 7. Heavy-duty top grain cowhide neck strap. 8. Large sturdy hand rests, double nickel-plated for long wear. 9. Beautiful laminated white pickguard with finger grip.”
The bird logo on the Thunderbird and Firebird models was based on Native American art, but the instrument’s sound came to be associated with classic British rock thanks to its adoption by John Entwistle.
The Thunderbirds were Gibson’s first 34” scale basses.A total of 501 Thunderbird IIs were shipped in 1964. The original price for a standard sunburst version was $260 plus $56.50 for a case. The current value for one in excellent all-original condition is $7,500.
Sources for this article include Gibson Electrics: the Classic Years by A.R. Duchossoir; Flying V, Explorer, Firebird: An Odd-Shaped History of Gibson’s Weird Electric Guitars by Tony Bacon; Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty’s Golden Era 1948-1966 by Gil Hembree; and Gibson Shipment Totals 1937-1979 by Larry Meiners.