Illustrations: Michael C. Ludwig
In the vintage guitar world, the Gibson Moderne is the ultimate maddening mystery: the Holy Grail, El Dorado, the Unicorn, UFOs and Big Foot, if you will. It was designed along with the Flying V and Explorer as part of Gibson’s “Modernistic” series in 1957 (the era of pulp fiction and the space craze), in order to shake up Gibson’s stodgy image. The V and Explorer made it into production, but the Moderne seemingly never saw the light of day, until Gibson saw fit to finally issue a limited run in 1982. To this day, not a single Moderne has ever been verified as original by anyone, although there have been forgeries, copies, and more false sightings than one could imagine. This article is a condensed history of the guitar, the fifty-plus-year search for an original example—the myth, the mystery, the facts and the rumors.

A Controversy is Born
Click here to see our gallery of Moderne variations through the ages.
Ted McCarty, Gibson’s president during their golden age of the late 1950s, commissioned three “modernistic” guitars in response to disparaging comments that had gotten back to him from the Fender camp in California. McCarty realized Gibson’s solidbody guitar line was rather staid, so he decided to shake the industry up with wild guitars inspired by futuristic, space-age concepts. After settling on three designs from the one hundred or so that were submitted, prototypes were made to be shown at the 1957 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Chicago. There’s speculation that only the Flying V and Explorer, then called the Futura, made it to the show, and that the Moderne was scrapped.

Others say all three guitars were shown, and that while the Flying V and Explorer achieved their goal of “shaking things up” at the show and getting into limited production, the Moderne was so poorly received that all the prototypes may have been scrapped at the Gibson factory—but not before one was supposedly sent out to Gibson’s case supplier for fitting. Ted McCarty went to his grave claiming that at least several Modernes were built, but he didn’t know what had happened to them. Some Gibson employees say none were produced. A few say the prototypes were cut up and destroyed. A few others maintain that two Gibson employees took the parts and assembled three Modernes outside the factory, yet nobody seems to remember either of these men. Almost all the original players in this fascinating mystery tale are deceased.

If you’ve never seen the Moderne, it’s an extremely unique design that’s impossible to ignore. The left side of the body resembles a Flying V or a shark fin, while the smaller right side looks like an old-style can opener or a fish hook. It’s a radical shape even today, so one can only imagine how it must have appeared in the conservative Eisenhower era fifty-two years ago. The headstock was shaped like a widened boat paddle, with four string guides. Some think the Moderne is butt-ugly; others consider it a thing of beauty. You can make your own judgment.