Gibson Firebird II
Coming towards the top of Gibson's Solid Body range, the Firebird II re-introduces a long familiar design, now complete with active electronics by Moog which help to produce a tremendously versatile instrument. Over the years the Firebird has been revised, copied and reissued in a variety of slightly differing styles, but at a cool £950 this could be regarded as the ultimate version.
The body shape is as eye-catching as ever, equally comfortable when standing up or when playing with the guitar rested on one knee; the upper strap button is located on the back of the body. The lower cut-away doesn't appear particularly deep, but this is partly an illusion produced by the body styling and doesn't prohibit access to the higher frets in the least. As on the Explorer and a few other Gibsons, all the machine heads are on one side of the head, in this case the lower, and are Gibson's own Deluxe design. The neck is laminated 3-piece maple with a rosewood fingerboard bearing pearl dot inlays, and the laminated body is in very high density Rock Maple - this means it's heavy, but that's the price that has to be paid even on an electric instrument to obtain reasonable sustain. The model we looked at had a subtle Antique Sunburst finish, with cream binding along the edges of the body, and the overall finish was well up to the standards that would be expected from a guitar in this part of the market.
The neck is a typical Gibson, with a scale length of 24% inches and a width at the nut of 1 11/16 inches; the fingerboard is smooth and fast in use, and although the strings supplied (probably Gibson 740 XL's) seemed a little heavy, this is clearly a matter of personal taste which only the individual musician can resolve. The two pickups are Gibson Series VI active humbuckers, chrome plated, and the bridge and tailpiece are separate as on all the solid body range. Here, the tailpiece is a TP6 Fine-tune, which is fitted with small fine-geared thumbwheels which make very accurate tuning possible, rather similar to a violin's E-string adjuster. The advantages of this system can be imagined; it's possible to make extremely fine and rapid alterations to the tuning of individual strings with the right hand without having to adjust the relatively coarse machine heads. The TP6 is available separately and is very simple to fit to any guitar with the same spacing as Gibson's conventional stock tailpiece.
There is a standard Switchcraft three-way toggle switch for pickup selection, near to which is mounted the output socket. Gibson have evidently had enough of having to fit a steel plate to side-mounted sockets to prevent damage to the guitar's finish caused by helpless fumbling for the output socket on a darkened stage! Finally there are two miniature toggle switches for the active electronics, together with the volume controls and the slightly unusual tone controls.
Gibson have used active electronics in one form or another since the time of the RD Artist, but these early experiments offering compression, expansion, brightness and other forms of control often proved too complicated for practical use. When Gibson and Moog came together under the umbrella of a single company, the synthesiser manufacturers drastically redesigned and simplified the circuitry involved; nowadays the circuits, powered by a 9v battery which is disconnected when the output jack is removed, are both easier to use and more effective. The tone controls run from 5-0-5 rather than using a simple 0-10 scale as a passive capacitor tone circuit would, since they provide a real boost of treble or bass rather than simply attenuating the degree of treble present. Apart from a wider variation of tone control, this also means that output level can be much higher than a conventional guitar, and so problems with loss of volume when using several effects can be partially solved. There are other advantages; it should be possible to overload the input of your favourite 200-watt amp to obtain an overdriven sound at a much lower volume level. Gibson have thoughtfully provided a preset, accessible by removing a rubber cap from the back panel, which adjusts the output of the built-in pre-amps and so allows you to obtain an overdriven heavy metal sound permanently if you so wish, or alternatively just to closely match the input sensitivity of your amp.
The battery can be changed easily enough by removing two small screws which hold in place a part of the back cover. A further eight screws hold on the rest of the cover, which is insulated from the circuitry by a sheet of thick card. Removal of the Moog circuitry is not so simple - Rosetti, who distribute Gibsons in the U.K., say they've never had to try, as they've never encountered a defective Gibson! It's also possible to adjust the truss rod, although this is discouraged as every guitar is very carefully set up before being sold. The pick-guard is fixed to the guitar by seven small screws, and is in white with an eye-catching red 'Firebird' logo.
The range of sounds obtainable on this guitar really has to be heard to be believed. Treble cut with the active electronics in the 'standard' mode can give a deep, mellow jazz sound, whereas at the opposite end of the scale use of treble boost and the 'bright' mode can produce sounds that really 'clean your ears out'. In between there are an infinite number of possibilities, and the obvious appeal is to the working session musician who wants to obtain the maximum number of clear, rich sounds with the minimum amount of complication. On the other hand, a guitar of this power and appearance is obviously going to be most widely used in heavy rock music, for which it would be ideally suited. In a sense that's a shame, because for your £950 you would be getting a guitar which is capable of doing almost anything.
The Gibson Firebird 2 is distributed in the U.K. by Rosetti, (Contact Details).