In the pantheon of iconic acoustic guitars, the Gibson Hummingbird has to be one of the most instantly recognisable. Impossibly cool, the company's flagship square-shouldered dreadnought has been the acoustic guitar of choice for towering figures such as Keith Richards, John McLaughlin, Gram Parsons, Mark Bolan, Jimmy Page and Gillian Welch. It's famous tone can be heard on 'Exile On Main Street', 'Sweetheart Of The Radio', 'Forever Changes' and countless other timeless records, and it's ornate engraved pickguard is known to even the most casual of guitar fans. It's a true classic in every sense of the word.
The flattop Hummingbird was initially created to compete directly with the then-pricier Martin dreadnought guitars, the most desirable acoustic guitars available at the time. Martin's square-shouldered dreadnought body type debuted in 1916 and took its name from the estimable British battleship the HMS Dreadnought. By the 1950s, the shape had become popular with bluegrass and country musicians, thanks to the even tones and projection of its big-bodied design.
When the Gibson Hummingbird was unveiled in 1960, it was the company’s second most costly acoustic guitar, just behind the stately and extravagant J-200. The guitar got it's name from the legendary hand-etched pickguard designed by Hartford Snider, which featured a glorious 'hummingbirds in fight' motif. It featured a solid Sitka Spruce top with solid Mahogany back-and-sides, inspired by Martin's benchmark D-18. Gibson designed the Hummingbird specifically to accompany singers, to appeal to the new and exciting wave of singer-songwriters and folk-singers that were then popular. Their catalogue from 1962 announces:
"A fabulous new accoustical guitar - one of the finest made for voice accompaniment. The sound is big, and round, and full with the deep rumbly bass so prized by guitar players."
While the Hummingbird was designed to compete with Martin, Gibsons luthiers made some bold choices that give the guitar it's unique tone and aesthetics. A short scale length and slim neck profile made the guitar more welcoming to electric guitar players, and it's parallelogram inlays and gorgeous cherry-red sunburst finish made sure that it was easily visible from the audience. The early Hummingbird also sported an adjustable bridge for easy action adjustments, which was later changed to a more traditional steel-string fixed bridge.
The 1961 Gibson catalogue describes the Hummingbird in detail: “Fine grained spruce sound board in cherry-red sunburst finish with Honduras mahogany back and rims and beautiful hummingbird pickguard. New extra slim neck for fast, low action and more comfortable playing—one piece Honduras mahogany neck with adjustable truss rod. Bound rosewood fingerboard with large parallel pearloid inlays. Special adjustable rosewood bridge."
Gibson shipped only 595 Hummingbirds in 1961, and it doesn't appear that the new design took off as quickly as expected. The Hummingbird didn't really enter the mainstream until 1969 when Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page played his Hummingbird on such indelible tracks as “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Ramble On”, at around the same time Gram Parsons used his in the Fying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds.
Probably the most famous Hummingbird player of all time though, is Keith Richards. The guitar has been his acoustic guitar of choice since 1964, used on such famous Rolling Stones cuts as “Street Fighting Man,” “Not Fade Away,” “Brown Sugar,” “Angie,” “Wild Horses” and “Jumping Jack Flash.”
Since then, the Hummingbird has been seen with everyone from Radiohead's Thom Yorke to Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, as well as Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Tom Petty and countless rockers looking to showcase their gentler sides. It's also become an integral part of the alternative country world, with Ryan Adams, Wilco, Jason Isbell and FatherJohn Misty all using the Hummingbird at one time or another.
Gibson has built the Hummingbird continuously for over 60 years, and its modern incarnations are just as wonderful as they've ever been. Check out our range of new and used Gibson Hummingbirds here.
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