The coolest things about the Gibson Thunderbird bass are its sound and its look. This instrument, which the company began building in 1963, immediately established itself as a growling low-end rock machine, putting sonic thunder into classic recordings by the Who and, later, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Nirvana, among many others. And like its higher voiced sister, the Gibson Firebird guitar, the instrument’s fine lines were designed by Raymond Dietrich, whose work for automakers Chrysler, Lincoln and Checker explains its bold curves and fins.
Let’s take a look at this great bass — which is having a renaissance year thanks to the 2014 Thunderbird model recently introduced by Gibson USA — and 10 of the best bassists who’ve used the Thunderbird to take the sonic low road to fame.
• John Entwistle: The images of Entwistle plucking magic from his two 1964 Thunderbirds are among the most indelible in bass history. Although Keith Moon accidentally destroyed one of his T-birds, the other was sold at auction for nearly $50,000 in 2003. Check out Quadrophenia and The Who By Numbers to hear Entwistle making his ’Bird sing in classic form.
• Gene Simmons: The KISS Army’s general has played many basses over the decades, but from 1974 to ’77 he was a Gibson endorser with Grabbers and Thunderbirds in his arsenal. His ebony finished Thunderbird made many appearances during KISS’ 1977 tour supporting the releases of Rock ‘n’ Roll Over and Love Gun.
• Tom Hamilton: Listen to the beginning of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” That’s Hamilton playing one of the Thunderbirds that helped him formulate the band’s durable sound on its classic early albums Toys in the Attic and Get Your Wings.
• Tom Petersson: Pop die-hard Petersson not only used his 1964 Thunderbird on seminal recordings by Cheap Trick, he had it refinished as a tribute to one of his favorite artists, the great John Lennon. Petersson's Thunderbird III sports a paint job inspired by the psychedelic look of the Gibson J-160 acoustic guitar Lennon used on the famed 1967 “All You Need is Love” satellite broadcast.
• Jared Followill : It isn’t just classic rockers who depend on the Thunderbird. The Kings of Leon bassist is also a ’Bird man — especially on stage. His testimonial: “I’ve used a few different basses over the years, but I’m pretty horrible when it comes to knowledge on the technical side of things. I basically started playing a Thunderbird because Gibson sent me a free one. I tried it out for one show, and it happened to be a really amazing show — it sounded great, and our soundman was really pleased. Because of its longer scale, it was a lot harder to play than my EB-3 — which I could just rip on — but in time I got used to it. It was a difficult transition, but it sounded better, and it ultimately made me a stronger player. It had clearer highs and lows, and I could get a certain crunch that was missing with the EB-3.”
• Krist Novoselic: The Gibson Ripper was Novoselic’s main bass through his years with Nirvana until he settled on the Thunderbird IV in the band’s last months. Novoselic was so enamored with the T-bird design that he celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind by creating the Krist Novoselic Signature RD Bass with Gibson. The instrument follows the essential curves of the Thunderbird IV
• Kim Gordon: Sonic Youth co-leader Gordon has gotten some of the nastiest and most uncompromising sounds to ever come from a bass out of her battle scarred 1976 Gibson Thunderbird. Since her divorce from that band’s Thurston Moore and the 2011 announcement of Sonic Youth’s hiatus, Gordon has gone on to play her Thunderbird across the world’s stages in a duo with drummer Ikue Mori and moved to guitar for her new band Body/Head.
• Mike Watt: The prince of punk rock bass, Watt has long been associated with his weathered non-reverse Thunderbird II, which still bears a sticker from his first notable band the Minutemen. With its custom bone nut and Chandler replacement Thunderbird pickups, Watt also wielded this bass during his Firehose years and it was his exclusive instrument for his solo album Contemplating the Engine Room.
• Adam Clayton: The U2 bassist has two vintage Thunderbird II basses in his touring and recording racks. Both are from the ’60s and have single pickups, and the later model, likely built between 1966 and 1969, appears notably — along with the Edge’s with Les Paul Custom — in the official video for “The Fly.”
• Jackie Foxx: Yes, the Runaway’s bassist played a 1965 Gibson Thunderbird throughout the bands four-year history, from 1975 to 1979, after unsuccessfully auditioning for the guitar slot won by Lita Ford.