Gibson Guitars: The Most Iconic Models


Mar 08, 2023

Gibson guitars are a renowned American manufacturer of guitars, basses, and other musical instruments. The company has a rich history that spans over a century with great guitarists and bassists playing their instruments. The company was founded by Orville Gibson, a luthier in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Orville began experimenting with various guitar designs that featured arched tops and backs. His early innovations laid the foundation for what would become Gibson’s iconic instruments. In the early 1900s, Orville’s designs caught the attention of investors and led to the formation of Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., Ltd. Ever since, Gibson produced many mandolins and other instrument designs. In 1919, Gibson released the L-5 hollow body guitar, which became an instant hit with jazz guitarists at the time. Players like Wes Gontgomery and Lee Ritenour have used the L-5 as their main instrument. Since then, Gibson has made some of the most iconic guitars throughout our music history.

Gibson ES Series:

In the 1930s, Gibson introduced the ES (Electric Spanish) series of guitars including the ES-150, which was one of the first commercially successful guitars. At the time, the ES-150 featured a hollow body with an arched top and back, and it was equipped with a single-coil pickup known as the “Charlie Christian” pickup. This model was popular with many jazz guitarists at the time, including Eddie Durham, Floyd Smith, and Charlie Christian of course. During the second World War, Gibson faced many environmental restrictions on the use of certain materials, which led to innovations in their guitar construction. The ES-125 was introduced in 1941 and it featured a laminated top and back, which became a standard feature in many ES models of today.

The 1950s saw the introduction of many different ES guitar models including the ES-175, ES-335, and ES-330. These guitars featured semi-hollow or thinline designs, combining the warmth of a hollowbody with the sustain and reduced feedback of a solid center block. Introduced in 1958 came the ES-335, which was a groundbreaking model that became highly influential sonically and aesthestically. It featured a semi-hollow construction with a solid maple center block running through the body, offering a versatile and distinctive sound.

Gibson Les Paul:

In the early 1950s, Gibson introduced the Les Paul guitar, which was designed in collaboration with guitarist Les Paul. The guitar’s solid mahogany body and set neck construction contribute to its exceptional sustain. Notes of a Les Paul ring out with a rich, full-bodied resonance that allows players to create singing lead tones. The Les Paul typically features a mahogany body with a carved maple top. This combination of tonewoods contributes to the guitar's warm and balanced sound. The maple top adds a touch of brightness and clarity to the overall tone.

The Les Paul is often equipped with humbucking pickups, known for their noise-cancelling technology and higher output. Humbuckers provide a powerful sound with a reduced hum, making them well-suited for rock and blues music. The Les Paul has a strong midrange presence, which gives it a punchy and focused sound. This midrange emphasis allows the guitar to cut through a band mix and stand out in many recordings. Some of the notable Les Paul players include Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Duane Allman, Ace Frehley, Slash, Alex Lifeson, Joe Perry, and Billie Joe Armstrong.

Gibson SG:

In the late 1950s, Gibson introduced the SG (a.k.a. Solid Guitar) as a redesign for the Les Paul. It was initially released under the Les Paul name but Les himself never had an appreciation for these guitars. The double cutaway body and fast-playing neck have become staples for many blues and rock guitar players throughout the 60s and 70s. Some notable players of the SG include Tony Iommi, Robby Krieger, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Angus Young, Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa, and Gary Clark Jr.

In terms of its sound, the SG is often equipped with dual humbucking pickups, which produce a powerful and high-output sound. Humbuckers help reduce unwanted noise (hum) and provide a thick, beefy tone with strong midrange presence. The combination of the mahogany body and set-neck construction contributes to the SG's sustain and resonance. Notes ring out with a rich and full-bodied character, allowing players to achieve expressive, singing tones. Despite its warm mahogany body, the SG can deliver bright and cutting tones. The combination of the mahogany body and humbucking pickups results in a balanced tonal profile with good clarity in both high and low frequencies.

Gibson Firebird:

The original Gibson Firebird design was introduced in 1963 and was supposed to be the modern design of the Gibson line. Its unique offset body, “reverse” shape, and elongated headstock makes it one of the more different designs Gibson has ever put out. Initially four main models were released in Firebird I, Firebird III, Firebird V, and Firebird VII. Each model featured variations in pickups, controls, and aesthetic details. The Firebird was meant to be a competitor with the offset bodied guitars that capture a new audience of guitar players.

The Firebird features a mahogany body and neck, contributing to its warm and resonant sound. The Mahogany material gives the guitar rich midrange frequencies and sustain. The guitar is famous for its mini humbucker pickups, which are smaller compared to traditional humbucking pickups. These pickups offer a unique tonal character that leans into the single coil and humbucker territory, which provide clarity and definition without being muddy like humbuckers. Some notable players include Johnny Winter, Phil Manzenara, Allen Collins, Brian Jones, Eric Clapton, and Paul Stanley.

Gibson Explorer:

In the late 1950s, Gibson released the Explorer as their futuristic and radical designs of the traditional guitars they had been putting out previously. The Explorer had an angular and asymmetrical body shape, which was way ahead of the time and wasn’t commercially successful upon its release. Over the years, the guitar became a sought-after model among collectors and musicians. The Explorer mahogany neck and body construction contributes to the warm and resonant tone of the guitar. The Explorer has high-output humbucking pickups, which produce a powerful and aggressive sound suited for rock and metal genres. Some notable players of the Explorer include The Edge, James Hetfield, Gary Moore, Dave Grohl, and Matthias Jabs.

Gibson Flying V:

Alongside with the explorer came the Flying V the same year. Just like the Explorer, the Flying V had a radical and futuristic design that was different from the other Gibson models. It also wasn’t successful upon its release but became popular overtime for its unique tone. The Flying V's unique V-shaped body design makes it a visually striking instrument. Like the Explorer, the Flying V has mahogany in its body and neck construction, contributing to its warm and resonant tone. The Flying V comes equipped with high-output humbucking pickups that provide aggressive guitar tones. Some of the notable players include Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Kirk Hammett, Billy Gibbons, Dave Davies, and Lenny Kravitz.