My Big Guitar Project for 2012 turned out to be this red Gibson Firebird VII with gold trim like the picture above. It’s a bit of confluence of things that led to this project but when I list to factors, you might grok in fullness the weird road to the Gibson Firebird VII.
The most familiar Firebird player in my collection of CDs is Clarence Gatemouth Brown. He had a swanky Firebird V, and there is no duplicating his clean tone without some Firebird under your fingers. It’s just the way it is, because not only is the cut of the body an oddball shape, Firebirds sport minihumbuckers and walnut bodies, with through-body necks.
Other oddities in the Firebird design would be the through-neck design and the Cadillac-fin styling of the body (it was designed by a car designer Gibson Co. hired). It has had many variants over the years, but perhaps the most appealing to me is the Firebird VII with the 3 pickup with Maestro Vibrola arm. Yes, it’s Gibson’s copy of the Fender Stratocaster – even though they’d never admit the bleeding obvious – and being a dyed-in-the-wool Strat player, the one that resonates the most is the FB VII.
Of course, Gibson wares in Australia are always priced for lawyers, advertising execs and drug-dealers, so it was going to be hard to say, “Oh I’ll check out the Gibson”. Sure. On my way home from buying my Aston Martin Bond car.
Anyway, I thought if I could pick up an Epiphone version of the FB VII, I wouldn’t mind loading it up with Seymour Duncans and giving it a red hot go. Of course, Epiphone stopped making their version some years back, so the opportunity seemed to be less than initially imagined. Then along came a full custom shop “body and neck only” in good nick, so that made me empty my piggy bank.
The thing about electric guitars is that you can go through life not knowing the subtleties of what goes into the sound and still be a great player. But if you want to be a unique player, you have to be willing to go much further afield than Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls and Flying Vs. Similarly, with the choice of wood, you have to leave behind Swamp Ash or Alder or Mahogany. Walnut is the thing! (technically, there is mahogany sandwiched in the FB VII, but the ‘wings’ are Walnut).
Walnut warrants a bit of explication. Alembic use Walnut to build thru-body neck designs for their high end product. The grain is open but tight and so there is a fair chunk of density. It has a higher tone than Mahogany, Swamp Ash or Alder, but is not as bright as Maple. Walnut shows great resonance when you rap it with your knuckles. One of my pet dream projects is to build a guitar around a big Walnut body – like a L5S body – and a Walnut neck, to get the maximum wood tone of Walnut and call it ‘Wally’.
The surprsing thing about the Firebird design is just how much wood there is in it. When I sit it next to a Stratocaster, it’s clear it has so much more wood in the headstock and body. This is important because what gives an electric guitar distinctive tone is the wood; and the more wood there is, the more complex and rich the decay of the envelope. Add in the fact that there is no neck joint and you have the recipe for a very rich sounding guitar.
I installed Seymour Duncan SM-1n in the neck and S-M3n and SM-3b for the middle and bridge positions. They’re all wound around Alnico V magnets instead of ceramic magnets, which gives them a warmer, ’rounded’ tone. I guess one could dream about getting Alnico II versions from somewhere, but Alnico Vs should be good enough for now.
Wiring up was a little strange. The Firebird chamber is very small, and it sports 3 Volume knobs and 1 Tone, but only a 3 way switch. I tried using a 6 way switch but that didn’t work out too well. The 3 Volume pots makes things interesting, especially because there’s effectively no Master Volume control, but there is a master Tone control. You do have more control over tonal combinations between the pickups but the wiring is convoluted as a result of the choice.
The tuning pegs were also an interesting problem. Because of the oddball design in the headstock and tuners, I had to get Steinberger Gearless Tuners. These are interesting things because they work like a clamp and a shifter rather than the traditional winding on to posts. They too were a learning exercise but now that they’re on, they seem to be very stable tuners.
The weird thing about the Gibson Firebird is that there is nothing apart from the body and neck that can’t be improved by third party parts. The Seymour Duncans are better than the Gibson minihumbuckers; the third party Vibrola copy is more stable than the original; there is a roller saddle bridge with locking posts out there that is an improvement on the Tune-o-matic bridge favoured by Gibson. All the same, when you string it up and set up the action, you’re confronted by the great craftsmanship on the body and neck. It sure makes you wonder about the Gibson company.