The early 1990s were an unusual time of rapid change for guitar design. In the 1980s, the classic shapes of the ’60s and ’70s had fallen by the wayside, replaced by sleek shredder axes. Where once guitar players demanded elegant carved maple tops and fixed bridges, the typical guitarist of the ’80s wanted high-output humbuckers, Floyd Rose tremolos, 24 frets and flash. Lots of flash. Slash helped turn things around with his low-slung Gibson Les Pauls after Appetite For Destruction hit, but for the most part, day-glo finishes and pointy curves were where it was at.
In the early ’90s, that all changed. By the end of 1992 shredding was out, ’80s-style hard rock was really out, and the guitars that made that music were really, really out. Players were, instead, seeking vintage - or at least retro-styled - guitars in keeping with the alternative aesthetic. Nobody wanted thin necks, hot pickups, whammy bars or reverse headstocks. As a result, a lot of innovative guitars never quite got their shot. One such instrument was the Gibson M-III.
After a decade of trial and error, guitarists and guitar companies alike were really starting to get the hang of hard rock-oriented guitar design by the early ’90s. The Gibson M-III, introduced in 1991, was a sleek, double-cutaway instrument that was surprisingly un-Gibson-like – with the exception of its Les Paul-style volume and tone knobs and reverse Explorer-type headstock. The Standard and Deluxe models sported Schaller-made Floyd Rose tremolos and an H-S-H (humbucker/single coil/humbucker) pickup layout married to a five-way blade switch and a two-way toggle, making the guitar capable of both humbucker and single coil sounds. The pickups were a 496R in the neck position, a 500T in the bridge and an NSX single coil in the middle position. Flip the two-way switch one way and it focused on humbucker sounds. Flip it the other way for single coil sounds. A total of nine separate sounds were possible, including an enhanced neck pickup tone and a stand-by mode for muting or kill switch effects. Great care was taken to make the pickup layout seem intuitive, presumably to ease the learning curve for an admittedly un-Gibson-like Gibson. One particularly interesting touch was the “zebra” pickup color scheme: the white coils of each humbucker, combined with the white single coil, provided a visual reminder that the guitar was capable of traditional 3-pickup single coil sounds as well as twin-humbucker ones.
An advertisement from 1991 touted the M-III's slim-taper neck as being "shaped to your hand, not some alien's." That 1-14/32-inch wide neck was set in (compared to the bolt-on necks one might expect on such an instrument) and featured 24 jumbo frets, arrowhead-shaped offset inlays and a maple fretboard. The neck joined the body at the 22nd fret for superb upper-fret access, and to this day, if one digs deep enough, internet message boards are peppered with players reporting how pleasant the M-III's neck is to play. In February, 1992, Guitar World's Chris Butler reviewed the M-III Standard and remarked that the instrument's only drawback was that it was so addictive to play that he found himself noodling instead of focusing on the recording session at hand.
The M-III Standard and Deluxe each had a uniquely-shaped tortoise shell pickguard with an almost tiger stripe effect, which followed the crescent-like arc created by the treble and bass side cutaways. (Actually, if you squint hard enough, the pickguard almost looks like an upside-down and backwards Explorer body). The pickguard was echoed by a tortoise shell truss rod cover and toggle switch surround. The guitar was available in Ebony, White or Candy Apple Red (Standard) or a clear finish which showed off the quality of the mahogany body (Deluxe).
Other variants included some which were rear-routed (ie: no pickguard); different pickup layouts (a pair of humbuckers with no single coil); different tremolos (Steinberger); and different woods and construction methods (including neck-thru models, as well as unconfirmed anecdotal reports of a handful of bolt-on models). The innovative switching system and pickup layout were also incorporated into a few Les Paul models. Epiphone made a version called the EM-2 Rebel (1991-1998), while also offering basses inspired by the M-III body shape all the way into 1999. The M-III, meanwhile, remained in the Gibson catalog in one form or another until 1996, and today the body shape lives on in two guitars from Epiphone's prophecy series, the EM-2 EX and EM-2 FX (the EM-1 was discontinued in 2010).
An early fan was Sid Fletcher of the band Roxy Blue, who used the guitar in the video for the band’s single, “Rob the Cradle.” It also appeared in a print advertisement campaign for Gibson in 1992. For the most part, the M-III was bought and loved by regular players who required a high-performance instrument with Swiss Army knife-like tonal flexibility.