Why Did Gibson Do That? 6 Questionable Guitar Choices From the Brand's Storied Past

Troubled times at Gibson, as all but the hermits among us will have spotted. What could be next for the historic firm?

When the captain of the refurbished Gibson sets sail, he'll lick a finger, stick it in the air, and find out which way the wind's blowing. Let's hope this guides the good ship to a safe shore, a place where there's nothing too weird lurking in the undergrowth.

It could be a long journey, though, so I've prepared a chart of six weird things from Gibson's past, all nicely typed and ready to nail to the mast. Perhaps it might serve as some kind of warning.

The Photon Synth Guitar

J.T. Riboloff joined Gibson in 1987 as a custom builder in the Custom Shop and soon began working on new designs. His first assignment was a synth guitar. Gibson had acquired K-Muse, which made the Photon, a MIDI adapter for guitars that used optical pickups.

K-Muse Photon Guitar MIDI Synth System

J.T.'s task was to put Photons into Gibsons as production models and as a retrofit for any model. He blew some holes in a Steinberger (Gibson had just acquired Steinberger) owned by the guitarist John Goodsall and installed the Photon system in the guitar to find out how it worked.

Recalling those days, J.T. compares the idea of putting the Photon system in Gibsons as "like putting sand in eggs." He made a bunch of black Les Paul Customs. "All black hardware, black Grovers—I think black Kahlers. I put in the Photon pickup, the only pickup on the guitar—no knobs, no switch, no pickups. Strung with ten-gauge strings all the way across, tuned to high E.

"I tooled up to be able to do any guitar. I made all these jigs. I could take guitars from the warehouse or bodies from production, rout them out for the 24-pin computer D-jack, and ended up having to hand-make all that stuff." He sighs, in conclusion, and adds: "I was the Photon guy for quite a while when I got there." The Photon experiment did not last long.

The Robot Insurrection

Guitars are analogue creatures, so best not to go messing with them. We all know about Gibson's controversial automatic tuning systems, but the first signs of the company trying to persuade us to take a stroll along the path of tech came in 2006, when it began shipping a long-promised digital guitar, the HD.6X-Pro. This was a Les Paul with an extra hex pickup screwed on, and it allowed you to feed various combinations of strings to a computer, aimed for use with recording software.

2006 Gibson HD-6X Pro

Gibson's next tech-angled step came the following year with a series of Robot Guitars. Various regular Gibsons—mainly Les Paul and SG models—were offered with the first iteration of that controversial self-tuning system, using powered tuning pegs. The theory was that we'd welcome the facility to be able to select automatically from standard tuning or one of six programmable tunings.

A further development in 2008 was the Dark Fire, a Les Paul that linked an improved Robot system with some of the digital guitar's features and potential. The Robot system had the powered tuning pegs, an auto-tuning bridge, and a data-transmitting tailpiece, and was later replaced with the retrofit Min-ETune and then (currently, according to Gibson's website) the G Force units. Then came the peculiar Firebird X, in 2010, an ugly take on the non-reverse Firebird template with Robot tuning and much of the other paraphernalia.

To generalize, all of this this overlooks the tendency of guitarists to be conservative and skeptical when it comes to apparently complex new technology, and a further tendency to much prefer the decades-old pleasure of simply making strings meet frets and hearing the sweet sounds that tumble forth.

Les Paul's Peculiar Personal Pickups

Les Paul's ideas on guitar design did not usually coincide with what Gibson felt would be commercially successful. One of Les' stranger preferences was for low-impedance pickups. Back in the '60s, the majority of electric guitars and guitar-related equipment were high-impedance. Les said low-impedance meant wider-ranging tone. It might seem like an advantage, but that tonal range wasn't necessarily to everyone's taste.

1969 Gibson Les Paul Personal

The Les Paul Professional, Les Paul Personal, and Les Paul Bass were launched in 1969. The Personal was like one of Les' own modified Les Pauls, right down to the microphone jack on the top edge of the body.

Both Gibson's Les Paul Personal and Les' personal guitar had familiar volume, bass, treble, and pickup selector, plus an 11-position Decade control, "to tune high frequencies," a three-position tone selector to create various in- and out-of-circuit mixes, and a pickup phase in/out switch. The Personal also had a volume control for that handy microphone input.

Both guitars needed a special cord with a built-in transformer to boost the output from the low-impedance stacked-coil humbuckers to a level suitable for use with regular high-impedance amplifiers. The guitars were not a great success and did not last long in the Gibson line. I recall seeing Terry Kath of Chicago with one, but they were certainly rarities, and despite a second attempt with a couple of Les Paul Recording models in '71 and '77, the idea went away.

Is That a Gibson or a Pollock?

Remember the '80s? Jackson and others were spraying bright paint everywhere, decorating bodies with graphics and shapes and all kinds of striking stuff. Fantastic! Gibson ought to be doing this. Gibson tried this.

Gibson Designer Series Ad

"Express yourself," said the 1984 ad for the new Designer series, which took the current Flying V and Explorer and gave them painted doodles across the body. It seemed the result of a pack of five-year-olds where the art teacher had quickly opted to leave them to it after little Henrietta discovered abstract expressionism.

At least the Explorer had a pickguard to minimize the effect, but the V was pickguard-less and wholly daubed. The options did follow some sort of guidelines: there was, for example, "Blue Splash" with thick dark-blue lines. There was "Lido" with multicolor lines forming crosses. There was "Wavelength," which it would be polite to call multicolored squiggles, and—well, I'll leave you to guess what "Fireworks" looked like.

Running out of suitable names for these concoctions, Gibson simply gave other options numbers: "21" was thin black stripes sitting at right angles, for example, and "32" had black pinstripes forming a triangle on each of a Flying V's wings. The whole thing lasted less than a year.

A Headless Body, With a Head

The original inspiration for Gibson's Corvus and Futura models, introduced in 1982, was the recent popularity of headless guitars. Steinberger had started the trend with a headless electric bass in 1981, and for a while a succession of makers big and small seemed obsessed with the idea of lopping off a headstock or two and going headless. Gibson was no exception.

Chuck Burge in Gibson's R&D department came up with a design that had a deep notch in the body base where the tuners, now absent from the missing head, would need to reside. Bruce Bolen was head of R&D, which was still based at the old buildings in Kalamazoo—but Gibson's marketing team was located 500 miles away at the new factory in Nashville.

1983 Gibson Futura

"Marketing saw our prototype," Bolen told me, "and they went, 'Oh no, we've got to have a head on it.' So they put what we called the limp-dick head on it—and totally screwed up the design."

Gibson launched the new headstock-equipped production version in 1982 as the Futura, which had a through-neck construction, and as the Corvus, which had a bolt-on neck, and each kept the peculiar body, which some thought looked a little like a misguided can-opener. They went largely un-purchased and had disappeared within a couple of years.

The Misnamed Junior Special

Logic is more often than not a reliable friend, but that kind of friend seems to have abandoned Gibson when it named a model as the Les Paul Junior Special Plus in 2001.

2001 Gibson Les Paul Junior Special Plus

If this axe was aimed at potential buyers with even a little historical awareness, they would surely have told Gibson that a Junior is a Junior is a one-pickup Junior, and a Special is a Special is a two-pickup Special.

The Junior Special Plus turned out to be a Special—that is, a single-cut Special with two humbuckers. It lasted only a few years in the line. Maybe Gibson's thinking at the turn of the millennium was that the young players who they targeted with this model really didn't care much about history. I doubt it. History is continuing at this very moment, even as you read this.

And while we're on the subject of names among the Juniors and the Specials, don't get me started on the TV. The TV is a model, first seen in 1955. There is no such thing as a TV Special. A single-pickup '50s student Les Paul is a Junior, unless it's in a beige or yellow finish, when it becomes a TV. A two-pickup model is always a Special, whatever the finish. Got it?

Anyway, so much for my selected takes on a handful of the missteps and poor calculations that Gibson has made through the years. You really want to tell us about some of the others, too, right?

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 Ultimate Guitar Book, The Les Paul Guitar Book, and Electric Guitars: Design And Invention. His latest is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Chartwell). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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