There is a lot of information out about vintage Firebird pickups, and for the most part it appears that their history and design is understood.
I will be focusing on the 76 Bicentennial pickups because I own a couple 76 Birds and believe that the information about them available on the web and elsewhere is incomplete and would like to share my findings with anyone interested. Anyone interested meaning all of you guitarists, gear heads, winders etc. who really ought be off playing but instead are up reading more about gear.
So that said, there are a lot of great threads out on the web and many knowledgeable individuals who have owned, analyzed, dissected and recreated vintage Firebird pickups from pretty much every stage of their evolution. I'll start by quoting a basic summary of their design history as we know it created by a guy "J45" in an old thread who clearly has a ton of experience and passion that rivals my own for these unique and badass guitars:
1963-1964 Firebird Pickups:
Two mini hum sized (nylon?) bobbins, both with rectangular mold holding what appears to be the bar magnets in slots of the bobbin so the windings are surrounding the magnet itself. No external bar magnets like a regular humbucker or Deluxe mini-hum. Black bobbin wires, enameled dark windings, thin metal plate covering both bobbins on the bottom side held with black, tar like glue. Two maple spacers between bobbins and bottom plate. No cutout for braided lead. It simply exits the pickup through the thin gap between the cover and bottom plate. PAT number sticker.
1965-1969 Firebird pickups (possibly up to 1972, not completely sure about that as of now):
Two mini hum sized (nylon?) bobbins, both with rectangular mold holding what appears to be the magnets inside of the bobbin itself so the windings are surrounding the magnet itself. No external magnets like a regular humbucker or Deluxe mini-hum. White bobbin wires, Polyurethane coated bright orange windings, thin metal plate covering both bobbins on the bottom side held with black, tar like glue. Notched cutout in base plate corner for braided lead wires. PAT number sticker.
1970's Firebird pickup ('76 Bicentennial and after?):
Two mini hum size bobbins positioned 90 degrees from original angle. Windings face upward to top of pickup. Bar magnet slipped between bobbins also 90 degrees from normal bar magnet position. Bottom plate is stamped with pat number.
"The completely different configuration of the 70's Firebird pickup along with a single bar magnet turned sideways is more than likely responsible for the atypical sound of these 70's guitars. Nothing like original Firebirds IMO. I'm sure exceptions exist just like in any other Gibson guitar. We find pickup variations overlapping as many as two years in just about any model at some point in time. This is all just a starting point until I can get more info. Any corrections or additional details are welcome."
Another source of great information on FB pups in general but particularly for the 76s is a thread by a guy who dissects a Bicentennial version pup from 1982 and details it with excellent photos. And you can see the pickup he dissects has an unusual and different design from all other FB pups, in fact it is exactly as is described by J45 above.
Here is the URL to said thread:
However, I would like to note an important detail is missing in the thread. It isn't mentioned whether the pickup he dissected was a bridge or neck pickup. Later, the author does state something about Allen Collins playing the guitar that pickup was in and hating the bridge pickup. I'd bet you a JTM 45-100 full stack that the pickup being dissected in the thread was a bridge pickup. Why would it matter you might wonder? Keep reading.
Backing up a step, part of what I've always found interesting about 76 Birds is that although the general concensus of them is that they are screechy, thin, shrill, extremely microphonic, the worst sounding guitar ever, etc. there are then others who attest that they sound almost identical to vintage birds they have played. It always seemed odd to me that there would be such a discrepency in opinions.
TWO DIFFERENT DESIGNS
From my research it seems clear that for the majority of 76 FBs that the neck and the bridge pickups were TWO DIFFERENT DESIGNS and that the description j45 gives above describes only the bridge pickup (also known as a "sidewinder").
The neck pickup, however for the majority of these guitars I believe is the 1965-1969 design, possibly even the same pickups that were in the Medallion guitars, but with the patent number engraving rather than the sticker.
To complicate things, I have also seen examples where there are what appears to be 1965-1969 design pups in both the neck and the bridge. One thing that is clear is that Gibson was experimenting during this time. Lets look at some photos.
First off, here is the 1982 pickup that was dissected by the guy in the thread I linked to above. Hopefully if he has read this far he is not upset that I am utilizing his great photo to further all of our understanding of the pickups that Gibson was putting into what are undeniably the best electric guitars ever created. Note the thin black wire coming from the top right which is sautered in and grounded with the metal braid wiring from the main lead which comes out from the lower right hand corner. Also, note how under the holes in the metal baseplate you see what looks like black tape.
This is the same pickup with the cover off. You can see that it was indeed black tape or whatever it is they use which you could see through the metal baseplate holes and that the reason for the two wires has to do with unique "layed over sideways" orientation Gibson for whatever reason was experimenting with at this time.
Here we have a 1978 Bicentennial Firebird which someone graciously opened up so we can see the undersides of the pickups. Notice that the bridge pickup looks very similar to the pickup above which the guy dissected, but slightly different with an extra blue wire coming out of the lower left corner being sautered in with the main lead braid. You can see also, through the holes in the metal baseplate that it is black. I can guarantee you that if we opened this one up, that black you see would be the pickup tape just like the pup above and oriented in the quirky laid over sideways. I don't know about you but I can hear the nails on the chalkboard just looking at it.
But, look how the neck pup is different. There is no second wire, and through the baseplate holes you see it is not black but rather a wood looking cover. Interesting.
Here is another photo of Bicentennial era Bird, and again you can see how the bridge pup has the second wire and what looks quite black beneath the metal baseplate.
Here is the neck pickup from the same guitar and guess what, no second wire and what looks like a lighter coloring from a wood shim under the metal baseplate.
Now take a look at a close up of the neck pickup from my 76 Bicentennial bird. I removed it from the neck of my #1 Bird and put it in the bridge of a second 76 I bought which some dingbat had routed for a humbucker. This was actually part of the spark that began this thread because this pickup in the bridge of the second 76 sounded very different and much darker than my #1 bird with the original bridge. It hadn't occurred to me at the time that their difference in sound owed to a slight, but very important variation in design.
Notice through the holes in the metal baseplate what appears to be a wood shim right under it, and the lack of a second wire. Also, you can see in the gap between the baseplate and the internals in the lower left hand corner what is clearly the top of a bobbin and around its perimeter you can just see the edge of the black tape which would cover the wire. This pickup is NOT laid over sideways, it is the normal Firebird pickup design.
Here are photos of yet a third Bird from the bicentennial era. This is the bridge, looking very much like the dissected pup in the first photos. The bridge often has the black plastic spacer under it to raise it slightly too. Again, two wires and black beneath the baseplate holes, I don't know about you but I'm beginning to see a pattern here.
And the neck from that same guitar. Sure enough, it is different than the bridge. This one is interesting too because the baseplate doesn't have the patent number engraving.
Here is another bicentennial era pair where the two are the different designs.
Now here are the internals of 63 pup. This is the standard vintage Firebird pickups design, with the coils oriented "correctly" most would say and with the ferrous metal plate, etc. You can see that it has wooden shims of some ilk right under the baseplate. I think it is safe to say that wooden shims like these are what we have been seeing peeking out from the metal baseplate holes in the Bicentennial Firebird neck pickups in the photos above. Confirming my overwhelmingly strong suspicion that what the photos are making undeniably clear is that the Bicentennial Firebirds utilized two different pickup designs for the neck and the bridge.
Some of you might be wondering why. To me it makes perfect sense that Gibson would experiment with a different design which made the bridge pickup brighter, so that it cut through the mix even more. If you look at that general time period, of primitive PA systems and 100 watt amplifiers running full volume in outdoor festivals, concert halls, etc. they were all getting brighter and more aggressive. Take Marshall amplifiers for example, the late 60's plexis vs the early 70's plexis, the introduction of the super lead, then the bright caps on the volume pots, the metal panel years, all were gravitating towards a brighter more aggressive cutting sound. Even the speakers, early Marshall cabs had those G12H30 55hz pulsonic coned Celestions which later evolved into the 75hz Greenbacks...
A lot of companies were experimenting, just like Gibson. Here are some more photos:
Here is a pair from 77. These even have "N" and "B" written on them for neck and bridge as well as the DCR readings. The bridge on the right being the laid over sideways style.
One of my favorites, this one is from 82. You can see it was a bridge (somebody even wrote 6.29B on it, again the DCR and "B" for bridge) but whoever it belonged to had it wax potted to the max probably because it was microphonic as hell (they are, I know!). I've never seen wax potting on the bottom of a baseplate, it almost looks like they were afraid to open it so they wax potted all over the base plate and in the gaps???
This is one from 76 which someone was trying to sell for a lot of money. What do you think, neck or bridge? Hint: Allen Collins even though he loves Firebirds and only plays bridge pickups (even though a reverse Firebird with a P90 isn't really a reverse Firebird) would not jive with this pickups sound.
I think I've made my point. I'll leave it up to one of you all to dissect a Bicentennial neck pickup and come to the stunning conclusion that it is designed like the earlier "normal" FB pups were and not the strange layed on it's side "sidewinder" design we thought all the Bicentennial pickups were all built with.
That said, I have to admit I'm curious if Gibson on the off chance also got adventurous and made some other slight alterations to the neck design as well, possibly using ceramic magnets between the coils, used a different wire? My guess is that they didn't, mostly because my experience is that they sound like firebird pups should, and unlike the "sidewinder" they sound very similar to the other hand wound FB pups out there I've tried from Mojo, Artec, TJ Hookerbreath, etc. all having slight differences among them.
By the way, the Bicentennial pickups are a different size than modern FB pups. If you have a Bicentennial bird and buy modern replacement pups you will either need to build or have someone build you a custom ring because the screw holes will not line up on a 76 bird. This goes vice-versa as well, if you buy Bicentennial era pickups the screw holes will not line up on a modern Firebird. That said, Bicentennial pickups will fit in modern rings, but there is a slight gap on the top and bottom because of the size difference. My experience is that the very slight gap between the pickup and the pickup ring on the top and bottom of a Bicentennial era Firebird pickup mounted in a modern Gibson, Greco, Chibson, or generic Chinese replacement Firebird ring doesn't negatively affect your overall tone, however some individuals with highly sophisticated ears trained to detect such acute subleties may argue otherwise. I'll leave it at that, as the topic alone would easily be worthy of an entire thread itself.
Moving on, my understanding is that the sideways Firebird pickup design or "sidewinders" which we have been talking about in the bridge of Bicentennial birds were designed by a guy named Bill Lawrence who worked for Gibson during two eras: from 1968 to 1972 (when he designed models such as the S-1, L6-S (the modern reissue of which is the L6S) and Marauder as well as contributing to the design of there Gibson ‘Super-Humbucker’), and again from 1987 to 1989.
Here is the URL to the patent Bill (his real name was actually Willi Stich) created August 5th, 1975.
Here is a sketch of the design included in the patent.
Note the "N" and the "S" on the magnet to indicate polarity. The patent describes them as:
"..an electrical pickup for a stringed musical instruments having one field polarity intersected by the string, a pair of coils, and each coil having a pole piece so arranged that the pole pieces are magnetically neutral and are thus not loaded magnetically but serve merely as inductors."
Here is a photo of another Firebird sidewinder, practically identical to the dissected 82 Firebird pup from the beginning of this page.
Sidewinder pickup from a Thunderbird.
Here is the URL to a second sidewinder patent applied for by Bill in January 1975, most likely for the Gibson Ripper.
It looks very similar to the EB-0 sidewinder (which was designed by Seth Lover) and apparently the Ripper was a smaller version of the sidewinder.
Bill passed away in Nov. 2013. RIP.
On the topic of pickup designers, does anybody know who invented the original firebird pickup?
MEDALLION ERA PICKUPS
Now, just for fun I thought I'd share a few photos of Medallion pups.
Man, those covers with the logo look sweet.
Something I've wondered about is whether internally there is any difference between the Medallion pickups and the neck pickup from the Bicentennial birds. Looking at them from the outside there are some obvious differences. Most notably the engraved cover, but that isn't going to make it sound any different (at least not to normal people). The baseplates on the medallions are different too, most having the pat # sticker but some showing changes in the baseplate and even early versions of pat number engravings.
Another difference you can see from the photos of the Medallion pups that some use vintage style braid wiring but others have the grey hose style wire. And a lot of the Medallion pups for some reason have a strip of black tape across them, perhaps holding the internals to the baseplate. Some Bicentennials have that too, but most don't.
Another difference I noticed which hints that Medallion pups might not be the same as Bicentennial neck pups is that the wire comes out from the baseplate at a different place in Medallions vs Bicentennials. In the picture below is a set of Bicentennials and you can see it comes out in the lower right corner. There is even a notch in the baseplate cut out for the wire.
Now check out the Medallion pup. The wire comes out from the top right, above the small holes in the baseplate.
Interesting. Below is another pair of Medallion pups.
This one clearly has been tampered with, but is interesting nonetheless because it appears to be an early version of the patent number engraving where they spell out "patent" and split the phrase into two lines with the number beneath the "patent no." line. This is unlike the Bicentennial and all later pat# engraved pups. Also, the base plate has no holes.
This one the wiring was spliced for some reason, probably not by Gibson by the looks of it. You can see it is grounded to the baseplate as well, and to top it off the wire is coming out from the top LEFT side! Not quite sure what to think about this one. Definitely gotta wonder what is inside some of these...curious too about the other pickup in the set, whether it had the same anomalies.
Here is an interesting one, it appears to be a cross between a bicentennial neck and a medallion pup. Like the medallions it has the grey hose wire coming out the top right and the stripe of black tape which so many of those had, but the cover does not have the embossed logo!
Another difference I noticed between the medallion and the bicentennial pickups is that the bicentennials do not have the threaded "feet" for the mounting screws, instead they have a threaded clip which slips over the unthreaded feet. This one (although you can't tell from the photo) has unthreaded feet and is just missing the clips. A medallion pup in bicentennial casing? From what we've seen so far it wouldn't suprise me in the least.
Here is the underside of a 65 pup.
One beauty of a beast.
How many times have you heard people talk about how all the magic of Firebirds is in the neck pickup and that the bridge is shrill, brittle, unuseable etc. and then in the same sentence those same people will all tell you how bad they want a Firebird I. And then when a Firebird I (which hardly ever come up for sale) comes up for sale the owner who has had it for years reveals that it has only been played for a total of 10 hrs or so. How can anybody own a guitar like that and not play it? And it is always in pristine condition, with original hang tags and shit because the only thing they ever did even though they can barely fret a D chord was talk about how great it sounded and post photos of it on the internet in Firebird threads. Then they want an exorbitant price for it, which some other guy who even though he can't stand Firebird bridge pickups and who also can barely fret a D chord ends up buying it for more money than a kid like me who plays all the time makes in a years work.
Gibson really needs to start making those again, and not with those awful "slim taper" necks but with a nice chunky 50's profile and while they're at it why not put a normal FB pup in it rather than those ridiculous ceramic 25k jokes, and perhaps bring back those beautiful banjo tuners just because. Man, I love those things and it baffles me when people whine about neck dive because all they need to do is put the top strap button in the right place and get a real strap. And if Gibson could then do the right thing and sell them for normal Firebird prices so people like me could afford them. That would be a great great day.
I hope you've all found this thread informative, or at least fun. Obviously I'm not a winder or a gear head, just a player with a passion for Firebirds. My intention being just to share some of my findings and hopefully shed some light on the Bicentennial era bird pickups. 'Nuff said. Now quit readin' and go play your damn guitar, cause' thats what all this is really about.
By the way, if you like Firebirds and Marshall Plexis keep a look out in the not so distant future for new recordings of my buddy Daniel Shams of Heliotricity. Lately he's been recording extensively with my Firebirds through an unattenuated JTM 45-100 full stack on 10. No shit. Sometimes he splits the signal to run through a tall 1940s era Leslie which used to belong to a church organist of African American descent from Cincinatti. It sounds blistering. Blistering and unique, he does it his own way, I wouldn't even know what to call it. Maybe just Heliotricity. I'll see if I can coax some clips out of him. But watch out 'cause he sings too, because we both agree that lyrics (contrary to popular belief) are not just wasted time between solos. Jack Bruce showed us that. Play it loud and proud.
Wallace Blackie Gold
THINK YOU'VE HEARD GUITAR? FORGET FIREBIRDS, CHECK OUT - EL NIÑO MIGUEL
OR IF YOU'D RATHER PUSS OUT, CLICK HERE FOR - CLAPTON FIREBIRD PHOTOS
CLICK HERE (YEAH RIGHT) TO RETURN TO HOME PAGE - HELIOTRICITY