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The Firebird's main features that influence its playing characteristics include the neck-through design and the original mini-humbuckers | Photo: Gibson
The Firebird's main features that influence its playing characteristics include the neck-through design and the original mini-humbuckers| Photo: Gibson
Ondřej Bezr -

6 Guitarists Riding on the Back of Gibson's Firebird

The Gibson Firebird is undoubtedly one of the most bizarre classic electric guitar models. The company introduced it in 1963, and its shape was created by automotive designer Ray Dietrich, who was inspired by the shapes of American cars of the 1950s. The Firebird's main features that influence its playing characteristics include the neck-through design and the original mini-humbuckers. The guitar appears in a variety of modifications, differentiated mainly by the number of pickups, from one to three. The main types are labelled with the odd Roman numerals I-VII (the even ones, II-IV, are reserved for basses with the same shape known as the Gibson Thunderbird). Firebirds are popular with players of all styles, but the majority are those who have, in one way or another, stumbled upon the blues style of playing. Apart from the ones we discuss below, they have been used by Eric Clapton (at the time  Cream), Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Steve Clark (Def Leppard), Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Paul Stanley (Kiss), Bob Stinson (Replacements), Joe Bonamassa and Warren Haynes.

1. Brian Jones (1942–1969)

Keith Richards' first guitar partner in the Rolling Stones, and in their early days also the band's blues ideologist, is associated with two guitars: the Vox (in the form of a "teardrop") and the Gibson Firebird. We should keep in mind that when Jones played the Firebird, it was a complete novelty, and he undoubtedly helped to put it on the map. He played both backing and solo parts on the Firebird, sometimes using the slide technique – and he certainly wasn't the last one to do so.

2. Johnny Winter (1944–2014)

It was this blues-rock king who perfected slide playing on the Firebird. Of course, he had a whole collection of instruments of this type, but his most famous one is the 1964 Firebird V with two pickups. It's no coincidence that the Gibson custom shop chose it as the model for now-available Winter's signature guitar in Aged Polaris White finish.

By the way, it is not without interest that even players of fragile body structures like Winter (or even PJ Harvey, as we will see later on) have chosen sturdy Firebirds as their key instruments. However, it's true that towards the end of his life, when he played mostly sitting down and was generally frail, Johnny Winter used the Firebird only occasionally, usually in the finale of a concert.

3. Stephen Stills (*1945)

On the other hand, the former Buffalo Springfield member and most importantly a quarter of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young supergroup has certainly never had any problems with his stature being overshadowed by the Firebird. The forty-seventh-best guitarist of all time (according to Rolling Stone) may be a bit underrated as an instrumentalist, partly because CSN&Y focused mostly on songwriting and vocals. But they knew how to enjoy the concert versions of their songs and make the most of their skills – something Stills and Young in particular excelled at. Not to mention one of his side projects, the famous 1968 Super Session album with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, which can't be called anything other than a musical orgy.

4. Phil Manzanera (*1951)

The London-based guitarist is one of the exceptions to the previously mentioned rule about blues players on Firebirds: he never really rubbed shoulders with traditional black music. He left his main mark in the alternative art-rock band Roxy Music, but he has also worked with other progressive musicians like John Cale and Robert Wyatt, and he holds a fairly extensive solo discography. Although he has used a variety of electric guitar models, the Firebird somehow blends in with him the most, perhaps for its striking visual appearance.

5. Allen Collins (1952–1990)

One of the southern guitar heroes made his name in the band Lynyrd Skynyrd where he played in their heyday, performing in large crowded stadiums. He played a Firebird until 1976, then moved on to another bizarre Gibson model, the Explorer, and later to a Les Paul, and in the final years of his career, he was unfaithful to Gibson with Fender Stratocasters.

6. PJ Harvey (*1969)

The goddess of alternative rock has always formed a truly formidable duo with her Firebird. At first glance, she looked like she couldn't even carry the guitar, but when she dug her fingers into it in her wild years, it seemed like they'd always belonged together. Although she almost made do without a guitar on her penultimate tour, on her last tour she once again slung her iconic instrument round her slender neck – and it was an unforgettable experience.

Tagy Gibson Firebird Gibson Thunderbird

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Foto: František Vlček, Lidové noviny