Written by Patrick Ortiz
When a company like Gibson Guitars has been producing instruments for the past 116 years, they are bound to take creative liberties and experiment outside of the norm. How else do you know what will stick? This is a tactic most companies use, especially well-known and long-established ones, to create as many products as possible alongside your flagship items to see which ones tank and which ones thrive. For many years, especially during the great depression and WWII, Gibson struggled to produce guitars because of a shortage of steel, wood, and man-power. In fact, the company relied heavily on women who were home during the war to help make instruments; “women produced nearly 25,000 guitars during WWII, yet Gibson denied ever building instruments over this period.”
Once the company was sold to Chicago Musical Instruments in 1944, Gibson began making the guitar models that are synonymous with the brand to this day like the ES-175 and the Les Paul, which is still one of the most popular guitar models of all time. With a host of hot-selling instruments it was easy for the company and designers to get bold and want to color outside the lines a bit. This kind of ingenuity has led to some of the boldest and highest selling models like the Gibson SG, Flying V, Explorer, and Firebird, which are all still in production and used by many musicians today. However, sometimes the ideas stretched far past unique and interesting, and ended up in the realm of bizarre and unnecessary.
That is where this series comes in! We are going to explore the 10 weirdest, wackiest, strangest, most bizarre, (and whatever other words you can think of) guitars models Gibson has produced over the years; and trust me, there are some odd ones. Who knows, maybe one of these odd birds will catch your eye and inspire a guitar safari! This week, we look at part one of two, let’s get started!
Gibson Bass Banjo
Ok, technically this one isn’t a guitar, but I didn’t even know it existed and it stuck out so much that I decided to include it; the Gibson bass banjo. This rare instrument started off as a four-string cello banjo that was their adaptation of a 5-string version distributed in 1889. In 1930, Gibson decided to take it one step further and created the bass banjo which was a 4-string instrument but was big enough to play like a stand-up or upright bass. The bass banjo was only in production for 3 years and, according to an old newspaper ad, was “considered more or less a novelty instrument.” I wouldn’t wanna lug that thing around to gigs!
Oh, it looks like a Les Paul, no, maybe an Explorer, wait no, a Firebird! Actually, it’s probably a combination of all of those on top of other random designs and “whatever else they had laying around in the 70’s” as Norman’s Rare Guitars store manager Mark Agnesi says. From 1969 to 1986, a company called Norlin owned Gibson and the famed synthesizer brand Moog simultaneously.
In 1977, Norlin decided to think way outside the box and tired to come up with ways to blend technologies from Moog and Gibson, the result was the RD series. The custom “Research and Development” models actually featured a separate toggle switch that acted like a “Moog circuit system.” To try and appease the traditionalist players, they also created the RD Standard which was the wacky shape without the gadgets. They were not made for that long because people could not hang with the bizarre amalgamation of several models. However, Gibson brought the model back from the guitar grave and reissued it in the 21st century. Now it may even be considered trendy!
The mid to late 70’s brought American guitar manufacturers some still competition, particularly from countries overseas like Japan. For Gibson, the main stateside competition of course came from Fender, the other nationally known guitar company. The owners at the time, Norlin, who made the ambitious RD series decided to try and give Fender a run for their money and give their answer for the immensely popular Stratocaster and Telecaster.
The Gibson Marauder arrived in 1974 and was the company’s example of a bolt-on neck instrument with single-coil pickups. The body design was similar in shape to the Les Paul, with a single cut out, but it had a triangular-shaped headstock similar to the Flying V. Although this wasn’t the most outrageous guitar they created, it just didn’t receive the praise they hoped and there were only 7,111 made between 75 and 79. Now, they are interesting finds for collectors who want something different and rare.
Gibson 20/20 Bass
In 1987, the Gibson company acquired a company known for producing a very unique line of basses and guitars. Steinberger. Ned Steinberger founded his company in 1979 and quickly became known as the guy who builds headless guitars and basses. Instead of at the top, the tuning pegs are found near the tailpiece of the instrument. The earlier models were also an unorthodox shape, usually in a rectangle without any kind of curves.
As more and more sci-fi movies came out and futuristic things were all the rage, Gibson’s standard line of guitars were becoming increasingly popular. Once Gibson acquired Steinberger, they decided to model a new line of basses off of the Steinberger, enter the 20/20 bass. This one does have a slim head stock, modern (for the 80s) look and a fold out knee rest. Less than 100 of these bad boys are floating around out there but would make a cool collector’s item if you can find it!
Gibson Sonex 180
Everyone loves Gibson guitars. They are used by some of our favorite musicians, look badass, and sound amazing. But, they are usually too fricken expensive! The 1980’s Gibson Sonex line was the company’s attempt to introduce a more affordable line of guitars that could still hold the iconic brand name.
The guitar has the same basic shape as the popular Les Paul model but without the extra doo dads; it is stripped down and has a bolt on neck which save a lot of money. The Sonex was made from resenwood, a material that was cost effective but now as resonate as 100% wood. If you were/are looking for a cheaper guitar with that Gibson name on the headstock, this is a pretty cool piece of 80’s history.