Gibson Flying V guitars

The history of the incomparable Gibson Flying V guitar

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Of the various iconic guitars in music history, the Gibson Flying V holds a special place in the hearts of guitarists and the lore of the electric guitar.

Since the first production electric guitar rolled out of its plant in 1936, Gibson has crafted some of the most iconic guitars in the world: from the rock standards of the Les Paul and SG to the blues classic of the Memphis. But there are other guitars in the Gibson catalog that stand out as more innovative than – or at least serve as the outliers to – these trendsetters.

1958 Flying V (© Eric Ernest)
1958 Flying V (© Eric Ernest)
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz
1958 Explorer
1958 Explorer
Gibson Moderne
Gibson Moderne

The Modernistic trio of the Flying V, the Moderne, and the Explorer were first designed in 1957 with the concept of bringing futuristic design elements to the Gibson electric guitar line. Borrowing ideas from other modern designs of the era, such as the fins on the late ’50s Cadillacs and Chryslers, Gibson’s chief designer and president, Ted McCarty, included angles and edges not typically associated with guitars when it came to the design of these new instruments and created some of the more exotic production guitars of his day.

The original V

According to Gibson.com, the prototype Flying Vs were made of mahogany, had the V’s sides with a rounded rear (like a Les Paul), and were just too heavy. So the wood was changed to Korina (or Limba), and the bottom was cut out to the “V” shape. One designer reportedly commented that the guitar looked “like a flying V,” and the guitar was christened.

The Flying V first appeared in the 1958 Gibson catalog, listing for $247.50 (same as a Les Paul Standard), and Blues-rock guitarist Lonnie Mack started using one immediately. Mack, who is of native American descent, was hooked on the arrow-like design of the guitar from renderings he saw before the guitar was even manufactured. His was the seventh guitar off the production line, which he had specially fitted with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece by Cincinnati’s Glenn Hughes Music store. As a side note, it is Mack’s use of the Bigsby on his album The Wham of That Memphis Man and the signature track “Wham” that gave the “whammy bar” its nickname.

Lonnie Mack with his Flying V
Lonnie Mack
Lonnie Mack Signature Flying V
Lonnie Mack Signature Flying V

Albert King with his Flying V
Albert King

Blues guitar legend Albert King was another early adopter, whose first V – and all subsequent Vs – was named “Lucy.” A left-handed player, King’s style of playing the guitar upside down and with a minor tuning was quite unique. Also unique about his story is that, through a series of events kicked off by King losing his guitars gambling, actor Steven Seagal, a collector of vintage guitars, now owns all three of King’s Flying Vs. The sheer rarity of the guitars – Gibson built 81 in 1957 and 17 in 1958 – has the original Korina Flying Vs ranked among the most valuable guitars on Earth, worth $200,000-250,000.

The next generation

1967 Flying V
1967 Flying V

Gibson stopped production on the Flying Vs after 1958, then reissued the guitar in 1967 with some notable changes. A new mahogany body featured a larger pick guard and a stopbar tailpiece, the original design had the strings inserted through the back of the guitar. The 1967 model is now the standard (and the one featured in Disc Makers “Axe To The Max Sweepstakes” – see below), though Gibson does reissue the original model periodically.

In 1978, the Flying V2 was released, designed to be a companion of the new E2 Explorer. While preserving the defining V shape, the V2 incorporated a new concept, featuring a 5-layered “sandwich” of alternating maple and walnut woods and a new sculpted body. Unlike the two humbucker pickups found in the earlier models, the original V2s featured two “boomerang” humbuckers, that were designed to sound like single-coil pickups. Other changes included moving the knobs off the pick guard, using gold tuners, and adding a brass “V” shaped tailpiece. 20 years after the original debuted for $250, the V2 retailed at $1,199 with a case.

Original Flying V2
Original Flying V2

Sales didn’t meet expectations, and subsequent V2 models featured a number of alterations, including a switch to the dirty finger humbuckers – the sound of the boomerangs was not what players were looking for from the guitar, and the additional cost of routing and the cut to the neck added to the expense of making the guitar, not to mention that the option of replacing the pickups was complicated by the V-shaped hole in the body. The new V2s also offered color finishes (pearl white, blue sparkle, candy apple red, sunburst, goldburst, silverburst, and black), as the originals were available only in natural finishes, with either the maple or walnut as the top layer. Once Gibson sold through the inventory, the V2 was discontinued in 1982.

V Bass

Gibson produced 375 four-string V basses in 1981 (in black, alpine white, silverburst, and transparent blue) and reissued them in 2011 – though they were discontinued in 2012.

Reverse Flying V

In 2007, in week 29 of Gibson’s “Guitar of the Week” promotion, a limited run of 400 Reverse Flying Vs were produced, with a Mahogany body and neck, rosewood fret board, and Classic pickups. The success of the release prompted Gibson to produce a second limited-run – 300 each of natural, classic white, and ebony black. A few changes were made to the re-issue, including an ebony fretboard and gold truss cover.

Flying V Bass
Flying V Bass
Reverse Flying V
Reverse Flying V

While Flying Vs were first adopted by blues players like Mack and King, Flying Vs were associated with a number of heavy metal’s notable guitarists, including Rudolph Schenker (Scorpions), Michael Schenker (UFO), KK Downing (Judas Priest), and many others. We’ll explore the wealth of players who picked up a Flying V in a later post. Have a favorite or a “bet you didn’t know he/she played a V” inclusion? Let us know in the comments. And check out this crazy huge Flying V!

Andre Calilhanna is a musician, writer, and marketer with 25+ years experience in the music industry. Andre manages and edits the Disc Makers and BookBaby blogs. Contact him at andre@discmakers.com.

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6 thoughts on “The history of the incomparable Gibson Flying V guitar

  1. interesting article. The very first Flying V I saw was played by one of my favorite guitarists of the day – a guy by the name of Ralph Cole. He was in a band called Lighthouse (not Edison Lighthouse, that was a different band). They were an extremely popular band in Canada in the late ’60’s. early 70’s and being from Toronto myself, I managed to see them several times. Lighthouse was primarily a horn band – similar to Blood Sweat and Tears, or Vehicle (remember them) or Chicago, but you could always count on Ralph to let rip with a screaming guitar solo with that Flying V. You can also hear Ralph’s chord chops at the beginning of one song I reckon was popular in the states too – One Fine Day. You might remember it…

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