Soul Sacrifice – 1991 Gibson Firebird Electric Guitar

Since I’ve been running this site, the most common theme I see is how we connect guitars to memories of our past, and our families.  How many of you have a connection between your mom or dad, and your guitar?  I’d wager there are plenty of you, and this is a story of one of the nicest guys I’ve met through this site (and I’ve met a lot!!).

When I was a young teenager I thought the Gibson Firebird was just one of the coolest guitars I’d ever seen!  Of course, my tastes never equalled my budget, so I had to travel down the path of weirdo pawn shop guitars.  I don’t regret being forced to play cheap instruments, because it taught me humility and guitar set-up work!  But I do have a soft spot in my heart for Gibson guitars.  I love the scale length, the fat necks, and the classic designs.  I will say that I never played one of my Gibson guitars at a gig or show, and I have to admit that I would still be somewhat embarrassed to play a Gibson at a show.  In my mind, they’re somewhat bourgeois, a rich kid’s toy.  So my GIbson admiration is stifled in public, and my Gibson guitars are played only in my little basement studio.  But the Firebird was like this somewhat ugly cousin to the Les Paul.  It’s beauty was only understood by a few, and maybe that’s why I liked it so much.

So getting back to the Firebird, I had always wanted one, and when I finally started to get some cash saved up, just happened to be at the same time when Gibson was producing the best guitars they had in 40 years.  The period from the late 80s to the late 90s was like the second “Golden Age” for Gibson.  The Norlin corporation no longer owned Gibson, and in a effort to establish themselves as a top tier manufacturer, Gibson started the Historic series and made some darn good guitars, even from the regular line.  I was friends with a Gibson employee for a while (a custom shop luthier), and he praised this era all the time.  Some Gibson nuts are going to read this and maybe refute it, but it’s true.  And so it went that I bought this Firebird in the late 90s, but this one was born in 1991.

One thing I immediately didn’t like were the ceramic mini-humbuckers.  Remember that circa 1991, hair bands were still en vogue, and high gain overdrive was THE sound.  I replaced the pups straight away with good vintage Alnicos and this bird quickly became my favorite guitar.  So fast forward 20 years and I’m starting this website and realizing that I  don’t really play the bird that much.  You see, I have an issue with “like new” guitars.  I’m almost afraid of damaging them by playing them!  Hell, I’d never even held a baby until I had my own kids!  So after a lot of soul searching I figured I’d sell the Firebird and hope someone out there would want it as much as I wanted it all those years earlier.  But I was soon to find out that there was a fella out there, who wanted this Firebird more than I could ever imagine.

Here’s a pic of a great guy named Bob Spadafora, back in the day, with his vintage Firebird III.  You see, Bob had a connection with this guitar, even with all it’s quirks, this was HIS guitar.  Back in 1965 Bob was a youngster being mesmerized by the Beatles, and his mom soon bought him a Kent guitar and signed him up for lessons at Speno’s Music Store in New York state.  After about three weeks of taking lessons and realizing that playing the guitar was addictive, Bob spotted a beautiful Gibson Firebird III on the wall of the store.  The price was around $400.  As they say, one look was all it took, and soon Bob was walking to the store daily to stare and lust!  But like most of us, money was nonexistent, and lust was as close as he would get to the Firebird until one day, it was gone!

So Bob sulked into his guitar teacher’s space and there was the Firebird!!  His instructor had just purchased it, but inexplicably offered to sell it to Bob since the instructor needed some fast cash for a Gretsch White Falcon that had just come up for sale the same week.  I’ll let Bob take over from here:

I went home and begged my parents and dad said, “bring the guitar here so I can see it and hear it.”  We lived in a small town so that was easy!    My teacher came over to our house and played Girl From Ipanema,  Pipe Line (my Dad’s favorite song), and I think Our Day Will Come.  All jazz style.  My dad asked me if I would be able to play like that and my answer was…sure (big fib)!!! Dad put more cash on the kitchen table than I had ever seen in one pile and the guitar was mine!
Bob loved and played and gigged with that Firebird just about every day for the next 20 years.  In the mid 80s, Bob’s band was playing three to four times a week with double gigs on Saturdays doing mostly parties and weddings.  The only problem was if he broke a string in the middle of a song, he lost all pitch (thanks to the tremolo system on the Firebird III).  Since he was doing well with the band, and since losing momentum during a show while stopping to change strings wasn’t a good option for a working band, Bob went out and bought a Charvel with the new fangled locking nut and Floyd Rose system.  Using the Charvel, at least if a string broke he could limp along to a break.  And the Firebird was soon under his bed gathering dust.
Now Bob was married with kids at this time, and one day in early 1990 his wife came to him with the news that their daughter needed braces.  Here’s how Bob put it to me:
Not having dental insurance made this costly but I understood the problem.  I knew I had a valuable guitar because players would literally come up to me in the middle of a gig and offer all kinds of incentives to sell it.  I resisted but now…I needed cash.  So I put a for-sale ad in the newspaper and within a week I had a fellow who was interested.   I asked for what I thought was a lot of money   $1,500.   The guy did not even blink.   The guitar was out the door, and my heart was broken as I saw him walk to his car.  I almost called him back.  But I didn’t, and my daughter had new braces.   I had a similar story for a 1971 Gibson Les Paul I owned except as newlyweds in 1973 we needed a washing machine and dryer.
Is this a familiar story?  Is anyone relating to this tale in a big way?  For myself, I seriously would’ve gotten in a fist fight for one of my guitars, but now that I have a wife and kids, I would sell any guitar in a New York minute if we needed the money.  You dads out there will probably understand, and it’s one of the most enlightening aspects of parenthood.  Suddenly, there’s someone else more important than YOU!!!  That realization blew me away after our first child!
So in 2011 here was Bob in my home, telling me his story and taking my beloved Firebird back home to New York.  He kept asking me if it was OK, as if we were reliving the moment when his Firebird walked out the door.  See, that guitar just wasn’t a cool instrument, it was a gift from a father to a son.  For some of us, our dads were harder than granite, and the closest we ever got to them was a gift of a guitar.  I’ve gotten so many touching emails from Bob about how he loves my old Firebird, and how he takes care of it.  I recently asked him, jokingly, if he snapped the neck off yet!  But he answered very seriously how he takes good care of the guitar.  It’s nice to see something appreciated.
And lastly, here’s a video we did of the Firebird before I put it up for sale.  For some odd reason, once I write about a guitar, and take pictures of it, and demo it, I can let it go without any problem.  I still have my favorites, but I think it’s healthy to let things go in life, especially if they move on to symbolize something larger than braces and washing machines.  Of course, the man Mike Dugan is tearing it up in the video.

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