By Ryan Gabrinetti, Burbank Shop Manager
Picture this if you will: the year is 1978 and you are sixteen years old with a summer job’s worth of savings in your pocket. You love heavy metal like your dope-smoking older brother but you’re also getting into the new sounds from that Devo record you heard a few weeks ago. You walk into the local music store looking for something to impress the chicks at school — what is catching your eye, a shiny new Les Paul, or the cluster of keys and knobs on a new synthesizer?
The Gibson RD (Research and Development) Series is a perfect case study in what happens when a trusted guitar maker goes out on a limb and tries something new. Wether you are selling guitars or athletic socks, brands and their teams of marketing experts are constantly searching for new ways to get into the mind of the consumer and find missing corners of the market. Gibson’s 1970s parent company Norlin, eager to make a little play on the emerging synth craze, devised a plan to marry the two, or at least blur the lines a little.
Do you have a Norlin-era Gibson guitar you’d like to sell? Contact us here!
Spearheaded by Gibson’s Product Development Director Bruce Bolen and launched in June 1977 at the Summer NAMM, the Gibson RD Standard featured the typical electronics layout on a dramatic new body shape, a softened Firebird silhouette of sorts with the typical Gibson headstock. More drastically, the upscale RD Artist and RD Custom models came equipped with new active electronics designed by none other than Dr. Robert Moog himself — one of his last creative efforts in-house before leaving the legendary namesake company he founded. The active preamp circuit provides compression, expansion and a wider range of tone shaping options than were typically available on consumer guitars at the time, and aimed to draw the attention of budding electronics wizards entering the late 70s music scene. Their long Fullerton-esque 25 1/2” scale was also unique for Gibson and was later changed to the more traditional 24” on later models. The advertising copy emphasized the “high power” concept of the active electronics and promised “a strong fundamental tone with harmonic overtones you have yet to hear.” Another ad slyly referenced the political malaise of the 1970s and confidently declared “There is no energy shortage.”
While the Gibson RD Series was a sincere effort, the gamble didn’t really pay off in its time. The all maple guitars are heavy (our ’77 RD Custom weighs in at nearly 11lbs) and battery life can be an issue for the onboard electronics, which are always on and cannot be turned off. It didn’t help that a new head by the name of Van Halen took hold of most guitarists’ imaginations and trained their brains to fingerboards and whammy bars over buttons and switches. In the face of crickets on the marketplace, Norlin believed the shape was keeping the consumer away and the offset body was discontinued in 1979. With a not insignificant amount of research, development, and cash sunk into these guitars — the Moog electronics remained in the Les Paul Artist model for some time but were quietly put out to pasture in 1981.
Though admittedly strange, the Gibson RD guitars and basses have a vibe all their own and are unique both in the brand’s product range and 70s guitar production at large. The maple construction, though heavy, produces a noticeably Fender-like spank particularly when paired with the active electronics, which will make the patent stamp humbuckers sound anywhere from small and insignificant to thick and wooly. Controversy aside, the RD can still be spied on stages, notably by the 2/3 of Nirvana that aren’t named Cobain — Mr. Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic have both been spotted using these rare birds. Perhaps they were a little ahead of their time, as offset shapes now head back into fashion and modern onboard electronics by companies like EMG and Music Man become ubiquitous. Just like every other innovation, there has to be a Tesla before there’s an Edison to rip them off.
(P.S. — It’s pronounced “Moog.”)
Do you have an old Gibson guitar you’d like to sell? Contact us here!