Gibson Flying V

The iconic guitars of Gibson’s Modernist Series of 1958 were so far ahead of their time that they didn’t achieve enough commercial success to remain in the catalog beyond 1960. But once the guitar world had caught up with their style, tone and undeniable swagger later that decade, they became the ultimate badges of rock credibility—and have remained in the Gibson lineup almost steadily ever since. Today, the Flying V and Explorer are hip members of the 2018 range, and remain as radical and rebellious as ever, despite having long been accepted as serious sonic warriors in their own right.

Before considering what these guitars can still do for us today, however, let’s step back in time to remind ourselves what incredible creations they were when they first hit the scene.

Gibson Flying V

Modern History

It’s 1958: The Cold War flares up, with nuclear testing from the USA, USSR, France and Great Britain; the USSR and USA compete in the space race by launching the Sputnik and Explorer satellites; Cuban revolutionaries capture Havana; 45 million US households have TV sets; the price of a postage stamp rises from 3¢ to 4¢; Ted Williams becomes the highest-paid baseball player of all time by signing with the Red Sox for $135,000; President Eisenhower approves statehood for Alaska; stereophonic recordings come into commercial use; Intel develops the first microchip; Elvis Presley joins the Army… and amid it all, a great confluence of blues, jazz, dance band and country & western music gives voice to the turmoil of the times in an adrenaline-fired, youth-inspired new music called rock and roll that is yet barely a toddler. Never before in history has a radical new age knocked so urgently on the door of an old world and its older ways.

Gibson Flying V

It is into this crucible that Gibson launched the Modernistic Series. One guitar, the Flying V, looks like something that could orbit the moon all on its own. The other, the Explorer, like a weapon wielded by warriors on Venus. Ultimately, they were just too much for their day, but were legends in the making even as they vanished from production. From the time of their birth in 1958 until their demise in 1960, fewer than 200 units of both guitars were ever manufactured by Gibson, and far fewer Explorers than Flying Vs. Yet they were out there… and these powerful designs would eventually find their foothold.

The Few Who Would Boldly Go

Given these guitars’ outlandish styling, it took some bold players to strap them on back in the day. One of the first players of note to actually acquire a Flying V new might have been Lonnie Mack, a fast-rising teenage blues and R&B star in Cincinnati who ordered one from his local music store after seeing a rough illustration of the model in a promotional catalog in late 1957, before the Modernist Series had officially hit the ground. “I think I paid pretty much the list price,” Mack told Sean McDevitt for Gibson.com in 2007. “It was either $340 or $360, with the case… It was a lot of money for a 17-year-old kid to come up with.” That Flying V—soon modified with a Bigsby vibrato mounted to a crossbar between the horns of the “V”—stayed with Mack throughout his career, and is heard powering his characteristically chunky, rhythmic playing on his hits “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Wham!”.

The powerful blues wailer Albert King was another early adopter, playing an original ’59 Flying V throughout his formative years, until, as legend has it, he lost it in a craps game in the late ’60s. Whatever its route from there, the guitar eventually resurfaced and is now in the possession of actor and vintage-guitar enthusiast Steven Seagal.

A more surprising appearance is found in the early use of a Flying V by Dave Davies, although when you consider the Kinks guitarist’s cutting edge tone of the early to mid ’60s—he’s credited with having recorded one of the first heavily distorted guitar sounds in the pop charts, for example, for the 1964 hit “You Really Got Me”—maybe this outré acquisition makes sense. Davies had habitually been playing a black Guild archtop-electric when, in late ’64 or early ’65, the airline lost the guitar (the only one he traveled with) on the way to the start of The Kinks’ U.S. tour.

The young Brit rushed to an L.A. guitar store and, as he told this writer some years ago, was about to leave discouraged after not seeing anything he liked. “Then I saw this odd, dusty case under the counter, and said, ‘What’s in there?’ The salesman said, ‘Oh, that’s some strange old guitar…’” and revealed an original Flying V in “N.O.S.” condition. A quick test strum, and $60 later Davies walked out the door with the most radical looking guitar the British pop world had yet seen. Davies's Flying V was sold to a private collector more than 20 years ago.

Gibson Explorer

So few 1958-’60 Explorers were ever made that sightings of these are rarer still. The most notable, however, is likely the ’58 acquired by Eric Clapton during a U.S. tour in 1974 or ’75, which he then used for several tracks on the album E.C. Was Here. Also seen draped around Clapton in a prominent MusicMan amplifier catalog of the mid ’70s, this guitar apparently had been modified by a previous owner, who cut off a portion of the Explorer’s angular upper-rear bout.

Gibson Flying V

Tone Machines for 2018

As part of Gibson U.S.A.’s lineup for 2018, these hallowed descendants of the Modernist Series still present all the style and tone needed for serious rock, but are equipped to be surprisingly sultry performers when you need to tap mellower moods, whether that be sultry blues or a purring pop ballad.

With its pinched waist and pointy “star man” body angles, the Explorer 2018 totally nails the look of the original, which is reinforced by the rest of its features—from the “droopy” six-in-line headstock, to the unbound fingerboard with simple dot inlays. A pair of Burstbucker pickups (a BB2 in the neck position and hotter BB3 in the bridge) deliver the sultry, PAF-inspired tone that easily runs from warm and singing to scorching and wailing, making this a much more versatile guitar than appearances might first convey.

The Flying V 2018 takes the form of the rendition that was reissued in the mid ’60s, once the style had caught on again, with a triangular trio of knobs, a re-styled pickguard, and the unusual through-strung “V” tailpiece plate replaced by a more practical pairing of Tune-o-matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece. Likewise equipped with Burstbucker 2 and 3 pickups and a Slim Taper neck for superbly fast soloing, it will take you from Albert King-approved blues tones to all-out rock assault.