Throughout the early 1970’s, I was gradually figuring out the nuances of purchasing and playing a quality bass guitar. From my early days of learning to play on a practically unplayable short scale cheapy bass to the much better long scale Japanese bass guitars I picked up later, I was learning more than scales and finger patterns. After picking up a short scale Fender Musicmaster bass, my playing began to really improve. It was now time to take my bass playing to a whole new level.
During a chance meeting with a school friend, he sold me his copy of “Live Dates”, a live recording of the English rock band called “Wishbone Ash”. I loved the bands twin lead guitar sound, and their lively rock sound mixed with traditional blues. Looking at the gate fold cover of the record album, the first thing I noticed was that the band played their music using vintage instruments. The one guitarist played a vintage Fender Stratocaster, while the other guitarist played a vintage Gibson Flying V. The bass player played a strange looking guitar that kind of looked like a Fender Precision bass built upside down and backwards. I studied the pictures over and over, trying to figure out what it was that he was playing. I went to the local library to research this strange instrument, but there was very little information available. The only thing I figured out was that the bass was manufactured by Gibson, that it was called a Thunderbird, and that it was only manufactured for 2 or 3 years, then discontinued. My mind started to drift, and I made a pledge to myself that if I ever saw one of these, that I would buy it immediately. I knew that this bass was rare, knowing that I would be the only one around that would have one. My thinking at the time was that if my playing abilities were not up to standard, then at least my bass guitar would make me stand out.
About a year or so later, on one of my weekly sweeps of every guitar shop in the city, I stopped into “Mother’s Music”, a vintage guitar shop in the basement of Waterloo Square shopping mall. Inside the tiny shop, the walls were lined with quality used and vintage guitars. The better and rarest guitars were behind the counter where the cash register was. To the left were the bass guitars, all hanging on the wall. During this visit, I was looking at all the basses all lined up, when I noticed that one of them wasn’t shaped like the others, so it didn’t fit in somehow. As I focused on this fact , I began to think that what I was really looking at was indeed something rare and unusual. I walked up to take a closer look and realized it was one of these rare Gibson Thunderbird basses. For me, it was like seeing a unicorn. I was speechless, my heart began to pound, and my head began to spin. I dis manage to walk over to the counter to ask to have them take it off the wall and show it to me. The staff member mentioned that it was quite rare, and that it was the first and only one they had ever had in the shop. As I looked at this unusual bass, I remembered my pledge I had made to myself the year before. I looked at the price tag and just about fell over.
Of the dozens of bass guitars on display at Mother’s Music that day, the one that interested me was way over anything I could ever afford. Nearly every bass on that wall was a vintage Fender bass, dating back to the 1950’s. The most expensive one that day was about $250, which was top price for an old Fender then. The price of this 1963 Gibson Thunderbird was $600. I knew that this was outrageous, but I knew that I would not have another chance at buying another quite like it.
I walked home, dreaming of owning such a rare and expensive bass guitar. I brought it up with my parents, who had both been less than supportive in the past of my musical ambitions. However, they did see that I was making progress with my playing, that I had remained determined and continued to practice every day. After talking it out, they agreed to co-sign a loan from the bank to buy the Gibson Thunderbird. They told me that taking out a loan was a big commitment, and that I would have to keep my promise to them to pay back the money, but if I did make that promise, they would co-sign for me.
With this arrangement, I was able to walk into Mother’s Music and purchase this rare guitar for myself. I kept my promise and indeed paid back the entire bank loan. Because of this transaction, I had one of the rarest bass guitars ever to exist anywhere, and I couldn’t have been more proud of it.
Owning and playing a vintage 1963 Gibson Thunderbird bass, I learned several things about it that not everyone knows about them. For its many unique features, there were more than a few things wrong with them as well. First and foremost was their inherent balance issue. Theoretically, you should be able to place two or three fingers under the neck heel, and balance the bass perfectly on your fingers. Why does this make a difference? It’s all about the way the bass feels when you put the strap on the strap pegs and throw the bass over your shoulders. If you let go, the bass should just sit there. Now, if you strap on my old Gibson Thunderbird, the neck immediately falls forward, headed towards the ground. This action is called “neck dive”, something that old Gibsons are notorious for. I can’t begin to tell you how many guitar repair shops have had Gibson guitars in for broken necks. I can’t remember how many times I caught my bass just in time before it hit the ground, an action that would have ruined the instrument.
The other thing that I remember about playing that bass was the way I had it set up. You see, I was still pretty new at all this, and I didn’t understand what a good guitar tech could do to improve the instrument. I pretty well played it the way i had received it from the store. This issue was really not a fault of the bass, but of my own lack of knowledge and experience.
Over the years I owned the T-bird, I had also purchased several old Fender Precision basses and a Fender Jazz bass. I mostly played my Fenders, keeping the quirky T-bird in its original case in my music room.
After owning my 1963 Gibson Thunderbird bass for 25 years, I finally decided to sell it. It went to a local guitar shop, put on consignment, where it was eventually purchased by a collector from the Windsor, Ontario area.
Tim playing his 1963 Gibson Thunderbird, back in 1974.
Tim’s well played 1963 Gibson Thunderbird, as it looked in 1998.