In the early 1960s, Gibson was steadily losing ground to archrival Fender. The SoCal company offered radical colors, various pickup configurations, and several of their models—especially the Stratocaster and Jazzmasters—quickly became a part of surf culture thanks to the Beach Boys and Dick Dale, among other legendary players. The continued growth and pop culture immersion from Fender forced Gibson to roll up their sleeves and come out with a new batch of guitars that weren’t considered old-fashioned or overpriced.
Gibson dipped its toe in the futuristic guitar design frontier in 1958 with the release of the Explorer, Flying V, and supposedly the Moderne (which never made it into production). Unfortunately, these newfangled axes were just a bit too unconventional for most guitarists. (Obviously, today’s vintage market and the numerous reissue runs show guitarists’ admiration for the ’58 trio.) But in 1963, Gibson’s CEO Ted McCarty took a page out of Fender’s playbook and sought to have a new model that was reminiscent of mid-’50s car tailfins. They enlisted car designer Ray Dietrich—who helped create the 1931 Reo Royale Eight and the early Checker Motors Marathon models—to come up with a new guitar design.
The first Firebird I produced in 1963 had several firsts for Gibson—a peculiarly reversed body shape that had its lower horn longer than the upper, a neck-through design, and a Fender-ish reverse headstock that had banjo tuners on its right side. It features a standard Gibson scale length of 24.75", mahogany body, mahogany neck, Brazilian rosewood fretboard, and a wrapover stop tailpiece. The first models came loaded with mini humbuckers, but eventually were upgraded to standard humbuckers with the Firebird III. The reverse body style was the Firebird norm until 1965 when Gibson unveiled the non-reverse design featuring a substantial upper bass-side horn.
In 1966, Gibson went a step further and offered the non-reverse Firebird in a 12-string—the model shown here was recently purchased by Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. The V-12 features an asymmetrical mahogany body, mahogany set-neck, Brazilian rosewood fretboard, blackface LP-style headstock with pearl split diamond inlay and six tuners on each side, and a Tune-o-matic bridge. The original Firebird models came stock with P-90 pickups, but this particular model has mini humbuckers. Anomalies on this guitar lead Klinghoffer’s tech, Ian Sheppard, to believe that this was either a “factory second or a halfassed prototype.” The headstock’s diamond inlay is off-centered, and this V-12 has two on/off pickup switches whereas the standard model has a 3-way toggle. Additionally, the pickguard is a different shape and has 11 screws while the standard version has only 10.
This is an endangered bird: Only an estimated 272 were produced from 1966– 67. This doesn’t stop Klinghoffer from enjoying his recent purchase. Sheppard claims that, “so far he hasn’t used it on any songs, but when he feels particularly excited he’ll tell me before the show that he’ll want me to bring this up to him during a four-bar rest within the encore jam. He uses it when he wants to get a bit out there [laughs].”