The Legend of the Gibson Moderne

Last year, one of Gibson’s production model Explorers from the 1950s sold for $611,000 at auction. These guitars are undoubtedly rare, with around 19 or 20 Explorers still in the hands of well-heeled collectors.

In writing the final chapter of my book, The Strat in the Attic, I researched another impossibly rare Gibson. This one is often referred to as the “Great White Whale,” the “Bigfoot,” or the “Holy Grail” of vintage guitars – the elusive Gibson Moderne.

A short-lived vision.

1958 Moderne Patent

In 1957, Ted McCarty (the head of Gibson guitars at the time) applied for design patents of three guitar shapes: the Flying V, the Explorer, and a third design without an official title. Later, the third design became known as the Moderne.

The Flying V and the Explorer went into limited production in 1958 and 1959 and were reissued extensively in the years following. The Moderne, however, was not so lucky. It was never put into production.

Although it was never mass-produced, Ted McCarty and various other Gibson factory workers remember that there were anywhere from one to six prototypes of the Gibson Moderne made in the factory. But despite their testaments, the fact remains that a Moderne has yet to surface almost 60 years later.

Legendary stories with little evidence.

The mysterious Moderne carries a large dosage of legendary tales along with it. A handful of musicians and collectors claim to have come in contact with the guitar at some point or another, though none of their stories are accompanied by physical proof that the Moderne existed.

A Gibson employee named Ren Wall (now an Heritage Guitars employee in Kalamazoo) remembered borrowing a Moderne out of the Gibson vault in the early 1960s to use in a local Kalamazoo stage production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Though photographic evidence never surfaced, he is steadfast in his opinion that the guitar he borrowed was, in fact, a Moderne. Once he returned it to the vault after the production, he never saw the guitar again.

A man named Bill Cherry had a very convincing story about playing a Moderne prototype at a music store in North Miami, Florida in the early 1960s. The owner of North Miami Music, Ben Davis, offered Cherry several odd guitars that Davis said came in from a Gibson dealership warehouse sale.

Cherry remembered that the Flying V and the Explorer both had form-fitting cases that included Gibson hang tags and instruction manuals. He remembered a third odd-shaped guitar, too. Unlike the others, this guitar was fitted in a case that didn't accommodate the body shape and didn't come with any of the extra tags and materials. He played the guitar and found it to be extremely unbalanced with odd string pegs that guided the strings from the nut to the tuners on the odd-shaped, bulbous headstock.

Davis offered the guitar to Cherry for $250, but Cherry passed. Years later, when the mystery of the Moderne gained exposure in the guitar collecting world, Cherry knew that this was that third guitar he played that day in 1963 at North Miami Music.

A blues player named Ponty “Guitar” Gonzales in San Antonio, Texas tells his own story about coming into contact with the Moderne. Back in 1957, a Gibson salesman was traveling through town by train carrying a couple dozen guitars along with him. He would stop at various music stores along the way to try to lighten his load.

Gonzales had told the owner of the music shop in downtown San Antonio (still in business today as Alamo Music Center) that he was looking for a radically shaped guitar. Although Gonzales was a Gibson man himself, he was started to feel as if their designs were old fashioned after seeing Fender's Stratocaster.

The traveling salesman happened to have with him three guitars that were odd enough for the music store owner to place a call to Gonzales to come take a look. Gonzales took a look at the first guitar, a Flying V, which he passed on in favor of the Futura (Explorer). Years later, Gonzales remembered that he thought the third guitar was particularly ugly and looked to him "like a broom."

While the subject of its beauty is debatable, the Moderne does, in fact, look like a broom. The salesman told Gonzales that he was continuing west, which has led to the belief that the guitar probably ended up in El Paso, TX or Juarez, Mexico.

A possible original Moderne body with a Melody Maker neck

In the late 1960s, a funky guitar believed to be at least part of a Moderne surfaced at a shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Noted luthier and shop owner Dan Erlewine bought a guitar that had a Moderne body, a replaced Melody Maker neck, and a crude black refinished paint job. This was in the earliest days of vintage guitar collecting knowledge, and Erlewine claims that he thought it was just an Explorer at the time.

The seller told Erlewine that he got the guitar from his father who had the Melody Maker neck installed at the factory in Kalamazoo. After doing some work on the odd guitar to make it sellable, Erlewine sold it to Ann Arbor Music in downtown Ann Arbor.

Doug Green, now known as “Ranger Doug” from the group Riders In The Sky, was a University of Michigan graduate who moved to Nashville and became one of George Gruhn’s early employees. While back home in Michigan, Green spotted a guitar in the window of Ann Arbor Music store that he thought resembled the collectible Flying V and Explorer guitars. Green bought the guitar and brought it back to George Gruhn, who immediately chastised Green for buying such an obvious fake. The guitar was sold to a Japanese businessman and remains on display (not for sale) today at one of the guitar stores in Tokyo’s famed Ochinomizu guitar store district.

Although several experts like George Gruhn have disputed the guitar’s originality, many believe that the body was an original Moderne body – as close to an “original” Moderne that has ever materialized. As Dan Erlewine correctly points out, this was so early in the vintage guitar collecting game that nobody even knew what the Moderne was – so why would someone make a forgery?

These stories are tantalizing enough to assume that there probably was at least one – and maybe several – Moderne prototypes made in the 1950s. Even Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top has gotten in on the lore, claiming that he owns one while refusing to show it to anyone for authentication. But although these legendary stories continue to surface, no official Gibson Moderne nor any photographic evidence has ever turned up along with them.

A few humble predictions...

There are countless unfinished guitar stories out there – the Moderne isn’t alone in that.

Just last week, I heard stories about a hitherto-unknown 1958 Bigsby electric guitar surfacing on the East Coast. I heard another about an old-timer from Wichita walking into a Guitar Center with a mint 1955 Stratocaster that he purchased new. Last Tuesday, I saw a guy show up to a gig with a rare 1950s tube Standel amplifier model that I had never seen before.

Gibson Moderne Heritage Series Natural 1983

The stories go on and on, and the Moderne is just one “pawn ticket … grandpa passed away … this showed up at a garage sale” story away from being made into a reality. I do believe that, some day, the Moderne will show up.

What would an original 1950s Gibson Moderne sell for if it ever did surface, was fully authenticated, and offered to the public? Hard to say, but if two collectors really wanted it and had the money to fight over it, it could sell for several million dollars – possibly even tens of millions.

Everything about the Moderne, from its value to its very existence, is purely conjecture. The myth of the “Great White Whale” of guitars continues, and perhaps one day in our lifetimes, the real deal will surface.

Gibson did eventually make a “reissue” Moderne in the early 1980s and reissued the model again in 2013. There was even a budget Epiphone Moderne made, as well. As many collectors and fans have pointed out, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum to claim the new Moderne guitars are reissues, since no originals are known to exist.

About the Author: Deke Dickerson is the author of The Strat In The Attic and its follow-up, The Strat In The Attic 2. He is also an incredible guitarist, producer, rockabilly champion and gear collector. Learn more about his music, rig, and tour dates at his website here.

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