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The Legend of the Gibson Moderne

Posted on November 21st, 2013 by Goldman Buyer

To collectors and aficionados in the vintage guitar realm, the Gibson Moderne is thee ultimate mystery: the Lochness Monster, Maltese Falcon,  Holy Grail, Flying Saucer, Martians and Sashquatch . It was designed along with the Flying V, Futura and Explorer as part of Gibson’s “Modernistic” series in 1957 (the era of Sputnik & the space craze),  to compete with Fender and show Gibson’s modern versus conservative image. The Flying V , Futura and Explorer made it into very limited production ( some had Split headstocks), but the Moderne seemingly never was  released or produced, until Gibson finally issued a limited run in 1982. , not a single Moderne has ever been verified as original by anyone, although there have been forgeries, copies, and many false sightings/ fish stories of “the one that got away”. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is purported to have one. So far the history of this guitar, in the over fifty-six year search for at least one original example, has only yielded myth, mystery, stories & rumors. Ibanez of Japan made a copy in the 1970’s .

Ted McCarty, Gibson’s president during their golden age of the late 1950s, commissioned three “modernistic” guitars in response to disparaging comments about Gibson’s old school image from Leo Fenders- Fender Guitar Co. in Fullerton California. McCarty realized Gibson’s solidbody guitar line Les Paul Standard & Les Paul Custom were great but he decided to show the industry that Gibson can produce & manufacture wild guitars inspired by futuristic, space-age angular concepts. After settling on three designs ( there are four U.S. Patent drawings for all four models) from the one hundred or so that were submitted, prototypes were made to be shown at the 1957 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Chicago. There’s speculation that only the Flying V, Explorer and a Futura with split headstock and no control knobs, made it to the show, and that the Moderne was scrapped. There is a black & white picture of a guitar-( Futura with no control knobs) at the NAMM show showing an executive holding it)many thought was a Moderne but was not.

Others say all four guitars were shown, and that while the Flying V , Explorer & prototype Futura achieved their goal of “game changer” at the show and getting into limited production no Moderns were ever proved even in a photgraph. The Futura was made in both Mahogany & Korina in very limited production issue and actually do exist; are in many publications and collectors own them, the Moderne was percievd as no commercial potential and all the prototypes may have been scrapped at the Gibson factory; one was supposedly sent out to Gibson’s case supplier for fitting. Ted McCarty went to his grave claiming that at least several Modernes were built, but he didn’t know what had happened to them. Some Gibson employees say none were produced even though there were U.S. Patent drawings for the Moderne. A few say the prototypes were destroyed. One employee of the old Kalamazoo factory said that Mr.McCarty had one on a rack in or near his office. A few others maintain that two Gibson employees took the parts and assembled three Modernes outside the factory, yet nobody seems to remember either of these men. Almost all the original employees in this mystery are deceased.

Whether you have ever seen the Moderne or not, it’s an extremely unique design that’s impossible to ignore. The left side of the body resembles a Flying V or a shark fin, with a smaller right side radius. It’s a radical shape even by todays standards, so imagine how it must have appeared in the conservative Eisenhower era fifty six years ago. The headstock was shaped like Gumbies head , with four string guides. Some may think the Moderne was ugly; others consider it a thing of modern Kandinsky-like beauty.

There have been to date only replicas , forgeries and fakes. Billy Gibbons will not allow any experts to inspect the one he plays and owns , many fakes from Asia & Italy have surfaced, since the Patent drawings were & are available many private luthiers have made their own versions of it based on the patent specifications and drawings.

Old photos show that Gibson made some prototype Flying Vs , Explorers & Futuras so they could display them at the ’57 NAMM show. The Moderne never made it into a single picture taken at the show. All the supposed sightings sound just like people who claim to have seen a flying saucer or the Lochness monster. The prototype Flying Vs, Futuras, and Explorers with the Futura headstocks have all shown up and are in the hands of collectors and players alike. If there were any real late 1950s Modernes, at least one would have surfaced by now either in a picture or physically. So the only “real” Moderne so far are the ones made by Gibson in 1982 leading one to believe a 1950s era Moderne does not exist.Other than  Korean-made Epiphone copies, Gibson has not manufactured the Moderne until recently and made a low priced variation Mahogany split headstock version, but the 1982 Korina Moderne is considered the only Moderne manufactured to Patent drawing specifications made by Gibson.

There supposedly is a photo of a Gibson factory worker with a Moderne on her work bench in the final stages of assembly, but never published. Gibson management at the time, said there were several made. An ex-Gibson employee, who refused to be identified, who claimed to have seen Modernes at the factory in 1963, but most likely was one of the old Explorer bodies that Gibson put nickel parts on and released in early 1963 ( still highly valuable and collectible). Other authorities have claimed to have played a left over Moderne at Gibson in Kalamazoo in 1963, but no pictures are available to substantiate these claims. The first picture below shows (left to right) a  Mahogany Futura, Korina Explorer,Korina Flying V, 1982 Korina Moderne (the only Modernes known to exist to this point)& Korina Futura   Original Flying V’s, Explorers & Futuras are some of the most sought after collectible guitars.

Gibson-Moderne
Mahogany Futura, Korina Explorer,Korina Flying V, Korina Moderne (the only Moderne guitars known to exist at this point), & , Korina Futura

Gibson-headstocks
Various head stock shapes for Explorer, Flying V, Moderne and Futura.

Gibson-Futura-prototype
Executives with the Futura prototype at the 1957 NAMM show in Chicago.

 

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