The story of Gibson’s Thunderbird – the delicate, challenging yet brilliant design that modernized the bass guitar

Announced in the spring of 1963, Gibson Thunderbird bass guitars originally came in two distinct models: the single-pickup Thunderbird II and the two-pickup Thunderbird IV. There were no Model Is or IIIs, but the II and IV designations were conveniently placed between their six-string siblings, the Firebirds (Models I, III, V, and VII).

All six appeared together as a series meant to modernize Gibson’s solidbody line. The company had attempted something similar in 1958 with the release of the “modernist” Flying V and Explorer, although production was discontinued the following year.

In the early ’60s, Fender led the pack with their colorful, fashion-forward designs. The 34-inch-scale Precision and Jazz Basses were unprecedented hits that turned the music world upside down, while their custom automotive-influenced color chart and less traditional shapes spoke of the zeitgeist.

Instrument builders have openly referenced the names, finishes and geometry of hot-rod culture. It was an immediately identifiable phenomenon in a burgeoning electric guitar industry that stretched from coast to coast – notably Fender in the West and Gretsch in the East.

If Gibson was to follow, he had to react. And what better way to get back to the drawing board than with a real car designer? Well, that was the idea behind the first set of Firebird/Thunderbird designs anyway when Gibson hired Raymond Dietrich. It turned out that these so-called “inverted” guitars proved to be particularly difficult and expensive to build.

Indeed, Gibson still maintains that the reverse ‘Bird is one of the trickiest to produce. And while a laminated construction through the body provides great stability and tonality, inverted Thunderbirds are particularly prone to headstock breakage (aka Firebird disease) – a problem exacerbated by the instruments’ heavy Kluson tuners.

The Reverse Thunderbirds, it seems, were doomed from the start. Sales were disastrous. And with Fender claiming patent infringement of its Jazzmaster body style, Gibson was further prompted to overhaul the entire line.

What better way to get back to the drawing board than with a real car designer? Well that was the thought when Gibson hired Raymond Dietrich

Interestingly, however, the “non-inverted” design that followed – a virtual mirror image of the inverted counterpart – appears much closer to the Fender offset in body and headstock profile. It seems reasonable to assume that the Fullerton company was sufficiently distracted by its takeover of CBS in 1965 not to intervene.

Either way, the revamped Thunderbirds arrived that year with glued-on collars. As before, the II and IV were structurally identical – the main difference being the pickups and electronics (the IV sported an additional volume knob depending on its second pickup).

Since its inception in ’63, one of the line’s main selling points was Gibson’s all-new custom color chart, and those options extended through the second half of the ’60s.

1967 Gibson Thunderbird II Non-Inverted Bass

Photographed at Guitars: The Museum in Umeå, Sweden, this custom color Gibson Thunderbird II from 1967 is of the last unreversed variety. (Image credit: future)

Taking inspiration from Fender, finishes included Ember Red, Frost Blue, Polaris White, Cardinal Red, Heather, Pelham Blue, Golden Mist, Kerry Green, Silver Mist, and Inverness Green. Quite exotic, but the regular, cheaper sunburst finish has proven to be by far the most popular choice.

Alas, the Thunderbirds were not deemed popular enough to remain in production beyond the 1960s, and with sales declining towards the end of the decade, manufacture ceased in 1969.

1964 Gibson Thunderbird II

1. SERIAL NUMBER

Six figures on the back of the doll

2. HEAD

Asymmetrical inverted design; bass side tuners; raised midsection; black/natural finish

3. PLASTICS

Gold Gibson logo on black truss rod cover; three-ply pickguard (w/b/w) with beveled edge and Firebird emblem; two metal cap/reflector knobs labeled Volume and Tone

4. MATERIALS

Nickel-plated: Kluson tuners with metal buttons; fully adjustable four-saddle bridge; stopper tailpiece; bridge and pickup covers. Front-loading jack socket; two metal strap buttons; wooden pull up bar

Gibson Thunderbird Bass Pickup Covers

(Image credit: future)

5. MICROPHONES AND ELECTRONICS

Custom single humbucker; two 500k potentiometers (volume and tone controls)

6. BODY

Asymmetrical inverted design; 11⁄2 inch depth; neck-thru construction (two-piece mahogany); glued mahogany sides/wings; raised midsection; standard sunburst finish

7. NECK

Two-piece mahogany neck-through; 20-fret unbound Brazilian rosewood fingerboard with pearlescent dot inlays; 34 inch scale (often measured slightly longer)

The evolution of the Gibson Thunderbirds

  • Spring 1963 Thunderbird II & IV announced (back)
  • Late 1963 Thunderbird II delivered for the first time
  • 1964 Thunderbird IV delivered for the first time
  • 1965 Non-inverted models
  • 1966 About 500 dispatched (II & IV)
  • 1967 120 shipped (IV)
  • 1968 Approximately 100 shipped (II & IV)
  • 1969 Discontinued 1976 Thunderbird ’76 released; reverse; dual pickups; Sunburst, natural mahogany and ebony finishes
  • 2022 Release of Gene Simmons G2 Thunderbird; reverse; dual pickups; Ebony finish

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