The dream was to design an instrument that merged the sweet acoustic tone of a classical guitar with the fire and playability of an electric. It was challenging enough to lure away one of Nashville's greatest heroes in order to work with Gibson and lend his name to the final result — the Chet Atkins.
From the front, it looks like a classical acoustic with a cutaway for access to the top frets. The pine top has the familiar golden brown shade of a classic, there are no dot markers on the fretboard, the headstock is mounted with peg winders and the strings are nylon.
The shake up comes when you turn the guitar over. The back of the body says "broad in the beam Les Paul" since it features body hugging contours and a creamy mahogany finish. At this point you realise those pegs are gold-plated Schallers with pearloid heads and there's a discrete, gold-plated control panel following the curve of the body's upper edge, round by the neck.
Other differences start shouting. The ebony bridge is surprisingly broad, there's a removal panel on the back covering the electrics, a truss rod peeks round the corner of the soundhole and the bottom edge carries a jack socket.
Gibson's research goes deeper than surface features. Each string has an individual plastic saddle and its own piezo pickup for a clean, isolated signal.
The body isn't completely solid. Kalamazoo experts analysed the response and gave the Atkins two acoustic chambers to achieve the ideal timbre; one by the top strings between bridge and soundhole, the other lying under the bridge, but extending to only the bottom three strings.
The Chet Atkins actually comes in two versions. The CEO has a classical neck supporting a wide and flat fretboard, while the CE is closer to a Les Paul and an eighth of an inch wider. Both come strung in nylon, but can take good old rock 'n' roll, steel wires is well.
Be assured this isn't just a country pickers instrument — jazz, rock, boogie and funk players will all find something in it. The piezos have enough power to overdrive amps, hence heavy metal, and the response is bright enough to snap out funkish chords.
The electronics have given the Atkins a harder initial kick than an acoustic could achieve. The sound is tight and punchy, yet retains the extremes of sensitivity that lurk inside an acoustic.
It has a round, fluid quality, very full bodied, perhaps slightly denser in the middle regions than a good quality classic and not so plumby.
The acoustic chambers have kept down the dead spots, and it's an easy trip up and down the fretboard.
Finally, it's a brave move by Gibson — something new in an industry which is generally treading water with its designs.
It will have a limited up-price appeal, but for some guitarists it will be the answer to a prayer. An instrument they simply won't find anywhere else. £950
Look hard and you can read the history of Gibson written across the cherry red face of this instrument. The Lucille says more about the present position of one of the world's greatest guitar manufacturers than half a dozen magazines could achieve.
TRADITION: Named for B. B. King who's been playing 335s for about 25 years, and — for a reason lost in the mists of time — refers to each one as Lucille. As a blues player without parallel it's questionable who's honouring who in this christening.
RESEARCH: Established in the early 1900's, Gibson are still coming up with new ideas in answer to musicians' demands. The Lucille carries three examples — machine heads that have retractable arms for faster winding when fitting new strings, the TP6 tailpiece incorporating miniature gears for fine tuning adjustments (you can actually make corrections while still playing), and a top locked body; in other words a semi-acoustic without f-holes in order to reduce feedback.
PRICE: Never cheap at the best of times, Gibsons now frequently appear to have stratospheric price tags compared with many excellent Japanese instruments.
PUZZLEMENT: When eastern instruments were thoroughly tacky, Gibson had no problems. Now that competition is fierce, the American company has been split between catering for the professionals and trying to get in on the budget boom — the Sonex range of resin bodied six strings, for example.
To an extent, the Lucille reflects that confusion. Because of the experience (and cost) I expect Gibsons to be perfect... no question. The Lucille in for review suffered all the niggling errors that shouldn't be there after half a century's work — stiff controls, wonkily mounted knobs, tarnished frets, buzzes and a noticeable ridge along the edge of the neck where the red finish ends and the binding begins.
But IS there still something about a Gibson that makes it special? The answer is yes, but somehow that quality is fading.
There's the typical three-piece maple/mahogany neck — full, rounded, wide and getting ever deeper as it sweeps from the nut to the octave. While today's trend has been towards slimmer feeling instruments, the Kalamazoo designers have resolutely stuck to what they know their followers like.
The fabulous macassar ebony fretboard shows just a faint glow of rosey grain under the black colouring and is spiced with real Mother-Of-Pearl dot inlays. The two chrome covered humbuckers sit inside black plastic surrounds next to a black/white/black/white/black finger rest scratchplate, but there are some ungainly gaps between them.
The cherry red finish is unnaturally perfect. Without a hint of the carved maple top or back showing through, it looks like an ordinary paint job that masks the real beauty of the wood. The rear is also spoiled by the black plastic control plate which isn't set in to be flush with the timber but is simply screwed on top. As it sticks out a good eighth of an inch it could snag on your belt apart from looking plain ugly.
Plugged in, the Lucille thankfully has the thickness and vibrancy you'd expect from Gibsons, though blocking up those f holes has made a difference. Certainly it's cut down the feedback, but it also seems to have limited the 335 shape's ability to breathe. In the end the Lucille feels and sounds slightly flat, lacking in that quality that enables you to hear the inside of a note.
The great problem with judging Gibsons is that they grow old. What starts out as an adequate instrument can mature into an exceptional guitar and magnify in stature as years go by. There's an argument which claims you buy Japanese instruments at their peak and after that, the only way is down.
The Lucille proves the elements which made Gibson great are still in force but they may not yet be back in alignment. £1200