Vintage Gibson guitars

Gibsons are perhaps the most highly-regarded of all vintage guitars

The Gibson plant at 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan
The old Gibson plant at 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan, now home of Heritage guitars

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.

Gibson ES300
Late 1940s Gibson ES300

Gibson electric acoustic guitars

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.

Jack Bruce basses his sound on Gibson
Jack Bruce basses his sound on Gibson - Gibson advertisement from 1972

Gibson rock guitars

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.

Keith Richards with the Gibson Les Paul Custom, from the 1975 Gibson catalogue
Keith Richards with the Gibson Les Paul Custom, from the 1975 Gibson Les Paul catalogue

The Norlin period

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.

Gibson RD Standard bass
The Gibson RD Standard bass, circa 1978

Gibson Nashville and Gibson Kalamazoo

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.

Non-Gibson Gibsons

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.

Latest Gibson updates on this site

1977 Gibson ES Artist prototypeNot to be confused with the Gibson ES Artist launched by Gibson in 1979; this ES Artist was an early model designed by the Gibson research and development team in Kalamazoo in 1977, the instruments themselves constructed by Gibson artist Chuck Burge. It was planned for launch as a high end semi acoustic with 335-style construction (central maple block) and innovative circuitry - but was pulled at the last minute, being deemed too expensive. Apparently, several examples were produced with varying specifications, though exactly how many actually left the Kalamazoo plant is unclear. Certainly two guitars were sold to LaVonne Music by Gibson in around 1980. Read more about the development of this guitar, with details from Chuck Burge and the story of it's sale to LaVonne music
1971 Gibson Les Paul Recording guitar owners manual; border= The newly designed Les Paul Recording guitar was released in 1971, in many ways as an updated version of the Les Paul Professional that had debuted two years earlier in 1969. The new guitar came with a new owners manual explaining the (somewhat complicated) controls, their operation, and giving other specifications, including recommended strings, action and control settings. Compare with the broadly similar owners manual for the Les Paul Personal / Professional
1971 Gibson Triumph bass owners manual; border= The Les Paul Triumph bass, like the Les Paul Recording guitar was first shipped in 1971, but was based on a slightly older model, the 1969 Les Paul Bass. Functionally, these basses were very similar, although the Triumph did offer low and high impedance operation, without the need for a transformer cable. This owners manual details the basses specifications, suggests a string set, recommended action, and suggests a series of tonal settings for rock, country and solo bass playing.
1981 Gibson Rosetti catalogue (UK) 20 pages, black and white with color front cover. In the middle of 1981, Rosetti took over distribution of the Gibson line in the UK. Rosetti were a very big name in Britain, having distributed Epiphone since at least 1963, as well as Hagstrom and others. This catalogue was produced at the tail end of 1981, and introduces a number of models to the UK, such as the MV-II, MV-X guitars and the Victory basses, the GGC-700 and the Flying V bass. Some of these models were so short-lived that they were actually never included in US brochures. The cover image (reproduced in part here) showed some of the earliest demonstration models, including a Victory with a highly unusual white scratchplate.
1981 Gibson Victory MV-II electric guitar A closer look at a 1981 Gibson Victory MV-II electric guitar. The Gibson Victory MV, or 'Multi-Voice' guitars had very wide tonal palettes; with coil-tapped humbuckers they could produce typical Gibson tones, but were also designed to 'out-Fender' Fender. Two models were launched in the summer of 1981. Whilst the MVX, was designed to do everything a Stratocaster could do, the MVII was 'primarily for the discerning country player' - placing it squarely against the Telecaster.

Vintage Gibson guitars for sale

1971 Original Gibson Les Paul Recording Brochure 



1971 Original Gibson Les Paul Recording brochure in excellent 48 year old carefully stored condition as per pics. The six dots a above the 33 1 / 3 record are not defects, just the method they attached it. Ships in a USPS box so it makes it to it’s destination undamaged.... more

1968 Gibson Firebird VII Dealer Sheet


C $39

1968 case candy dealer brochure from Gibson. Full description with photo, specs and options. Apprx 4x9 Color, single sided #vintage #vintageguitar #gibson #1968 #firebird7 #casecandy #dealer #ephemera... more

1968 Gibson Firebird III Dealer Sheet


C $39

1968 case candy dealer brochure from Gibson. Full description with photo, specs and options. Apprx 4x9 Color, single sided #vintage #vintageguitar #gibson #1968 #firebird3 #casecandy #dealer #ephemera... more

1968 Gibson Firebird V Dealer Sheet


C $39

1968 case candy dealer brochure from Gibson. Full description with photo, specs and options. Apprx 4x9 Color, single sided #vintage #vintageguitar #gibson #1968 #firebird5 #casecandy #dealer #ephemera... more

1968 Gibson Firebird I Dealer Sheet


C $39

1968 case candy dealer brochure from Gibson. Full description with photo, specs and options. Apprx 4x9 Color, single sided #vintage #vintageguitar #gibson #1968 #firebird1 #casecandy #dealer #ephemera... more

1960s Gibson Switchcraft 3Way Toggle For Les Paul SG Standard Custom Special USA



Real deal 1960s Gibson Switchcraft 3-way toggle switch. Found on the Les Paul "SG" models. This version / logo was found in the early 1960s until the mid to late 1970s. The switch is in very good condition with a little old solder left on the terminals. There is no collar washer or tip included- just the switch (look at the pictures) Two available- 1 BIN= 1 Switch... more

1964 Gibson Super 400 CES Dealer Sheet


C $39

1964 case candy dealer brochure from Gibson. Full description with photo, specs and options. Apprx 4x8 Color, double sided #vintage #vintageguitar #1964 #gibson #super400 #archtop #casecandy #dealer #ephemera... more

Gibson Epiphone Les Paul Standard Guitar BRIDGE & TAILPIECE ! Very Clean!



Gibson Epiphone Les Paul Standard Guitar BRIDGE & TAILPIECE ! Very Clean! very good used condition - fits all Gibson / Epiphone Les Paul and Stop Tailpiece Model 335 Guitars 'Donor' guitar looked quite new (5 years or less old) and barely played before it suffered a fatal headstock break. All related parts I have listed are in great shape!... more

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orangecrush Comment left 6th January 2017 18:06:37 reply
Do you have more info on the Gibson Corvus
buck rowley Comment left 21st November 2016 21:09:45 reply
how many models pre 1970 had three pick-ups?
vintage guitar and bass Comment left 5th January 2017 12:12:47 reply
There was the ES-5 Switchmaster, Les Paul Custom, SG Custom and Firebird III and Firebird VII
vintage guitar and bass Comment left 5th January 2017 22:10:14 reply
Not forgetting the three-pickup SG-style Melody Maker of the late '60s
Jamie Moore Comment left 10th February 2014 06:06:32 reply
This is great BUT no mention of Gibson Howard Roberts Custom. Would you have any info about how much one is worth or where to find out how much it's worth? Single pick-up, oval sound hole, great condition circa 1975 with Gibson hard shell case. Can you help??
Lio Comment left 8th November 2013 10:10:16 reply
I have a old Gibson L 3. The lable inside is not very clear but I think it has patented Feb 1st March 30, '06 also number 535/??. It was made in Kalamasoo Mich. The body is in perfect condition with all original parts. The turtle hand guard is so brittle and falling apart is the only part that is not good. The rest of the guitar has no scratch or wear. It has its original hard case in great condition. Just wondering about the price. I want to sell it. This was a gift I received from my late father-in-law. five years ago. I certainly need the money so I am trying to sell it. I will greatly appreciate your help. Thanks.
joe chaisson Comment left 3rd March 2012 10:10:59 reply
i have a 1980 les paul gold top standard and i would like to know what it would be worth?



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