This month’s guitar is a variation on the Firebird III, so rare that its production number is likely in the dozens.
As Gibson was about to launch its new, simplified “non-reverse” Firebird line in 1965, they shipped a small number of “reverse” I and III models that spring and summer with some eccentric features. In his encyclopedic 1982 book, American Guitars: An Illustrated History, Tom Wheeler whimsically labeled these as “Platypus” Firebirds, due to their oddity and rarity: Some had conventional guitar tuners, rather than the banjo tuners on standard ’Birds, and tubular plastic-tipped vibrato arms, rather than so-called “spoon handle” vibratos. So, naturally, I was intrigued. The subject of this month’s column is one of those rare ’Birds that I scored at the 1993 Great American Guitar Show in Philadelphia.
Being experienced with Gibson’s Thunderbird basses, this Firebird III felt like the right fit immediately and became an instant go-to recording and stage guitar for me. The wide-but-fast neck is superb, the neck-through construction feels more solid than any SG I’ve played, and the pickups nail the perfect blend of Fender bite and Gibson warmth. As a bonus, switching between this Firebird III and a Fender feels more natural than with other-numbered ’Birds.
The Firebird was conceived in 1962–’63, when Gibson president Ted McCarty hired automotive designer Ray Dietrich to come up with a concept to compete with Fender. Nearly everything about this model was new for Gibson: neck-through-body construction, fluid sculpture lines, a single-sided headstock, and special small humbucking pickups. Like the earlier Explorer, Firebirds “reverse” the Fender-style solidbody, with an extended bout below the neck intended more for visual flash than ergonomics. Dietrich even designed a nifty Firebird logo for the pickguard. This distinctive but unconventional instrument required extra factory effort, and quickly proved difficult to build cost-effectively, so Firebirds had to be priced above the SG series, and, more crucially, the Fenders they were intended to compete with.
“The neck-through construction feels more solid than any SG I’ve played, and the pickups nail the perfect blend of Fender bite and Gibson warmth.”
Like Les Pauls and SGs, there were four models of Firebirds, designated by Roman numerals I, III, V, and VII. (Thunderbirds were given numerals II and IV.) Each had a unique neck trim and/or pickup array. Gibson expected the cheapest model to be the best seller, but the Firebird I’s (priced at $215) single pickup and lack of a vibrato arm looked barren by early ’60s aesthetics, while the Firebird III (priced at $280), with two pickups and a vibrato, racked up the strongest sales. The flashier V, with trapezoid inlays and a Tune-o-matic bridge, cost $360, while the gold-plated, 3-pickup VII, priced at $500, was beyond any garage-band budget. Gibson’s oblong, yellow-lined case added another $42.
By late 1964, not only were Firebirds not selling as expected, but warranty repair was another problem. The heavy banjo tuners made their angled headstocks prone to breakage. Gibson decided to revamp the line with a more conventional design, later dubbed “non-reverse,” for the mid-1965 NAMM show. In the meantime, some I and III models were put together with evolved features to clear inventory of neck-body sections (the non-reverse line would have a glued-in neck). My III is one of those instruments. There was also a Firebird I with twin P-90 pickups, a flat headstock, and conventional tuners.
This single-sided headstock design was new to Gibson in the early ’60s.
Photo by George Aslaender
This Firebird III’s headstock has a carved ledge on the face and banjo tuners like earlier ’Birds, but is reversed, with the low E closest to the nut. (The original design made the high E closest to the nut.) Theories on why this was done range from addressing customer or dealer complaints to using up left-handed neck blanks that were prepared but never ordered. Whatever the reason, it resulted in what some find the most player-friendly of the reverse Firebirds, given the familiar string positioning. Another small oddity is the fancier, plastic-tipped, flat vibrato arm, usually found on higher-end guitars instead of the “spoon handles” used on earlier IIIs.
The other features remain unchanged: a multi-laminate, neck-through center section with mahogany wings glued to the sides, a bound, dot-inlaid neck with a 1 11/16" nut, and two mini-humbuckers mounted in metal surrounds with 4-knob, single-switch wiring. There are two forward strap buttons, one on the neck heel and a second on the upper bout, perfectly placed for the strap to slip off and send the guitar floorward. The laminated white pickguard bears the spiffy bird emblem.It’s estimated that just over 1,000 Firebird III’s were shipped in 1965, but the proportion of reverse, non-reverse, and “Platypus” is unknown, as all were logged identically. While the exact number is lost, the number of Platypuses produced is in the dozens rather than hundreds, and today, they’re worth $15,000 to $20,000. From 1965 to ’66, Brian Jones was the most visible Firebird user, and Johnny Winter, Stephen Stills, Allen Collins, and Phil Manzanera all rocked them in the ’70s. “Reverse” Firebirds did end up returning to Gibson’s line in the ’70s, but this oddity has never been reissued.
Mutant forces converge in a super-playable solidbody. The PG Abernethy Sonic Empress review.
Splendid neck. Many cool, unexpected tones. Excellent build quality.
Expensive. Relic finish could be polarizing.
Abernethy Sonic Empress
When you talk about great guitars from the ’50s and ’60s, you typically talk tone. Less well-appreciated, perhaps, are the era’s achievements in ergonomics. The earliest maestros of ergonomic electric guitar design were, of course, Leo Fender and his associates. The Stratocaster destroyed norms about how the contours of an electric instrument should function and feel. It didn’t take long before bodies from rival companies began to slim down and smooth out at the edges.
Clearly, Abernethy’s Sonic Empress borrows more than a few outward styling moves from these contoured, slim-bodied ’60s classics: There’s a touch of Mustang, a lot of Jaguar, a hint of Harmony, and even what I suspect is a nod or two to the obscure and fleeting ’60s SoCal company Murph. But what hits you after you’ve moved past the what-came-from-where styling, is how comfortable and playable the Sonic Empress feels.
Much of this inviting feel is down the neck, which is substantially thicker than what you typically experience on a ’60s Fender or, for that matter, what you’d expect from a guitar that so clearly borrows from ’60s Fender style. But put that neck on a body that feels as slim and natural to hold as the nicest old Jazzmaster, add a clever combo of pickup and switching features, and you realize that the Sonic Empress is much more than meets the eye.
Raid the Reliquarium
Relic finishes tend to be a love/hate proposition among players. But Abernethy has, for the most part, done a convincing job here. The wear on the nitrocellulose lacquer finish looks more genuinely weathered by the decades in some spots than others. But the more I played the instrument, the less any “inauthentic” spots bugged me. And on the whole, the relic job—along with the yellowed 3-ply tortoise pickguard, aged TonePros bridge and tailpiece, and aged pickup covers—ultimately adds to the familiar, broken-in feel of the instrument.
The materials are all beautiful stuff. The body is century-old reclaimed fir, which is occasionally used as a tonewood among flattop builders, but rarely on electrics. The fretboard is Indian Rosewood and caps the quarter-sawn maple neck, which is perhaps the most unusual and satisfying element of the guitar’s design. While not what you’d call a baseball bat, it's pretty hefty, with a just-barely-perceptible super-soft V profile. (Or is it a hard U?) Either way, it’s very comfortable, conjuring recollections of some of Rick Kelly’s less boat-like T-style creations and some late-’60s Gibson SGs and Melody Makers I’ve encountered. (Justin Abernethy says the profile, which is officially called a ’59, is based on a 1959 Les Paul.) It has much more girth up toward the nut than all but the thickest Fender necks, but that never feels like an impediment to moving swiftly around the fretboard and is well suited to the 25.5" scale. Plus, the slotted, classical-style headstock (another nod to the old Murph Squire 12?) looks awesome.
A small company called Gemini provides the unique pickups. They are dual-single-coil pickups that can be switched between single-coil and humbucker mode using the Jaguar-style slider switches. The twist is that the individual single-coil units are based on DeArmond and Supro single-coil designs.
Tone differences between the two can range from subtle to pronounced. The Supro-styled pickups are, in general, softer on the bass side of the spectrum and a touch fuller—ranging from very dynamic and touch-responsive jazz tones on the neck pickup to thrillingly growling neck pickup sounds when you push a small-to mid-size amp. The DeArmond coils can sound comparatively thin, but that perception can also be deceptive. They give you a lot of headroom to work with and they sound very cool with overdrive and fuzz—particularly units that have a more low-end or low-octave content. When the pickups are combined in humbucker mode, they sound fantastic. The Supro sounds tend to emerge strongest when the two are combined, but the balance between the pickups is a lovely thing. Notably, the pickups are relatively quiet in all modes.
Any guitar that feels this natural under the fingers is worth a lot. That comfort and tactile responsiveness translates to ease of expression, which in turn verges on the invaluable. At $3,200, this guitar represents a significant investment for most of us, so it’s good that it feels as fine as it does. But the sum of the Sonic Empress’s thoughtfully assembled parts is considerable. The neck is a delight, and the pickups are full of possibilities. For many players out there, the Sonic Empress may well represent an ideal. But even for those for whom it’s less than perfect, the Sonic Empress is an instrument of impressive, unexpected possibilities.
Ash, rosewood, and factory-original black paint bedeck this beautiful 1964 Strat.
The Fender Stratocaster was introduced in 1954 as the next step in solidbody evolution from the radical, revolutionary Telecaster. Ten years later, the 1963-’64 Fender catalog still described the same important characteristics of this breakthrough model: The many remarkable design features incorporated in the Stratocaster, including many “Fender Firsts,” have resulted in making it the choice of many of the world’s leading musicians. It features advanced neck design, the contoured curves of the body, the improved adjustable pickups, the method of tone control, the mechanical bridge, the surface-mounted plug receptacle, and one of the most outstanding Fender developments—the exclusive Fender built-in tremolo.
But while the basics remained the same, several changes were made in the Strat’s first decade. The standard body wood changed from ash to alder by 1956, and the neck profiles became gradually slimmer. The most noticeable alteration took place in 1959, when rosewood fretboards were added to the previously 1-piece maple necks. The rosewood board began as a fairly thick slab, but by 1964 had become a thin laminate.
Image 2 — This close-up displays the extras that arrived with this historic Stratocaster, as well as the headstock’s spaghetti-style logo, which would be replaced by July 1964.
This month’s 1964 Fender Stratocaster is finished in custom-color black, but otherwise has the typical features associated with the first half of that year. These include a maple neck with a separate rosewood fretboard, clay dot inlays (replaced later that year by slightly larger pearloid dots), and the small headstock employed until 1966, with the original “spaghetti” Fender logo. (That logo was replaced by a “transition” logo decal starting in July of ’64.)
Image 3 — Rosewood fretboards were added to Stratocasters in 1959—initially as a thick slab and, by ’64, a thinner laminate.
Also, 1964 was the last year to see a greenish celluloid pickguard, which was replaced with white plastic ones in 1965. This Strat also came with the original white Tolex case, which held the factory-issued strap, a polish cloth, and a 1963-’64 catalog. The original list price with custom finish was $303.97. The current value for one in excellent all-original condition is $20,000.
Image 4 — This guitar sports its original pickups and electronics, and it’s among the last to enjoy the light-green celluloid pickguard that was replaced by white plastic on Strats starting the next year.
The Fender Concert amp behind the Strat dates to September 1963. Two 6L6 power tubes push about 40 watts through four Jensen 10" speakers. The normal channel has a bright switch along with volume, treble, and bass knobs. The vibrato channel also has a bright switch, volume, bass, and treble knobs, but adds speed and intensity knobs to control the tremolo. The 1963-’64 list price was $359.50. The current value for the amp is $2,000.
Sources for this article include: The Fender Stratocaster: 1954–1984 by A.R. Duchossoir, The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat by Tom Wheeler, Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World by Richard R. Smith, and Fender Amps: The First 50 Years by John Teagle and John Sprung.