Before I pass any comments and let you know about my feelings with regard to the Gibson Firebird X can I just touch upon a story from the early 1980’s
It was either February 1983, or 1984 and for many dealers, manufactures and suppliers it was the time of the year to make their annual trip to the Frankfurt Messe Show – Already there was a buzz on the streets before the show had even started, with regard to a new guitar that was going to revolutionise the guitar world – By the time the show opened and a few order pads had been scratched, the talk on every isles was all about this one new guitar – All the big hitting dealers of the day wanted to know how many can they order ? – When can they have them? – Can they have the sole agency for the town/county? – How many do they have to order to get the sole agency? – Everywhere you turned this new guitar was the talking point and this went on for 2 or 3 days
Guess what? – I might still have been a young pup and fairly new to the scene, having only spent 4 years or so on the shop floor, yet not once did I ever take a trip to the manufactures stand to check it out – I was not interested one little bit in placing an order and I certainly did not want anything to do with it – Call me old fashioned, naive or blind and blinkered, but even then I did not think the guitar world need revolutionising, it just wanted good guitars – The guitar we are talking about is the Bond Guitar
The Bond Electraglide, to give it its full title, utilised a carbon fibre body with a unique saw toothed style ‘stepped’ aluminium fingerboard, so traditional frets were no longer required -. Pickup switching, volume and tone controls were completely digital, hence an internal circuit board was required, which in turn required an external bulky power supply – The guitarist selected different pickup options via five push buttons, whilst volume, treble and bass settings were adjusted via digital rocker switches with incremental levels all of which were confirmed by a three-colour led readout. – Just imagine coming to your solo and you want a touch more volume, so you now have to press a button 2, 3 or 4 times to get the required result – Wow !!!! we all want one of these, don’t we?
I recall an initial launch price of around £500 for the Bond, so It wasn’t cheap, not that you’d expect it to be – Compare that price to some of the best selling models available at the same time – The last of the USA Strats from Fullerton cost around £400 and a Les Paul cost around £600,
Many months later and a few Bond Guitars filtered onto the streets ( it is stated that around 1400 units were manufactured all in all) – A few magazines carried the usual reviews, yet within a couple of years it all folded – A few top name players are known to have used them for a while and I dare say, that as with any new product, you’ll always have a few notable players checking them out just to see what all the fuss is about, yet as a ‘gimmick’ the end result is inevitable
Even now I feel sorry for the designer, Andrew Bond – Not because he failed, but because he tried to do something different – He obviously spent a lot of time and money on the project and maybe as a forward thinking individual entrepreneur he deserved better – Yet the bottom line is very simple – It is a product that was not required then and the same applies today
Yet I can’t have one ounce of sympathy for Gibson and the Firebird X – With the proud heritage they have, I just can’t understand their logic one little bit and they certainly should know better
Some players may recall the Stepp Digital Guitar, how about the Synth Axe, the early Roland Guitar synth’s, the Casio Guitar synth’s, the Starr Lab’s Ztar and not forgetting the Yamaha G10 or the 360 system – Granted a few players have experimented with them, even resulting in the odd concept album but a guitar they ain’t
Years later I recall having to attend a Roland product launch of the VG88 – Described as a product that all serious guitar players would need and this was going to be the start of the guitar players digital revolution – Granted a few sold and I dare say a few players still like them, but how many guitarists wished to screw a GK2A pick-up onto their stunning flamed maple ’10’top guitar? – However, let’s give some credit to Roland as after all, they are a digital company and their job is to design the future
The same can be said of Line 6, that as a software based design company they need to look to the future – Line 6 have indeed had reasonable success with sales of the Variax, but can you imagine what would have happened if they had just released a traditional electric guitar – But in many ways, the success of the Variax is that in relative terms, it is low cost – I probably would not have one myself, yet if I spent enough time at home, with a digital recording package and wanted a banjo or 12 string intro, or maybe a Sitar riff, then at least the Line 6 will come in very handy, hence a very affordable ‘gimmick’ – Furthermore I can still play the Line 6 as a guitar, whereas it is doubtful I’d ever have time to learn a Sitar, let alone need to buy one – If you are a one man gigging muso, who opens up with Mr Tambourine Man, followed by Maggie May, then the Variax has its uses – But the price is the key here, in that £400/600 is a very affordable add on ‘gimmick’
So now let’s move onto the Gibson Firebird X – It is certainly getting talked about, on forums, in the shops, on Twitter and Facebook, so maybe from a marketing point of view Gibson have already achieved their goal – If indeed increased brand awareness is their aim – Yet as one of the two biggest guitar companies, do they seriously need any further brand recognition – Just about every other guitar company that I can think of would love to have the world wide and public brand recognition that Gibson have and that includes PRS – Just about 50% of every major album, concert, or festival that has ever taken place since rock ‘n’ roll began, has featured a Gibson guitar – Yet with regard to the Firebird X, all I have heard is bad news – Players all over the world are asking, What are they doing ?– Have you seen the new Gibbo ?– Why don’t they just do what the guitar players want and concentrate on making a good Gibbo etc etc
Even the reviews I have seen so far have not been anything special – Most accept that at best it is a ‘marmite’ product and whilst they are trying to be very diplomatic about the whole concept, they point out that the sounds are nothing special
I’ve heard a few good/reasonable comments on the piezo acoustic based tones – Yet you can buy a Variax for only a few hundred quid and get a similar result- Or if you want a serious gigging guitar that has the piezo acoustic option, then look no further than a Musicman, or Parker and save pounds, yet still have a serious guitar – Or indeed buy the Fishman piezo pick-up system and install it on say your Strat – Pete Townsend style – But various reports on the overdriven tones and pick-up options is certainly nothing special
Can I quote the following selling points that Gibson see as 20 revolutionary features ?
- Audio Quality – Integrating the effects signal path within the guitar allows for perfect impedance and level matching to the pickups, resulting in far lower noise than outboard effects – the dynamic range exceeds 100dB. Even with high-gain distortion and compression, Firebird X is astonishingly quiet.
- Pickup Design – Either coil in each of the three mini-humbuckers can be off, on or reverse polarity, and can be switched into single coil modes with ? for the first time ? true noise-cancelling technology.
- GoldTone Switching Technology – Thanks to carefully-selected pickup coil switching choices, Firebird X emulates iconic guitar tones with analogue technology ? not digital modelling. Over 2,000 pickup combinations are possible, each with its own unique sound.
- Pure Analogue Updateable Audio Engine – Based on the Freescale multi-processor (the latest generation of the chip family used in Pro Tools TDM systems), the audio engine has the power and resolution needed to create sounds with a true analogue feel. The engine hardware is not only updateable, but user-replaceable to accommodate advances in hardware
- Patch Morphing – Two “tog-pots” – which look like standard pickup selectors, but have a control built into the rotatable toggle shaft – let you morph smoothly from unprocessed to processed sounds, and anywhere in between.
- Acoustic Guitar Sounds – A third tog-pot blends acoustic sounds from the piezo pickup along with the electric pickups, or even acoustic sounds only. Optimized to sound like Gibson’s acclaimed J-45 acoustic guitar, the basic acoustic guitar sound is virtually indistinguishable from an acoustic guitar’s electric output.
- Hex Output Structure – The bridge piezo pickup includes hex outputs (each string can provide a separate output for computer or live performance setups), which allows for totally new guitar sounds – from “clean” distortion and synth-like timbres to ground breaking surround possibilities. Firebird X’s new hex pickup design means higher output and greater string separation than ever.
- Open Architecture – 3rd-party developers can develop new and exciting applications (sold through Gibson’s app store) for the Pure Analogue audio engine. And users can create and share their own patches, as well as download additional patches from Gibson’s Firebird X microsite.
- Battery Life – Thanks to advances in low-power circuitry, greater Robo-Tuner efficiency, and power saving techniques derived from laptop computers, the internal battery lasts for well over two hours of heavy, continuous use – and should the power run out, the battery can be swapped out in under 10 seconds with commonly available, inexpensive camcorder batteries.
- Blue Lightning-Compatible Foot pedals and Footswitch Unit – Tired of clutter and cables on stage? So are we. Firebird X communicates with the two (included) pedals and footswitch unit using Bluetooth technology optimized for musical applications.
- Effects Software – Although the heart of the distortion options within Firebird X use McDSP’s critically-acclaimed Chrome Tone plug-in, Gibson’s engineers have included multiple modulation, delay, and reverberation effects – including new effects like “dynamic” delay, and old favourites like spring reverb, analogue chorus/delay, and a 10-second looper.
- Pedal Interconnections – Forget cables: the pedals and footswitch snap together for a secure mechanical and electrical connection, as well as the ability to create large pedal board setups. And daisy-chaining the control signal saves power and optimizes wireless performance.
- Computer Interface with Solid-State Recording – The included cross-platform RIP interface not only provides pro audio-level interfacing for cutting-edge software, but integrates a solid-state, SD card-based recorder – so you will never lose a riff again.
- Low-Impedance Active Output – While the idea of using a low-impedance output to preserve tone, drive long cables, and even feed a PA or mixer directly isn’t new (thank you, Les Paul), Firebird X’s implementation is new – this is the most transparent-sounding audio you’ve ever heard from a guitar output.
- Digital Varitone Tone Control – Turn the tone control fully counter clockwise and you’ll hear the traditional high-end roll off; turn it clockwise for the full guitar tone. But in between those two settings are six additional tone options that add subtle, musical variations.
- Direct Digital Output – A true S/PDIF direct digital output from Firebird X is available for direct digital interfacing to S/PDIF compatible gear, from signal processors to mixers.
- Case Technology – To protect this finely-crafted instrument, Gibson has developed a unique case that can survive a fall from a six-story building. If you ever have to check Firebird X as baggage with the airlines, rest easy.
- Real-Time Control – Do you like bending over and reaching down to a pedal board to change a setting? We don’t either. So, Firebird X includes six color-coded sliders that let you morph settings, and even switch into different effects entirely, with a flick of the finger.
- Live Performance Modes – When you just want to call up one of the 55 on board patches and wail, choose “preset” mode – this locks out all on board controls so you can’t change the sound accidentally. To switch into live mode and alter your sounds in real-time, just push on the tone pot twice.
- Robo-Tuners – The first generation of Robot Tuning technology created its own revolution, making alternate tunings practical at last, as well as tuning multiple strings simultaneously. The fourth-generation Robo-Tuners – smaller, lighter, more durable and faster – revolutionize Robot Tuning again.
Hi it’s me again – did you read all of that? – Do you understand it all? – Do you want one, taking into account the £2900 price tag (at the time of writing) – Hey I’ve just thought, who do you take it to when you have a fault on the electrics – Most guitar tech’s will walk, or even run, away from it – What happens when the software is out of date and no longer compatible with the next generation of gizmo products from Apple or Microsoft ? – I know for a fact that in 50 years time, my conventional regular guitar with still perform every bit as good as it should, but I will be amazed if that is the case with the Firebird X in even 10 years time
I have heard that it will be limited to an initial run of 1800 – I think they will do exceptionally well to sell anywhere near that amount – I’ll re-phrase that – Gibson may well sell their required amount to authorised Gibson dealers, throughout the world, as part of the dealership agreement is that they have to purchase these guitars as part of a stocking program – If the dealers wishes not to place an order then no doubt his supply of the best selling Gibson models will suddenly grind to a halt – So will the dealers manage to sell 1800 pieces ? – I’m sure one or two will be purchased by a few very passionate tech minded players, but as a product that is going to change the guitar world ? – No chance – I think my favourite football team has a better chance of getting back into Europe before the Firebird X becomes a desirable and best selling product
If Gibson and Henry believe this is going to be a major breakthrough in the world of guitar technology, then 1800 units does not sound like a major success to me – PRS make more guitars than this over a two month period and the likes of Tom Anderson make around this amount of guitars every two years
Just for now, let’s consider that the bells and whistles concept is a very good idea – The guitar playing focus groups have got it right and just like an Apple product launch, customers are lining up round the block to buy one – But why oh why do we have to accept this ludicrously shaped instrument – Yes it is instantly identifiable, but in a very bad way, so why not build all the electronics guts and gadgets into a SG, 335 or Les Paul – At least this way there is a sense of familiarity and you feel as though you are playing on home turf – A classic Gibson shape with the new technology, just might have had a slim chance of success. At least this way the hate campaign might not be so strong
Many guitar players have an instrument they know very well and enjoy playing it time after time – It feels right, plays right and sounds right, so why get rid of it, or indeed put it in the case for early retirement, just so you can play some new jazzed up, razzamatazz guitar, from Gibson? – Granted, many guitarists do enjoy playing with pedals, be it, boutique individual pedals, or indeed an all singing all dancing multi effects – Many players now utilise various digital recording set-ups, with virtual amps/pedals etc and this is a market place that is constantly changing and moving forward very rapidly – Yet at the end of the day, be it pedals or ‘virtual sounds’ software, you continue to express yourself via your favourite ‘analogue’ guitar – So if this is the direction that many guitar players are now moving into and let’s assume that the electronics guts of the Firebird X is a good idea, then surely Gibson and Henry’s digital revolution would find far more success if they could find away of harnessing a traditional guitar, to the guts and techno-wizardry that is available in the Firebird X
Roland have gone part of the way with the GK2 pick-up which can be hooked up to various controllers, but unless you buy the Roland Ready Fender Strat, you still have to screw a couple of extra holes on your pride and joy
Therefore, could Gibson and their software design partners not find away to either utilise an existing pick-up, design a regular tune-o-matic bridge with built in transducer style elements, or develop a new direct replacement drop in pick-up, to enable us to drive and control the core of the Firebird X – With blue tooth technology, fibre optical cables or high definition multi media interfaces that are around today, the goal surely has to be to find away to still allow the player to retain his regular guitar, but allow it to be interfaced with all the gadgetry that the Firebird X offers, but in a stand alone floor unit – Definitely not part of a guitar – I wonder how much it weighs – What if the Firebird X does a great job and sounds incredible, but I hate the way it feels and plays, so much so that it inhibits my playing ability
Yet are Gibson not already along way behind other hi-tec based companies, who offer virtual amp and pedal software packages for your computer and recording, that can be utilised with regular audio to digital interfaces – The big plus here is that you still get to own and play any of your favourite guitars, without having to change any aspect of them – Whilst I can quote products today, like the IK Multimedia Amplitube 3 plus the Stealth pedal, available for around £200, I dare say new companies will come on board and mk2, mk3 etc updates will come on line very quickly, so I won’t get involved with specific competitors and other options – I think for many players the Firebird X is to complicated and not user friendly enough for live work, yet in the studio, or home recording set-up it is far too expensive and not as flexible as existing software bundles that are on the market today
A quick tour of any forum shows almost no support for the Firebird X and questions galore about the direction Gibson are moving in – A few knowledgeable customers are already pointing out that even now it is not compatible with software A or indeed software version v3.3 etc etc
However, I have saved the best to last – At the Gibson Firebird X product launch, not only was a Gibson SG deliberately smashed on stage, to indicate the end of the traditional guitar, but it was suggested that all players who do not buy into the new Firebird X technology are a bunch of ‘luddites’ – Yes you are the same ‘luddites’ who have spent thousands of hard earned pounds buying that ‘traditional and old fashioned’ Gibson guitar of your dreams and supporting the Gibson company through thick and thin.