When Gibson Put Moog Preamps In Guitars: Les Paul Artists, ES Artists, and RDs

Decades before trouble with robot tuning and digital guitars, Gibson had tried to convince guitarists that additional electronics in their instruments might be a good idea. It was 40 years ago, in fact.

At the time, an impressive array of new keyboard synthesizers were invading stage and studio. Guitar makers, worried that the new synths might actually eclipse guitars as the prime instruments of rock, wanted to retaliate. And for Gibson in the late '70s, retaliation came in the shape of active electronics.

The benefits of the system, also known as active circuitry, had been highlighted by the bass specialist Alembic and the pointy specialist B.C. Rich. The idea was to use an onboard battery-powered active preamp to boost the guitar's signal and widen its tonal range. Gibson hoped that in the process this might provide some new models with more of an "electronic" sound and modern appeal among the synthesized wails of those increasingly confident keyboard players.

Gibson's first shot at actives came during 1977 in the Firebird-like shape of the RD series, which had a mix of active preamps plus compression and expansion circuits. The circuits were devised for Gibson by the synth pioneer Bob Moog, whose company Moog Music was owned at the time by Norlin—which also owned Gibson.

RD Artist and Custom Models

"These instruments become dynamic, rather like a piano," Gibson's catalogue for the new RDs suggested, "and the player is able to control the guitar's response during fast licks more precisely than ever before." The player also was somewhat baffled by the complexity of these guitars.

The $699 RD Standard was a regular electric without the active stuff, which was reserved for the $759 RD Custom and $859 RD Artist. Both the Custom and the Artist had an identical looking control layout, with four knobs and two switches alongside a front-mounted jack. Both had two regular volume knobs, one per pickup as you'd expect, but the other two knobs were master tones, which offered active bass and treble, each numbered 0 in the center and then plus or minus 1 to 5 either side.

Gibson RD Artist ad, 1979

One of the two switches on both models was a regular three-way pickup selector. The other switch on the RD Custom was a two-way that selected between the active mode and a treble-boosting bright–lead mode. On the RD Artist, the second switch (which Gibson called the "trick switch") was a three-way that selected between compression-expansion mode, neutral (active) mode, or bright–lead mode.

Compression worked on the front humbucker, and Gibson's catalogue said it "reduces fundamental attack and 'compresses' each note into a long sustaining signal," explaining that this resulted in a stable output regardless of how hard a note was played. Expansion worked on the rear pickup, and Gibson said it allowed the guitarist "to play harder and louder without the note collapsing" which gave "a very fast, explosive response with a rapid decay."

There were some cosmetic differences between the RD Custom and Artist, too, most obviously a dot-marker maple fingerboard on the Custom where the Artist had a block-marker ebony board. The more expensive Artist also had Gibson's TP6 fine-tuning tailpiece and a fancy winged-f motif on its bound headstock, and these original RDs all had long, Fender-like 25 1/2-inch scale lengths rather than Gibson's regular 24 3/4.

The RD models limped into the early '80s. Many guitarists ignored them. The main objection at the time seemed to be the complex controls and associated sounds of the two active models, especially the Artist, but there was also criticism of their wonky Firebird-Explorer body shape—without much of the charm of those two earlier creations. Bruce Bolen, who was head of Gibson's R&D department at the time, told me about a particular objection to the electronics. "Well," he said with a sigh, "you had enough highs there to slice cheese."

Gibson ES Artist
Gibson Les Paul Artist

But Gibson decided it wasn't quite finished with active guitars. Maybe someone pointed at the money spent developing the circuitry with Moog, although Gibson seems to have believed that it was mostly the relatively unconventional body styling of the RDs that was to blame for their lack of success. Because in 1979—that's 40 years ago as you read this—Gibson applied the electronics of the RD actives to the much more traditional body designs of a Les Paul solidbody and an ES thinline.

The new Artist guitars were the $1,299 Les Paul Artist and the $1,399 ES Artist. (To put that in perspective, at the same time in 1979 a regular Les Paul Standard listed at $799 and an ES-335 at $849.) Both had upscale features, including gold-plated metalwork, TP6 fine-tuning tailpiece, "Crank" fold-out tuner winders, "Sustain Sisters" brass studs to mount the bridge, and "Posi-Lok" strap locks. There was an access panel to the electronics on the rear of the body, with trim-pots and a nine-volt battery inside.

Gibson ES Artist ad, 1980
Gibson Les Paul Artist ad, 1980

The RD-like electronics came in a control layout of three knobs and three mini-switches—the knobs controlled master volume, active bass, and active treble; the two-way switches selected bright-lead on-off, compression-expansion on-off, and active on-off—and there was also a regular three-way pickup toggle. Tim Shaw in the R&D department at Gibson had to redesign the existing large RD Artist circuit board, transferring that circuitry to two boards, although it still meant removing quite a lot of wood from the Les Paul Artist.

Like the RD Artist, the Les Paul Artist had a block-marker ebony fingerboard and a fancy inlay on the bound headstock, this time a stylized "LP." The ES Artist was a 335-like thinline semi-hollowbody, but it was without f-holes. It had unusual Gretsch-like offset markers on its bound ebony board and the RD Artist's winged-f headstock motif.

Gibson catalog cover, 1979

As with the RDs, however, neither of the new active Artist models managed to convince many guitarists of the benefits of active circuitry. Steve Howe was one of the few prominent players seen with the ES Artist, which he first came across when Gibson's artist relations man, Pat Aldworth, brought one along to a gig on a Yes tour in 1980. Attracted by what he described as the model's crystal-clear top end and the immediacy of the single volume control, Steve began to use four Artists on stage with his new band, Asia.

The Les Paul Artist hobbled on to 1981, when it was dropped along with most of the remaining RDs, and the ES Artist survived to 1985. (From about 1979, the RD Artist had been offered in two versions: the RD 77, as the original, and the RD 79, with a regular Gibson 24 3/4-inch scale and the functions of the three-way "trick" switch shifted into two two-way switches.)

Tim Shaw said that he didn't come to appreciate until later that most guitar players were really quite conservative and did not want their Les Pauls and 335s lumbered with what some of them considered to be excess paraphernalia. On reflection, he thought the electronics of these experimental Gibsons all a bit too much: "Somebody once said that with one of those Artists, you were a flick of a switch away from total disaster."

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Les Paul Guitar Book, Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, and Flying V–Explorer–Firebird. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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