The Gibson Firebird came out of an era when cars were works of modern art, when mankind was getting ready to send a rocket to the moon and when America was at a height of post-war prosperity. No wonder it had generous tailfin-style curves and innovations like the first Gibson through-body neck, a reverse horn and a hot new mini-humbucker design with a single alnico bar magnet in each coil. It had to be cool and different – a new guitar for a new, opulent era when style ruled over economy.
The first 1963 Firebirds were not only works of modernist art and engineering, but perfect machines for their age. It was a period when rock was about to step up from the generally clean tones of the blues, jazz and popular music that had come before, evolving into the raging creative beast that would capture the sound of popular culture accelerating into a new age of protest, of a generation craving its own identity, and of a global explosion into a new technological age.
So to call the Gibson Firebird a mere guitar is to overlook its symbiotic relationship with the world it entered, and how it still continues to play a part in the evolution of music nearly 50 years later.
Of course, it helps that a history making coterie of heavyweight players have made the Firebird their instrument of choice over the decades, doing their own part to aid both musical evolution and revolution. Here’s a sampler of 10 champions of the Gibson Firebird you need to hear – although chances are you’re already heard them via some of coolest guitar tracks ever recorded:
10. Mick Taylor
Although photos of Taylor playing a slew of Gibson Les Pauls and a cherry ES-335 during his classic Stones years exist, Taylor told Gibson.com that he also used Firebirds during many history-making sessions with the band.
Iconic avian: Firebird V.
Iconic album: Exile on Main St.
9. Eric Clapton
Although he’s known for making the Sunburst Les Paul Standard a legend and for gun-slinging on an SG and ES-335 in Cream, E.C. also played an early ’60s Firebird with Cream and Blind Faith. He also used a 1990 reissue on his 1994/’95 From the Cradle back-to-the-blues tour.
Iconic avian: Gibson Firebird V.
Iconic album: Fresh Cream (but honestly, take your pick).
8. Warren Haynes
Solo artist, leader of Gov’t Mule, guitar wizard for the Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh and Friends and the Dead, Haynes is the MVP of modern rock. And while Haynes is best known for the burly tone of his Gibson Les Paul Standards, including the Warren Haynes Les Paul Standard built by the Gibson Custom Shop, he’s also a Firebird man.
Iconic avians: 1964 Firebird III, 1997 Firebird ’burst and non-reverse Firebird.
Iconic album: Gov’t Mule.
7. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
T-Bone Walker, as well as non-guitarists like Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, influenced this late blues icon. He brought a smoky touch to his ’Bird, playing often-complex instrumentals as well as down-home tunes that sprawled across the Texas and Louisiana musical landscape.
Iconic avian: Mid-’60s Firebird V.
Iconic album: Gate Swings.
6. Dave Grohl
When Grohl fights Foo, he does so with a Gibson, and it’s often a Firebird run through Vox and Mesa-Boogie amps set on “burn.”
Iconic avian: White reissue Firebird V.
Iconic album: The Colour and the Shape.
5. Allen Collins
The late Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar wrangler used Gibsons for his classic burly tone, and they were often Firebirds. His favorite during the classic Skynyrd years was a modified model with two pot holes plugged up. If fewer choices lead to a tone like Collins’, that’s a decision worth making.
Iconic avian: Firebird III.
Iconic album: One More From the Road.
4. Brian Jones
The Rolling Stones’ original musicologist and guiding light was, among other things, a ’Bird man. He played Gibson Firebird III’s and Firebird VII’s, including a VII he played when the Stones performed “Satisfaction” on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Iconic avian: Firebird VII.
Iconic album: Beggars Banquet.
3. Joe Perry
The Aerosmith guitar demon is known for having eclectic tastes in guitars, playing everything from vintage lap steels to classic Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335s and, yes, a well-worn ’Bird.
Iconic avian: vintage Firebird VII.
Iconic album: Toys in the Attic.
2. Ronnie Wood
The Stones and Faces guitarist was honored in 1997 by three Gibson signature models, including a Firebird.
Iconic avian: Firebird V.
Iconic album: The Faces’ Ooh La La.
1. Johnny Winter
John Dawson Winter came blazing out of the Texas blues scene in the late 1960s to captivate the rock world. Such already-established six-string heroes as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Steven Stills heralded his arrival. His ferocious slide playing upped the ante of his grizzly bear’s voice on his major-label debut Johnny Winter, which split the difference between the blues’ past and the future.
Iconic avian: 1963 Gibson Firebird V.
Iconic album: Second Winter.