In 1957, Gibson desperately needed to push the envelope. Not only were fellow guitar manufacturers beginning to issue less traditional designs, but other industries inspired change, as well. Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” rattled the airwaves, Sputnik circled the earth, and Chevy’s tailfins grew suddenly sharp. Gibson, too, had invested in a fresh perspective — hiring Ted McCarty as their new company president in 1950. McCarty spent his first years with the company effectively shaking things up — supervising the design of the original Les Paul model and the introduction of solidbody guitars into the Gibson product line. He also inadvertently created what is now known industry-wide as the Holy Grail of Vintage Guitars — the Gibson Moderne — because many authorities disagree about whether or not a prototype ever existed.
Famous for his forward-thinking, top-quality inventions — including the stop tailpiece and the Tune-O-Matic bridge — McCarty labored in 1957 to introduce a trio of new Korina wood models that included the Flying V, Explorer, and Moderne. With the help of a local Kalamazoo, MI, artist, the modernistic models were designed specifically to revolutionize Gibson’s image.
“There must have been a hundred sketches around the shop, all sorts of weird shapes,” said McCarty in a 1978 Guitar Player interview. “The dealers thought we were too stodgy, too traditional, so we decided to just knock them off their feet. We were working on this one guitar — since it was a solidbody, you could do just about anything with the shape — and it was sort of triangular. It was too heavy and we had to remove some weight from somewhere and we discovered that we didn’t need the back end at all, so we just cut out some material in the middle. We wanted it to look like an arrow. Someone in the shop made a wisecrack and said, ‘The thing looks like a flying V,’ and we thought about the name and eventually used it. That’s how we came up with the Moderne and Explorer, too, just experimenting with shapes. We must have made dozens of variations.”
On January 7, 1958, McCarty was issued patents for the Flying V, Explorer, and Moderne, but many believe that only two of these guitars ever actually rolled off the Gibson production line.
“‘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,” said guitar historian Walter Carter in an interview with Gibson.com last year. “‘Non-existent’ is the correct word, since no genuine Moderne has ever surfaced. Gibson employee Jim Duerloo, who was there in 1958, says they never even made a prototype.”
Others disagree with the idea that a Moderne was never constructed. In American Guitars: An Illustrated History, author Tom Wheeler says he interviewed just about every employee who worked for Gibson during that period but that everyone remembers things differently.
“Two sources were certain that the number [of Modernes] constructed was between 40 and 50, and none suggested a higher figure,” writes Wheeler. “We do know that some were destroyed in the Gibson ‘morgue’ subsequent to the industry’s unanimously negative reaction to the guitar and the company’s decision not to add it to the line. The 22 survivors listed in the shipping totals appeared on routine invoices and do not include Modernes sold at cut rate to Gibson employees or those which were kept at the plant for experimental purposes.”
According to Wheeler, McCarty told him that only a half dozen or so Modernes were made. A possible owner of one of those original Modernes? ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. In 2009, he told Gibson.com that he believes he owns an original Moderne prototype, but its authenticity can’t be proven.
Gibbons recounts, “A couple of years ago I received a call from a friend who heard that a painter from San Antonio wanted to sell a funny-looking old guitar. No big surprise he thought about me immediately. We drove there, checked out the guitar, and bought it. It looked like an old Gibson Moderne, definitely not one of the reissues that Gibson sold in 1982. We showed it to some experts, but none of them could help. Even guitar guru George Gruhn got on the case. He disassembled the guitar and examined every screw, every cable, everything, but not even he could identify this instrument, because there was no information about the Moderne apart from the blueprints. But what he could tell for sure was that all parts of this guitar were from the ’50s. We’ll probably never know. What’s interesting is how this painter, who has nothing to do with guitars, got hold of it: He found it at a junk clearance somewhere.”
Gibson did “reissue” the Moderne in 1982, and that model has become enormously popular with collectors.