There are some Gibsons that shot off the production line so quickly or were made in such limited quantities that you probably won’t see them in person in your lifetime. They’re like urban guitar myths. This list of 10 rare Gibsons – curated with the help of Gruhn Guitars historian and author Walter Carter – includes some familiar models with exceptional characteristics, some eccentric models that might be news to you altogether, and at least one model that never really existed at all. Some of these guitars fetch jaw-dropping prices at market, while others go for much less than $1,000 a pop. That said, the vintage guitar market is always subject to change. Gibson Repair & Restoration Manager Todd Money says, “Even if they haven’t yet, many oddball Gibsons – like the Corvus and the Marauder – could still have a renaissance. Their day may be yet to come, but they’re still good, well-made guitars. All it takes is this week’s big rock star to decide that it’s the guitar he’s going to play on stage, and values will go through the roof.”
The Gibson Corvus
From 1982-84, Gibson produced this oddly shaped guitar, which from the front looked like a can opener and from the side, looked like a crow in flight. The latter comparison was intentional (“Corvus” is actually Latin for “crow”). The former comparison? Not so intentional. “The body shape of the Corvus resembles a battle-ax,” Carter says. “This is one of the goofiest of all Gibson models, and its rarity is well-deserved. Production totals are unavailable.” Three versions of the guitar emerged in the early ’80s: Corvus I, Corvus II and Corvus III, with the numerical notation representative of the number of pickups. Over the years, this guitar has fallen into the so-ugly-it’s-cool category amongst some collectors. Its appearance in the Guitar Hero video game series has renewed interest in them of late.
The Gibson Crest
This exquisite, high-end thinline electric was available during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Setting it apart from its ES counterparts was its rosewood body; other comparable models featured a maple body and a maple block within. This guitar also got its panache from a rosewood scratchplate, bound headstock, floating custom “Crest” tailpiece and inlaid marquetry down the spine. “It was an odd design – a thinline, fully hollow double-cutaway electric with an arched top, a flat back, and a body of laminated Brazilian rosewood,” Carter says. “Shipping totals show 162 from 1969-72. It’s rare simply because there was no demand for it.”
The Gibson ES-250
This hollowbody guitar made its debut in 1939. The following year the Gibson catalog made the proclamation, “Gibson has created the best electric guitar possible to make.” It became a favorite of bluesman T-Bone Walker, who turned to it extensively during the ’40s and ’50s. Charlie Christian, Alvino Rey and Tony Mottola also fell for the instrument. Based on the ES-150 but with several bold upgrades, the ES-250 featured a larger body, refined fingerboard and snazzier accoutrements like deluxe headstock, tuners and tailpiece. Perhaps its defining characteristic is its bar pickup with six mini blades that performed as separate polepieces for each string (now known as the “Charlie Christian pickup”). “This was a short-lived model,” Carter says. “Jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian owned two of the 70 that Gibson made. It featured the bar pickup that many jazz players still think is the best jazz pickup Gibson ever made. It was superseded by the ES-300, which featured Gibson’s first adjustable-pole pickup.” Photo Courtesy of Gruhn Guitars.
The Gibson Explorer (1958 and 1959 models)
Because they’re among our clutch of classic models, it’s now difficult to imagine why the Explorer made more of a thud than a splash when it hit music stores in 1958. Carter explains, “The Flying V appeared first in 1958 and didn’t do too well, followed by the Explorer which was a commercial disaster. If the listing on shipping totals of ‘Korina (Mod.Gtr)’ referred to the Explorer – which we think it does – only 22 went out before Gibson pulled the plug. They didn’t sell because the body shape was just too radical for players who were still getting used to the basic concept of solidbody guitars, which had appeared on the market only eight years earlier.” The Explorer was discontinued until 1976, when production resumed. The going rate these days for a 1958 or 1959 Korina Explorer? Hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Gibson Loar L-5 (1923 and 1924 models)
In the early ’20s, Gibson employed esteemed mandolin and viola performer Lloyd Loar as our resident “Acoustic Engineer.” Loar applied his ideas about mandolin and banjo construction to a new series of guitars for Gibson, known as the Style 5 Master Model series. These guitars didn’t sell well then, but Gruhn Guitars recently sold a 1924 Loar-signed L-5 for $50,000. “The L-5, Gibson’s first f-hole guitar, appeared at the end of 1922 and bore the signature of its designer, Lloyd Loar, until the end of 1924,” says Carter. “They sold poorly for two reasons: 1) The tenor banjo was the most popular fretted instrument at the time; it was the preferred rhythm instrument in Dixieland jazz bands of the ’20s. 2) The L-5 was marketed as a member of a new family of mandolins, which had been the dominant instrument in the early 1900s but was fast going out of style in the years after World War I. Although the L-5 would later inspire the f-hole archtops of the big band era, it was initially a grand disappointment. A total of 24 Loar-signed L-5s have been documented.” Photo Courtesy of Gruhn Guitars.
The Gibson Mark MK-99
What do you get when you put together a physics professor and a luthier and ask them to create a line of classical guitars? The Gibson Mark series of acoustics. Never heard of ’em? We hadn’t either. In fact, we couldn’t locate a photo of the MK-99 because we don’t know if one exists. Carter explains: “Gibson enlisted luthiers Michael Kasha and Richard Schneider to redesign the acoustic flat-top guitar in the mid-1970s, and they came up with the Mark, identifiable by a large fan-shaped bridge (among numerous other innovations). The design seemed so promising – on paper, at least – that a full model series with different woods and ornamentation was mapped out. At the top was the MK-99, handcrafted and signed by Schneider, available by special order only. Gibson sold several thousand of the lower models, but they quickly fell out of production because, frankly, they just didn’t sound very good. We’ve seen only one MK-99. The label said, optimistically, ‘1 of 12’ but shipping totals show exactly one.”
The Gibson Moderne
“‘Rare’ is not the word for the Moderne, which was to be the third model in a modernistic trio that included the Flying V and Explorer,” Carter says. “‘Non-existent’ is the correct word, since no genuine Moderne has ever surfaced.” In January 1958, creator Ted McCarty filed a patent for this guitar alongside patents for sister models the Flying V and Explorer. Today this guitar is often referred to by collectors as the “holy grail,” the “Sasquatch” or the “Loch Ness Monster” of guitars. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons told Gibson.com that he believes he owns an original Moderne prototype, but its authenticity can’t be proven. Carter says, “Gibson employee Jim Duerloo, who was there in 1958, says they never even made a prototype.” Gibson did “reissue” the Moderne in 1982, and that model has become enormously popular with collectors.
Any Orville-made Gibson models
Ask anyone in the vintage guitar market and they’ll tell you that any instrument that was ever touched by Orville Gibson is as good as gold. “The Gibson company was founded in 1902 based on the carved-top instruments designed and made by Orville Gibson from 1894-1902,” Carter says. “He was a one-man operation and he made mandolins, harp guitars, harp mandolins, and at least one zither, in addition to guitars. Only a handful of his guitars exist today.” This original Orville-made guitar, detailed on Gruhn’s website, went for $45,000. Photo Courtesy of Gruhn Guitars.
The Gibson Super Jumbo 200 (1938-1941 models)
This guitar is an example of how a classic, common Gibson model can come to be priceless with just a simple tweak of the specs. The celebrated early J-200s were made of rosewood instead of maple and were produced in limited quantities, hiking their modern-day value sky high. “The original J-200s, made before World War II, had back and sides of rosewood,” Carter says. “After the war, and still today, the standard body wood changed to maple. New research by A.R. Duchossoir [author of Gibson Electrics: The Classic Years] puts total production at 158. The model was probably as famous then as it is today, and its rarity is based on its relatively high price – $200.” Photo Courtesy of Gruhn Guitars.
The Gibson ES-357
This model was never included in any catalog, as it was originally a one-off made for Los Angeles session musician Mitch Holder (also a Gibson clinician). Modeled after the ES-335, this guitar featured three P-90 pickups with three volume controls and a master volume, as well as a mini-switch to control the middle pickup. “Gibson’s Custom Shop in Kalamazoo made up seven of these in 1983 and ’84, and a few more were made in Nashville around 1984,” Carter says. “The triple-P-90 configuration obviously worked for Mitch, and Gibson tried it on other models, but it didn’t take.”