It was the instrument that was cool enough for KISS’s Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley to use, and one of its siblings was enough to woo Ron Wood away from his heavily customized instruments. It was the Gibson Marauder, an unconventional and unmistakably ’70s guitar from the company’s Norlin era. It was never a huge seller for the company, but it carved out its own corner of rock history.
The 1970s were considered by some to be a dark time for the electric guitar. Several of the early pioneers of electric guitar manufacturing had changed owners. Guitar designs were adapting to the new decade – and not always in ways that players liked. In some cases these changes were driven by cost-cutting. In others they were due to the changing aesthetics of the era. And sometimes these two approaches converged, such as the trend for plain wood finishes, which were liked by ’70s players and which were less expensive to apply than solid or sunburst finishes. Today the Marauder is seen as something of a curio that reflects the time it was born in. An offbeat instrument for collectors who long for something a little bit different. And maybe even a prized pawnshop find. But in its day it was a bold move by Gibson to develop a bolt-on neck after a long history of great set-neck instruments.
In the early 1970s, Gibson employed noted pickup designer Bill Lawrence to design guitars and pickups at Kalamazoo, Michigan. Results of Lawrence’s work with Gibson include the now-classic Ripper bass and the L6S guitar, introduced in 1972. While the L6S took the basic outline of the Les Paul and blew out the dimensions for a wide-bodied and oversized look, the Marauder maintained the general silhouette of the Les Paul. But unique to the Marauder was a contour along the bass-side edge of the otherwise slab-like body, giving a slight SG-like vibe to an otherwise Les Paul Junior-like body shape. The Marauder’s headstock was borrowed from the Flying V, and its pickups and controls were all contained on a single pickguard which employed a few unique and purely cosmetic visual sweeps.
The body was usually made of alder (although mahogany and maple versions also exist), and the fretboard was either maple or rosewood, usually with pearl dot inlays, including a dot at the first fret position. But the real star of the Marauder was its pair of Bill Lawrence-designed pickups. Both were humbuckers, although the bridge pickup was a slanted twin-blade design which was much smaller than the one at the neck position. Early Marauders featured simple three-way pickup selectors but it wasn’t long before this feature was swapped out for a blend pot. A few years later this pot was capped with a chickenhead knob to distinguish it from the volume and tone controls, and was moved from the cutaway horn to a location between the other two pots.
In a 1976 advertisement trumpeting Paul Stanley’s endorsement, Gibson emphasized the instrument’s playability. “The action is fast. And the neck has one of the smoothest fret jobs Gibson's ever made. Of course it’s loud. The front pickup is Super Humbucking. Hot and sensitive. The rear pickup, raw power. Probably three times stronger than any non-humbucking pickup you've ever heard. The group calls it the KISS Axe. Gibson calls it the Marauder. If you want to rock and roll all night, the Marauder is one pretty guitar to go with. But then again, looks aren’t everything.”
The Marauder was introduced in 1974 but entered full production in 1975. Around 1,368 were made between 1975 and ’79, with a handful more built until 1982. The model Ron Wood endorsed was the S-1, which began production in 1975 and showed up on the market the following year. The S-1 can be distinguished from the Marauder by its trio of see-through single coil pickups, also designed by Lawrence, which were created to give players a tone similar to other single coil instruments on the market at the time. After the Marauder and S-1 ran their course they were replaced by the Sonex, which employed the Sonex Multi-phonic body (a combination of Resonwood surrounding an inner tone wood core) and a pair of humbucker pickups.
The Marauder and its S-1 and Sonex descendants provide an interesting glimpse into Gibson’s approach to new guitar design during the Norlin era (1969-1985). They’re unmistakably ’70s in their design and execution, and they’re a great talking point due to their bolt-on neck, Flying V-borrowed headstock and connections to both Bill Lawrence and KISS. But subsequent generations of rock royalty have discovered the idiosyncratic joys of the Marauder: Dave Grohl, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore all have been seen to rock out with the model from time to time.