The Gibson Thunderbird
is an electric bass guitar
made by Gibson
Background and introduction
The Gibson Thunderbird was introduced in 1963
. At the time, Fender
had been the leader in the electric bass market since their introduction of the Precision Bass
twelve years earlier.
The Thunderbird was designed by U.S. auto designer Raymond H. Dietrich (Chrysler, Lincoln, Checker) along with the Firebird guitar, which it resembles in design, construction, and name.
Design and construction
The Thunderbird bass, like the Rickenbacker 4000 series
, and like the Firebird guitar it was designed concurrently with, had neck-through construction, where the neck wood went through the entire length of the body, with the rest of the body being glued into place.
While previous Gibson bass guitars had a short scale of 30½", the Thunderbird had a 34" scale equal to that of the 34" scale of Fender's bass guitars.
There were originally two Thunderbird models, the Thunderbird II (one pickup) and Thunderbird IV (two pickups)
, Gibson changed the Thunderbird's design and construction. The original Thunderbirds (and Firebirds) had a "reverse" body, with the treble horn extended and the bass horn recessed. Due to a lawsuit brought by Fender
because of the resemblance to the Fender Jazzmaster
, the body styles were modified, with the result being called the "non-reverse" body.. Also, the sturdy but expensive neck-through construction was replaced by traditional Gibson set-neck construction. The non-reverse Thunderbird was continued until 1969, when the Thunderbird was discontinued. Though fewer non-reverse Thunderbirds were shipped, the original reverse-body instruments retain a higher collector's value.
The Thunderbird IV was reissued in 1976 as a bicentennial edition. This reissue featured the original body shape and neck-through construction. After the bicentennial, the Thunderbird was continued as a regular production model until 1979, when it was discontinued again.
Current Thunderbird models
The Thunderbird IV was re-introduced to the Gibson line in 1987 and has been in production up to the present.
The current official Thunderbirds produced by Gibson Guitar Corporation are:
- Thunderbird IV
- Thunderbird IV goth
- Thunderbird Studio
All 6 models have two pickups and reverse-style bodies.
The current Gibson Thunderbird IV is made with a nine-ply mahogany/walnut through-neck with mahogany wings attached to form the body.
The Gibson Thunderbird Studio models have mahogany necks set into mahogany bodies.
The Epiphone Thunderbird IV, a budget alternative to the Gibson models, has a maple neck bolted onto an alder body.
The Epiphone Goth Thunderbird is similar to the Epiphone Thunderbird IV, however, it has a mahogany body, a 'flat black' finish and a Celtic Cross symbol on the pickguard.
The Epiphone Thunderbird IV Ltd Edition, a budget alternative to the Gibson models, has a maple neck bolted onto an alder body. Alpine White finish with black hardware and assembled at the Epiphone Custom Shop in Korea
The Thunderbird bass has a very high output pickups, which despite being passive produce a stronger signal than many active basses such as the Fender Deluxe Jazz Bass. Also, Gibson does not sell replacement pickups for the Thunderbird, as Gibson claims these to be indestructible.
Criticisms of the Thunderbird bass
Some players have found several disadvantages:
- Poor weight distribution. The irregular, unbalanced body shape, placement of the strap button, and the original heavy Kluson tuning machines gave a neck-heavy weight distribution, causing the neck to "dive" down if the fretting hand does not hold it. This makes it awkward for new bassists, and one has to get used to holding it constantly (unless sitting). The dive can be corrected by moving the strap buttons and using an appropriate strap.
- Limited tonal variety: The passive humbucking pickups give a deep, rich tone, which is very heavy on the mid range frequencies. While this tone is suited to rock music, it is not typically desired for "slap and pop" styles. The electronics thus cause the Thunderbird to lack some versatility.
The Who's John Entwistle switched to Thunderbird IV basses from 1971-1974, but was dissatisfied with the neck. He bought several Thunderbird basses after the model was discontinued and gutted them. He then had several bodies cut to the original shape, attached Fender P-bass necks to them, and installed the salvaged hardware.
The Gibson Blackbird
was a custom Thunderbird model made to specifications requested by Mötley Crüe
bassist Nikki Sixx
. Originally to be named the "Sixxbird", the Blackbird was manufactured from 2000 to 2003. It differed from the Thunderbird IV in the following details:
- The fingerboard was made from ebony and had iron cross inlays.
- An "opti grab" handle was added to the normal Thunderbird bridge,
- The only electronic control was a single on/off switch for the two humbucker pickups.
- The pickguard was designed specifically for the Blackbird
- All hardware on the Blackbird were finished in black chrome.
- The Blackbird had a flat-black finish.
- The pickups were renamed as 'Deep Sixx' pickups.
Shavo Odadjian of System of a Down also used a Blackbird bass
Notable Thunderbird players
- Gibson Thunderbird– Information, sound clips, catalogue appearance and pictures of the Gibson Thunderbird.
- Gibson Blackbird– Information, and pictures of the Gibson Blackbird.