Gibson Firebird X

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 ?

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.