Patterned on Mosrite’s Joe Maphis model, this luxurious guitar is truly one of a kind.
Before the Mosrite brand was born, its founder, Semie Moseley, was just an independent luthier trying to make a splash. In the same way Paul Reed Smith pitched his pre-factory builds to Carlos Santana and Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Moseley found his first golden ticket in a Southern Californian picker by the name of Joe Maphis.
Back in the mid-1950s, Moseley got fired from Rickenbacker after making a guitar of his own. Soon after, he built a three-necked amalgamation that contained a standard guitar, an octave guitar (one octave higher), and a mandolin—all in a single solidbody electric. The goal was to attract attention, and attract attention it did.
Joe Maphis was a flashy country player who led the Town Hall Party radio show, which was beamed all over Southern California and into Northern Mexico. Maphis requested a double-neck version (without the mandolin), and from then on Moseley was a known entity, crafting about one custom instrument a month for years.
This close-up brings the brass nut, elegant binding, Grover tuners, and sterling silver headstock inlay into focus.
Later, in 1960, Maphis got a proper Moseley-made signature model, with a body that looked like an upside-down Stratocaster. In the early ’60s, the Ventures—the top-selling instrumental rock group who helped codify surf music—became Mosrite’s distributor. They took a Maphis-style signature guitar as their own, and created a rush of capital and orders.
Johnny Ramone’s 1965 Mosrite Ventures II model fetched nearly $1 million at auction in 2021.
Business went up, business went down. Mosrite’s distributor agreements and parent companies came and went. As Moseley wrote to clients and inquirers in 1986: “Some day, in the near future, the Semie Moseley and Mosrite Guitar story will be in process. It will read like a fairytale—a drama—a love story; from rags to riches—to rags—to the fight back, from one major tragedy to another, from the very beginning through its evolution to the 1980s.”
But by then, despite the vagaries of the musical instruments industry, Moseley was back doing what he had always done best: building incredible custom guitars. And that’s where we pick up the story for this month’s Vintage Vault find.
Walnut pickup rings machined to match the bird’s-eye maple body surround these split-coil humbuckers.
After Maphis’ death in 1986, Moseley created this one-of-a-kind beauty for a friend, Ross Coan Jr. While standard Joe Maphis models had spruce tops and single-coil pickups, this Maphis-style custom build has a bird’s-eye maple top and unique split-coil humbuckers. But it retains the bound neck and beveled edges that Moseley must have learned first-hand from Rickenbacker’s Roger Rossmeisl, along with the angled neck pickup, metal nut, dual-knob, and 3-way pickup-selector switch of Moseley’s previous models. And the headstock and fretboard inlays are sterling silver.
Take a look at those pickup rings, too, which—unlike pickup rings on nearly any other custom guitar—are remarkably gorgeous and carved out of a wood that perfectly complements the maple top. Obviously, Moseley put a great deal of care and consideration into this build. He even stamped the name and date of birth of his friend at the very last fret and inscribed the back of the headstock: “Hand made for Ross Coan Jr. by Semie Moseley 1986.”
It’s impossible to put a price on what this guitar would’ve cost back then. Whether it was a gift or a commission, it was a labor of love—a late-career testament to Moseley’s guitar-building prowess.
The back of this unique guitar is made of figured walnut.
George Gruhn writes that Moseley’s pre-Ventures custom guitars are highly sought-after by collectors. Johnny Ramone’s 1965 Mosrite Ventures II model fetched nearly $1 million at auction in 2021. But most production-era Mosrites—those that were notplayed by famous musicians—often sell on Reverb in the range of several thousand dollars.
Moseley signed and dated the headstock of this guitar built for his friend Ross Coan Jr.
This custom build from Moseley himself, who died just a few years later, in 1992, is currently listed for $12,500.
Sources include Reverb listings and pricing data, American Guitars: An Illustrated History by Tom Wheeler, and Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars.
This pair of Firebird I guitars and a Thunderbird II bass, from 1964, were tucked in a closet for decades. Now, they're ready to rock again.
With help from noted automobile designer Raymond Dietrich, Gibson introduced the Firebird and Thunderbird lines in the spring of 1963. They were an effort to compete with Fender's offset body instruments: the Jazzmaster, the Jaguar, and the Jazz Bass. Dietrich, who was famed for his work with Chrysler, Packard, and Lincoln, created the contours of four guitars—the Firebird I, Firebird III, Firebird V, and Firebird VII—and the Thunderbird II and Thunderbird IV basses.
Each of these instruments had an asymmetrical body shape comprised of two mahogany wings attached to a long mahogany neck running all the way through the center. Their resemblance to the smooth fins of now-vintage automobiles remains striking. The guitars used Seth Lover's mini-humbuckers, which were invented in the late '50s. The basses had a new humbucker design that used molds from earlier lap-steel pickups. Another departure from Gibson tradition for the guitars was the use of six banjo-style tuners positioned in a row along the right side of the headstock—the opposite of Fender's arrangement. More typical heavy-duty four-in-line tuners were required for the hefty strings of the basses, however. The standard finish was a dark tobacco sunburst, but any of 10 custom colors—similar to Fender's, but with different names—could be ordered for an additional $15.
The instruments pictured here were originally purchased by a reform school for boys, to be used by its music department.
The guitars were numbered according to price, with the single-pickup Firebird I—outfitted with just two dials for tone and volume—selling for the lowest amount. The neck of the Firebird I has dot inlays and no binding, while more costly models have binding, and some have trapezoidal inlays. The 1963 catalog described the Firebird I this way: "The new solidbody by Gibson that is priced for the growing economy-minded market. Gives you all of the fine performance of this exciting new series of guitars at a price you can afford. You have to try it to believe it." And here's how that catalog described the Thunderbird II: "A fine, new economy-priced bass by Gibson. It offers clear sustaining response, that throaty bass tone, and the easy fast low-action that allows you to always play at your best." The T-bird II is also a single-pickup model, with the same control set as its Firebird I counterpart.
The Firebird I sports a single mini humbucker. With fewer windings than a PAF, these pickups tend to have a brighter sound.
The instruments from 1964 pictured here—a pair of Firebird I models and a Thunderbird II—were originally purchased by a reform school for boys, to be used by its music department. At some point, they were put in a store room and spent the next few decades undisturbed. Recently, a new employee who knew a bit about guitars discovered them. Realizing their value, he reached out to multiple dealers and Gibson to bid on the instruments. Our store was able to acquire them and keep them together as a set. The original price for a Firebird I was $189.50. The current value is $12,500. The original price for a Thunderbird II was $260, and the current value is $9,000.
Lap-steel pickups were the inspiration for the Thunderbirds' pickups. Versions from the '60s have a reputation for prominent mid and treble response, with rich core lows and a tad of inherent distortion.
The lure of the Firebird's modernist look and its bold tone has appealed to a host of blue-ribbon players over the decades, including Allen Collins, Eric Clapton, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Phil Manzanera, Gary Moore, Brian Jones, Dave Grohl, Warren Haynes, and Johnny Winter. And notable Thunderbird players include Kim Gordon, Adam Clayton, Mike Watt, Tom Hamilton, Tom Petersson, Jared Followill, and Jackie Foxx.
The Thunderbird's upper bout has a distinctive emblem based on Native American art. The Firebird has a similarly positioned logo of a phoenix rising from ashes.
Behind the 'Birds is a 1969 Marshall Super Bass 100-watt plexi head, formerly owned by Eric Johnson. The cabinet is a rare late-'60s 8x10. The current value for the head is $5,000, while the cabinet is worth $2,500.Sources for this article include Gibson Electrics 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 Amplifiers: 1933-2008 by Wallace Marx Jr.
Gibson's acoustic Nick Lucas Special was a distinguished debut entry in the history of signature model guitars.
Think of Gibson's golden era and your imagination may spark to Les Paul. Think of the golden era of Gibson acoustics, and you'd do well to think of Nick Lucas. Originally produced from the late 1920s through the '30s, the Nick Lucas Special was introduced as Gibson's first signature guitar. According to experts, it arrived in late '27 or early '28, and the last one was manufactured in 1938 and shipped in '41.
Lucas was a huge star. His "Picking the Guitar" and "Teasing the Frets" were well-loved 1920s guitar instrumentals, while his crooning performance of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in the 1929 film Gold Diggers of Broadway made the song a Hollywood hit.
Nick Lucas became Gibson's first signature artist in 1927 with the release of the flat-top Nick Lucas Special. In 1928, he was followed by Roy Smeck.
When Gibson approached Lucas, the Jazz Age was raging, and Lucas needed a guitar that could carry a tune from the stage or cut through a radio broadcast. With an extra-deep 4 1/2" body, a 13 1/2" spruce top, and mahogany back and sides, the original Nick Lucas Specials could be trusted to project. But you couldn't quite trust the specs. In this era, Gibson's Kalamazoo factory varied production often. The mahogany sides became rosewood in 1929, and maple by 1934, and the span of the top grew to 14 3/4". Some were built with elevated pickguards, trapeze tailpieces, and other archtop appointments.
Note the binding and flaming in the wood on this survivor from 1936—still ready for performance.
This particular Nick Lucas from Picker's Supply in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is a late-era oddity and all the better for it. Dated to 1936, its body is nearly 5" deep—even deeper than the stated spec. The maple back and sides lend a brightness and clarity that complements the low-end and keeps the high-end crispy. The results are exceptionally balanced. As Tom Wheeler writes in American Guitars: An Illustrated History, "The maple-body Lucas guitars are not only superior to the other versions, but they're also certainly among Gibson's very best flat-tops ever." This guitar would have retailed for about $90 in 1936. Today, with such variance in models, they can go from the high thousands to tens of thousands.
At the time, Gibson was willing to place the name of a guitar's buyer on the headstock for a fee. Today, the identity of J. Bovee remains a mystery.
One last appointment on this Nick Lucas is its "J. Bovee" truss cover, a custom option Gibson then offered the buying public. Just who J. Bovee is or how much he or she paid to have their name engraved, we can't be sure. But it's a nice, personal touch to an already incredible vintage Gibson—one set up and ready for another century of playing.
Sources for this article include Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars by George Gruhn and American Guitars: An Illustrated History by Tom Wheeler.