Get Your Wings
A failure at the time of its introduction in 1958, Gibson’s Flying V has become one of the most iconic and recognizable guitars of the rock and roll era.
By Chris Gill
Fender didn’t design the innovative-looking Gibson Flying V solidbody electric guitar, but the company deserves credit for inspiring its creation. In the mid Fifties, Fender introduced the Stratocaster, whose then-futuristic design made Gibson’s guitars look rather staid. Consequently, Gibson’s sales began to suffer.
In 1957, Gibson president Ted McCarty decided that Gibson needed to restore its image as an innovator and industry leader. In typical McCarty “take no prisoners” fashion, he made a series of bold moves that resulted in the development of several of the most desirable and valuable electric guitar models of all time, including the sunburst Les Paul Standard, ES-335, Explorer, and Flying V, all of which made their debut in 1958.
The Flying V was one of several “modernistic” models that Gibson developed during that period. Sometime in 1956, McCarty hired artists outside of the company to come up with guitar designs with futuristic appeal. “I told them what I wanted and asked them to make me some sketches,” McCarty told Andre Duchossoir. “We chose the ones we liked, and then we called in [guitar foreman] Larry Allers and John Huis and asked if they could make them. You can design anything on paper, but building and producing it is a different matter.”
Only a handful of the submitted designs made it to the prototype stage. Allegedly, mockups were built and three final models were chosen from those contenders. Gibson filed patent applications for those three guitar body designs in June 1957, with the patents eventually being granted in January 1958. This was an unusual strategy, as previously Gibson had filed patents only for engineering inventions and not cosmetic designs. Although model names were not submitted with the patent applications, the guitars became unofficially known as the Futura, Moderne, and Flying V. Of these three submitted designs, only the Flying V’s shape remained unaltered through the production stage. The Futura’s body and headstock were modified to that of the Explorer, and the Moderne never went into production.
Early prototypes of the Flying V and Futura/Explorer that were built for trade shows had mahogany bodies, but before the models went into production Gibson switched to African limba wood, better known as korina. In addition to being lighter than mahogany, korina’s pale-blond color was more in step with the prevalent aesthetic of the late Fifties. “No one else had a korina guitar,” Gibson wood expert Wilbur Marker told Duchossoir. “That was the novelty of the thing. It was very pretty. In essence, that is the reason why we went with korina.”
Photo: Steve Catlin/Redferns/Getty Images