Prototype Pedigrees: A Look at the Early Stages of Classic and Offbeat Guitars

In the ongoing evolution of guitar design, many classics only came about after a series of unique prototypes. Sometimes these experiments resulted timeless models, while other prototypes failed to gain any sort of traction at all. Here are the stories behind five prototypes that either foreshadowed familiar favorites or disappeared into the periphery entirely.

Gibson Moderne Prototype

In 1957 Gibson designed a trio of angular, space-faring instruments — the Flying V, the Futura (precursor to the Explorer) and the Moderne. During 1958 and 1959 very few Vs and Explorers were built and it’s unclear whether or not any Modernes made it past the blueprint stage at all before their eventual reissue in 1982. Ted McCarty, Gibson’s president between 1950 and 1966, recalled making a small batch of Moderne prototypes for a road show in New York, but a widely acknowledged and authenticated prototype has never surfaced.

The Moderne prototype has become a mythical instrument that possibly never existed, yet Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top claims to own one that he bought from a painter in San Antonio. Gibbons told Gibson in an interview that the guitar in question was disassembled and inspected by expert George Gruhn of Gruhn guitars and is believed to be made of parts dating back to the 1950s. If Gibbon’s Moderne truly is a 1950s prototype it may be the only one in existence. Despite a handful of limited reissues by both Gibson and Epiphone the Moderne is still a rare bird that hasn’t reached the same status as the Flying V or even the Explorer.

Fender Marauder Type I

The pre-CBS Fender Marauder Type I never made it past the prototype stage to join the other classic 60s Fender offsets in their perennial popularity. Western swing musician Quilla “Porky” Freeman owned a patent for an unusual hidden pickup design which placed the Marauder’s four pickups out of sight beneath the pickguard. This sleek looking Marauder had an offset body reminiscent of the Jaguar or Jazzmaster shape, a chrome-plated control layout also in the style of the Jaguar, block inlays on a 21 fret neck and a Stratocaster-style bridge and trem system. The Marauder Type I was designed at Fender throughout 1964 and prematurely appeared in the 1965-66 Fender catalog when the newly established CBS owners rushed to promote the instrument before mass production had even begun. Fender then decided to throw out the plans for the Marauder Type I and cancel the existing orders.

A few explanations have been offered for the demise of the Marauder Type I. It’s speculated that Freeman and Fender had a legal disagreement over the pickup design. It’s also thought that the Type I’s pickup design may have been too expensive to mass produce. The unshielded pickups were allegedly noisy and also weak given the distance placed between them and the strings. Freeman took his patent to Rickenbacker which produced a hidden pickup guitar in 1968 — but ultimately the Rickenbacker design also failed to go to production. In 2011 Fender revived the Marauder name for an offset design in the Modern Player series of guitars.

Fender Lucite Prototype

German luthier Roger Rossemeisl is credited with designing some of Fender’s more daring and uncommon guitars, the Coronado and the Thinline Telecaster among them. His most elegant and rare design of all may be the circa 1972 Lucite prototype previously owned by Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. This guitar features a distinctively shaped headstock which echoes the fluid contours of the guitar’s sculpted Lucite body. The guitar has block inlays, two through-body holes for weight reduction, a one-off vibrato, Wide Range humbuckers and black anodized hardware. The look of the instrument is a both familiar and otherworldly.

In 1972 the Seth Lover designed Wide Range humbucker pickups also appeared on the Thinline Telecaster, the Telecaster Custom and the Telecaster Deluxe. Gene Fields’ Fender Starcaster design came along a few years later and brought a couple of the Lucite prototype’s elements to the mainstream market. The Starcaster evokes the Lucite prototype with its offset body (though it traded the Lucite body and through-holes for a wider semi-hollowbody and F-holes), Wide Range humbuckers and the unmistakable headstock profile which Fields had originally used for his 1966 Fender Marauder Type II prototype.

Gretsch 6120 “Dark Eyes” Prototype

Chet Atkins’ televised performance of “Dark Eyes” illustrates many of the guitarist’s celebrated strengths: the virtuosic fingerpicked melodies, the thumb picked bass lines, the perfectly articulated arpeggios and the swooning vibrato bends are all integral parts of this instrumental. The song’s title also became the nickname for a special 1956 Gretsch 6120 prototype that he used in the performance.

“Dark Eyes” is the second of two 6120 prototypes built by Gretsch specifically for Atkins, and it’s a prime example of how some prototype design elements find their way into subsequently mass produced guitars. The first of these 6120s was a bright orange sealed hollowbody with false f-holes (to eliminate feedback), a giant G brand and pearl inlays with decorative cowboy insignia. Atkins’ direct influence on Dark Eyes’ design was in the thinner sealed maple top painted black with reduced ornamental details and the switch to solid block inlays. Atkins himself modified the guitar many times and took aspects from Dark Eyes to help design the Gretsch 6122 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, which eventually became his main guitar and also famously found its way into the hands of George Harrison.

Five String Fender Performer Bass Prototype

If you flip a Fender Stratocaster over and observe the shape of the back’s flat surface alone, you’ll see the horn of the Fender Performer, a curious product of Fender’s mid-1980s identity crisis. John Page of Fender Custom Shop fame designed the Performer during the heyday of shred guitar and hair metal when Fender was fighting against its public perception as a conventional and unadventurous brand. In an ironic move, Page looked to Fender’s past and saw their next move by simply flipping over the most recognizable electric guitar of all time.

The Performer series of guitars and basses, as well as the Fender Katana, were intended to shake things up and gain back some of the market that Fender had been losing to brands like B.C. Rich, Kramer and Jackson. The Performer bass — designed before the guitar version — features an alder body, a Swinger-style headstock sporting a sharp new logo design (also a Page creation), two single coil pickups and a notably slender 24 fret, 34” neck. In 1987 the Performer was discontinued after only two years of production, but not before the FujiGen Gakki factory in Japan produced the rarest of the rare Performers, a 5-string bass prototype with 3 pickups that never became available to the public.

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