Vintage Gibson guitars are very special indeed, and they are held in very high regard by serious players and vintage guitar collectors alike. Especially the guitars made in the main Gibson plant, 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan. The very best of these guitars were made in the 1950s and 1960s; often referred to as the CMI (Chicago Musical Instruments) period. These Gibsons are the epitome of quality. The best guitars were hand-built. Tops were carved and tap-tuned, a job requiring great skill and experience, and the pieces were assembled and finished by skilled craftsmen, with incredible attention to detail. But even the entry-level Gibson guitars were a step above the majority of guitars available at the time; both in terms of workmanship and components.
But this was a time of big change in the guitar market. Gibson specialised in expensive electric acoustics; high end jazz archtop models like the L5-CES, Super 400, ES-300, ES-350, ES-5, and the very well-known ES-175. These were all large hollow-body guitars with superb clean tones for jazz soloing. But 1955's Byrdland opened the door to a new possibility in guitar design, being the first thinline model.
Gibson endorsees of the 1950s were 'serious' musicians; often guitar virtuosos, in the jazz, pop or bluegrass genres. They would be accompanied by an upright bass, and a drummer using brushes. But the advent of rock 'n' roll changed everything. The necessary increase in volume rendered the jazz box almost obsolete and heralded the rise in popularity of the semi-acoustic and the solid-body.
In this time, and under the stewardship of Ted McCarty, Gibson introduced the majority of the iconic models that it is famous for today. The Les Paul in 1952, the ES335, Flying V and Explorer in 1958, the Melody Maker in 1959, the SG in 1961, and the Firebird in 1963. Despite being superb instruments, many of these were too far ahead of their time, and were commercial failures until re-issued years later. Only 98 Flying V guitars were shipped between 1958 and 1959, and only 22 Explorers. The low-production numbers of these models guarantees their desirability to vintage guitar collectors, and if offered for sale could fetch a five or six figure sum, depending on the state of the market.
These classic guitars represent Gibson at their best. The quality of materials, workmanship and design placed Gibson guitars of this period right at the pinnacle of American guitar production. When people complain of perceived 'problems' with seventies, eighties or even current Gibson production, it is with these early sixties guitars that the comparison is being made. Gibson went from strength to strength in the early 1960s, selling guitars quicker than they had time to build them. 1965 was their peak year, selling over 83000 instruments. This success, however ultimately proved a huge problem for the company. They expanded to cover demand, even overproducing certain lines, only to find demand dropping in the later part of the decade. By the late 1960s, the American guitar industry was in trouble. Companies were folding and changing hands, and Gibson was no exception. Norlin took charge in December 1969, and immediately introduced numerous new models.
This period is not held in as high regard as the earlier CMI period, and it is true, Gibson produced a lot of low-priced guitars at this time, but the finest instruments are every bit as good as older versions. Guitars like the Citation, L-5S, and Crest are as good as anything Gibson ever built. In 1974 Gibson opened a new plant in Nashville, and some guitar output was moved there. The Nashville plant, especially early on, was unable to compete in terms of quality with Kalamazoo, and some of the seventies bad reputation may have been due to this.
This is the decade Gibson moved away from mahogany, in favour of other woods. The archetypal Gibson solid body sound was rich and dark; it had been produced by Gibson humbuckers, a mahogany body and a glued in mahogany neck. But there was a recognition that a wider tonal range would be greatly appreciated by the guitar buying public. In the early 1970s, electronics wizard Bill Lawrence designed a number of new guitars for Gibson: the L-6S, Marauder, S-1, Grabber bass and Ripper bass; all used maple and or alder, and many were natural-finished giving a distinctly different look to preceding models. They were electronically experimental, using a number of different techniques to achieve greater tonal palettes, from very simple ideas like a moveable pickup, to more in depth multi-position varitone switches.
The two Gibson plants, Nashville and Kalamazoo, were running in tandem throughout the second half of the 1970s; Nashville built a large proportion of the solid body guitars, including Les Pauls, the L-6S, 335 solids etc, whilst Kalamazoo was the home of basses, hollow bodies, custom order instruments and new product development. A new 'Research and Development' team set to work, their first design taking the name of the group. The all-maple RD series was one of the last instruments to be made entirely at the Kalamazoo plant. But at this time, even necks on a lot of traditionally all-mahogany instruments went maple, for example 70s Les Pauls, SGs and solid-body 335S. The RD was a collaboration between Gibson and Moog (another norlin company); again an attempt to increase tonal range but this time by creating an active instrument with built-in Moog expansion and compression circuitry. The success of the RD Artist lead to other guitars being fitted with the same electronics, most notably the Les Paul Artist and ES-Artist.
The popularity of the electric guitar was declining somewhat in the early 1980s, but with two plants up and running, Gibson had no shortage of production capacity. So Gibson proceeded with the first of several attempts to create a line of products placed somewhere between it's Japanese built Epiphone 'copies' and it's regular Gibson guitars - see the article on non-Gibson Gibsons here. The Gibson Sonex was a range of entry to intermediate level guitars produced at the Nashville plant, using an innovative wood/particle board (resonwood) composite body. The cheapest, the Sonex-180 Deluxe was built in the USA, but actually fitted with imported Japanese pickups and hardware, allowing for an incredibly low launch price. Other models in the series actually used standard Gibson hardware, and the Sonex Artist even had the Moog expansion/compression circuitry of the RD series.
The Gibson Victory series was again all maple with state-of-the-art electronics, this time by Tim Shaw, but still aimed at expanding the range of sounds available from a Gibson. They were passive, save the Artist bass, and even that had a switchable passive mode. These guitars were designed at Kalamazoo, and a few early examples were built there, before production of this line moved to Nashville, at the end of 1981.
Finally in 1984 the Kalamazoo plant closed, and all electric guitar production moved to Nashville. In January 1986 Gibson was sold to it's current owners.
Gibson was always rightly proud of it's beautifully-built American instruments, but such a large slice of the US guitar market was below the price point of a typical Gibson guitar. Whilst other distributors were importing cheaper guitars from around the world, Gibson attempted (several times) to produce more affordable instruments in the US - typically branded as something other than Gibson, but often with a nod towards the parent brand. These attempts were somewhat successful at first, (notably the 1930s and 1960s Kalamazoo brand) but unable to compete with the mass produced guitars of the 1970s and 1980s. Read more about Gibson's non-Gibson Gibsons: Kalamazoo, Epiphone, Epiphone USA Sonex and Gibson Guitar Co.