By Zac DelVecchio
The Art of the V
Some call it a rock guitar; others say it is for blues. Some throw up their hands in the shape of horns thrashing metal while others play it sitting down. It goes without saying that there might not be a more well known and more undefined guitar shape in history than the legendary Gibson Flying V. It’s signature futuristic look, even 61 years after its creation in the legendary Parson Street factory in Michigan, still has a level of unequivocal cool, edginess and simplicity that has kept its look timeless. Heros from Albert King to Jimi Hendrix, Michael Schenker to Grace Potter have wielded the instrument to leap genres and transcend culture as one of the defining looks when a person says “guitar.” Let’s look into what made this guitar so special to so many.
The Space Race:
In what we now describe as the “golden age” of guitar design, the 1950s was nothing short of a battlefield between the great minds of Leo Fender and Ted McCartey. In 1952, Fender turned the world on its head with the Telecaster release forcing Gibson to produce models they never dreamed of to compete. Despite coming up with such beautiful creations as the Les Paul to contend, they quickly lost traction among players when Fender released their next groundbreaking model, the Stratocaster.
Gibson CEO Ted McCarty needed something that would wow, something that would be innovative. In 1958 McCartey produced and released the now-iconic ES-335, Futura (soon to be called Explorer after some tweaks), and the Flying V. The Flying V, listed at $247 (now some of the same year are worth several hundred thousand with some as high as $750,000 with original case) was not a sales success as they planned. However, with only 80 produced in 1958, it shook the guitar world and reestablished Gibson as an innovative guitar company with plenty of fight still left in it.
The First Exotic Tonewood Guitar:
Unlike all other Gibson models, until that time, the Flying V alongside the Explorer were the first-ever solid body Gibsons to be produced out of white Limba, now referred to as Korina. Limba is a wood species found in Africa that is often lighter than Honduran Mahogany and comes in two varieties, white and black, identified by their color. Korina has a tone comparable to Mahogany but with a slightly higher midrange focus.
1958 & 1959 Flying V’s featured a 2 piece white Limba body with a one-piece Limba neck. The body featured a more squared-off shoulder than their later siblings and featured a unique rubber pad on the treble side designed to keep the guitar sliding when it was played sitting down. Interestingly, the rubber that is so coveted now was actually nothing more than recycled floor mats that the workers would stand on! They cleaned the pieces off, cut them into shape, and inlaid them into the body, allowing them to be innovative, recycle and be cost-effective at the same time.
The fingerboard was a beautiful unbound piece of Brazilian Rosewood with cellulose nitrate dots and .070″ thick frets in 1958 and .100″ thick frets in 1959. The neck and body were glued together using hot hide glue.
The Flying V’s headstock was holly, and unlike all other Gibson models, the Flying V featured a raised plastic logo instead of one made of inlaid Mother of Pearl. Though the Flying V was the only guitar featuring a raised logo, the Gibson GA-5 amp featured the same logo and was found in both silver and gold variations.
Mr. McCarty wanted the Flying V to really stand out from the crowd, so it was naturally appointed with gold plated hardware.
The single ring, single-line Kluson Deluxe tuning pegs bore a D-169400 PATENT NO. Stamp underneath the tuner. Many of these tuning peg heads crumbled over time as they oxidized and actually shrunk in size and changed in color to a dark caramel color.
The pickup rings sported on these early models are the now mythical butyrate M69 rings named after the “M69” stamp on their base. These pickup rings are now highly sought after and ask enormous prices. The MR490 or MR491 marking on their underside identified the neck or bridge ring.
The truss rod covers were made of a rolled plastic, which can be identified by lifting it towards the light and seeing the waves in the plastic. The truss rod also was a single-action truss rod with a Halfmoon washer and had a ¼” maple filler.
The Jackplate, interesting enough, also was unique with its rounded corners until mid-1959 when it changed to a square shape. The toggle switch tip was made of Catalin, identified by its amber yellow color and no seam.
A Bridge to the Future
The key to the Flying V 50’s style tone is found within the bridge. The non-wire ABR 1 bridge was made of zinc, and the saddles were made of nickel-plated brass. The bridge post and thin thumbwheels are also made of brass.
The Flying V further separated itself from all other electric Gibson models with its string through ferrules underneath and a top-mounted brass V-shaped plate with rounded brass nails.
The Heart of the Beast:
While Fender used Stackpole potentiometers, Gibson chose to use 500K Centralab pots with a wax foil .02mf phone book capacitor. They also wired their guitars slightly different than which allowed a player to retain more high end when they adjust their pot. This is now referred to as “50’s style wiring”.
The PAF pickups featured on these Flying V’s were quite special. Their gold plated pickup covers were made of German Nickel-Silver alloy material and no Copper pre-plate covers, which rolled off some of the high ends. Their butyrate bobbins were wrapped with 42 AWG wire with plain enamel and sat nicely on a nickel silver alloy baseplate. These pickups were marked with the hollowed Patent Applied For sticker in black on each pickup’s back.
A Near Mythical Case
No conversation about the Flying V can be complete without talking about the almost mythical case it resided in.
With its almost coffin-like shape, the case the original Flying V sported was custom made to shape the instrument. Because of the limited quantity made and their construction, most of these cases were lost and destroyed over time.
Existing original versions of this pink lined case fetch enormous figures and are one of the most sought after pieces of vintage gear. These cases are often forged and should always be scrutinized intensely to ensure they are indeed genuine.
No matter how you categorize the Flying V, its impact on history continues to grow as more and more genres adopt its radical shape. While often duplicated, the original 50’s Flying Vs. ‘ mystique will continue to inspire just as Mr. McCarty intended.