Gibson Custom Colors: Color Confusion part 2 (09/09/97),
Return to the Feature Index.
Part one covered Fender custom colors and their industry-wide
color confusion. This article will talk about Gibson custom colors,
lacquer application tricks, and what to use if automotive acrylic
lacquer is not available in your geographic area (during 1998,
it will be supposedly discontinued across the U.S.).
Firebirds: Gibson's Canvas for Color.
Starting in 1961, Gibson changed its Les Paul solidbody design from the
traditional single cutaway, arched top solidbody used from 1952 to 1960.
The new "SG" body was a hipper symmetric sharp double cutaway, scalloped
body style. In 1961, the first year of production of the SG body shape,
sales of the SG Standard were two and a half time greater than the single
cutaway Les Paul Standard sales of 1960. But by 1962, SG Standard sales
fell 15% from 1961. Gibson wasn't happy that their solidbody market share
was shrinking. They were now looking to take a piece of the pie from Fender
and its successful solidbodies such as the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, and
Telecaster. Gibson figured it should take another stab at a "modernistic"
solidbody guitar design. But at the same time, Gibson was also remembering
the 1958-1962 Flying V/Explorer korina series which sold less than 150 units
in total. They wanted a slick new design, but not an over-the-edge design
disaster like the korina project produced.
Gibson consulted with Detroit car designer (Duesenberg body designer, to be
exact) Ray Dietrich. His guitar design, strangely enough, was similar to a
mirror image of a long Fender Jazzmaster. The asymmetric body design has a
rounded treble cutaway that protruded more than the bass cutaway, and an
extended rear forearm area. The headstock was reversed of Fender's with the
low-E string being the longest string, and the high-E being the shortest.
Gibson then added its own design ideas such as a one piece neck-through body
design, using a laminated set of long mahogany boards going the entire
length of the guitar. The winged mahogany cutaways were then notched and
glued to this 4" wide center neck/body block. The wings were also slightly
thinner at 1 1/4" thick, compared to the body which was 1 1/2" thick. This
gave a unique tapered ledge body design. Mini-humbucking pickups (as used
on Epiphones of the same period) without adjustable poles were used and
mounted to the 4" wide center section. This made the body "wings" function
as visual balances and volume/tone control holders only. The 17 degree
pitched headstock also used a ledge design and unique banjo-style tuners
to complete the new look. This is known as the "reverse" Firebird design,
and was introduced in the spring of 1963, but did not ship till October.
The sound of the new reverse Firebird series was different than other
Gibson models. A neck- through mahogany body provided some fullness, but
the mini-humbuckers tended to have more treble and less bass and mids than
standard humbuckers. This gave a treble-rich sound with some bass and
middle, but not like a twangy Fender. Also, since the banjo-style tuners
were very large and heavy, reverse Firebirds are neck-heavy and prone to
headstock damage when accidentally dropped.
An original 1964 Firebird III in Gibson's
Golden Mist Poly finish. Note with a very
yellowed clear coat, the color looks amazing like
"Les Paul Gold" as used on 1952-1958 Les Paul
Goldtops. Note the back of the neck where the
serial number resides. Someone has sanded the yellowed
clear coat off in an attempt to better see the serial
number. This reveals the true tint of Golden Mist Poly
as being far less "gold". The yellowed clear coat really
adds to the gold color.
There were four reverse Firebird models available. These included the
Firebird I with one pickup and no neck binding (like a Les Paul Junior),
the Firebird III with two pickups and dot inlays and neck binding (like a
Les Paul Special), the Firebird V with two pickups and trapezoidal inlays
(like a Les Paul Standard), and the Firebird VII with three pickups, block
inlays and gold parts (like a Les Paul Custom). All models had a vibrato
tailpiece except the Firebird I, which had a wrap- around tailpiece. The
upper line Firebird V and VII used a tuneamatic bridge and a fancy vibrato
cover. The Firebird I and III used a "stairstep" tailpiece as the bridge,
and the III had a simple spring steel exposed vibrato. These reverse
models lasted until mid-1965.
Unfortunately, sales of the reverse Firebirds were not what Gibson had
hoped for. In 1964 Gibson sold 2,434 Firebirds compared to 7,419 SG's
(all models). Disappointing sales may have been due to the high 1963 retail
price of $189 to $445, without case. And the price increased 3% to 5% in
1964, which didn't help. So Gibson decided in the summer of 1965 to change
the design to cut the retail price. The idea was a less expensive Firebird
model would sell better. The changes included a conventional glue-in neck,
a flat (no ledge) body with the bass horn protruding longer than the treble
horn, a conventional flat (no ledge) Fender-style headstock design with the
high-E string being the longest, conventional style tuners, and all models
had dot fingerboard inlays and vibrato tailpieces. This is known as the
"non-reverse" Firebird design.
All the non-reverse Firebirds models were basically the same guitar with
only slightly different electronic configurations. All models were routed
for three pickups, but had a full wrap-around pickguard to hold the desired
pickup configuration and hide unused pickup routes. This kept the
manufacturing process simple and less expensive. Now the Firebird I had
two P-90 pickups, the Firebird III had three P-90 pickups, the Firebird V
had two mini-humbucking pickups, and the Firebird VII had three
mini-humbucking pickups and gold parts. The Firebird V and VII still used
a tuneamatic bridge and fancy vibrato cover, while the Firebird I and III
had stairstep tailpieces as the bridge and simple spring steel exposed
vibratos. This simplified non-reverse design lasted until 1969 when the
Firebird series was dropped.
1965 Firebird III, Cardinal Red
with P-90 pickups
During the summer of 1965, some transition Firebird models were sold.
These included a mix of reverse and non-reverse features. For example, a
full reverse Firebird with all reverse features except for a non-reverse
peghead with a ledge (the high-E is the longest string), and banjo tuners.
My personal favorite variation is a Firebird III full reverse neck-through
body with ledge, two P- 90 pickups, a reverse peghead but with no peghead
ledge, conventional tuners, and no neck binding. This style combines the
best of both worlds: full reverse mahogany body with neck- through design,
standard lighter weight tuners, and P-90 pickups. This gives the Firebird
a much fuller, fatter sound than the mini-humbuckers could provide. And
since standard Kluson tuners (a la Fender) were used, the body was more
balanced. You would think this variation would sound like a Les Paul
Special, because of the same mahogany wood and P-90 electronics. But
actually the P-90 reverse Firebird still has more treble and the same lows
and mids as the Les Paul Special.
The Firebird guitars were truly a unique design for Gibson, though they
did copy several of Fender's features. Besides the basic body shape of a
Jazzmaster, Gibson also contoured the back of the body like a Stratocaster
to fit the player (Fender threatened lawsuits based on their "Contour Body"
design patents, but never followed through). Lastly, Gibson also offered
the new Firebirds in Sunburst plus ten custom color finishes to compete
with Fender's fourteen original custom colors. This was unique for Gibson.
If you wanted a custom colored Gibson prior to 1963, you could choose from
sunburst, natural, white, black, Les Paul gold, or cherry red. There were
no other choices, until the 1963 Firebird series.
1967 SG Melody Maker, in Pelham Blue.
photo: Dave Boze.
Gibson Custom Colors.
With the advent of the Firebird, Gibson offered ten new custom colors and
a pretty chart that displayed them. Although developed for and seen most
often on the Firebird series from 1963 to 1969, basically all Gibson
guitars were available in these colors. Models that utilized the new colors
most often were the SG solidbody series and the ES-335, ES-345, and ES-355
series. But occasionally you'll see these colors on other models too.
All ten of Gibson's new custom colors were automobile finishes, just like
Fender's custom colors. And the colors Gibson choose where amazing similar
to Fender's color pallet. So close, all of Gibson's custom colors had a
basic Fender color equivalent in 1963. The Gibson colors were so close to
Fender's, one Gibson color was even exactly the same as one of the Fender
colors. If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Gibson was
certainly flattering Fender.
Note there was another custom Gibson color introduced in 1965 that
wasn't on their Firebird custom color charts. This color was
"Sparkling Burgundy", and was Gibson's equivalent to Fender's Candy Apple
Red. It was even applied in the same manner as Fender's CAR. That is,
it had a silver metallic basecoat beneath a translucent red
color coat. This gave a deeper metallic finish than the
one-step automotive metallics which combined the metallic particles with the
Strangely, the vintage guitar market does not value Gibsons in Sparkling
Burgundy as highly as Fenders in Candy Apple Red.
Sparkling Burgundy seems to be the only Gibson
color that is actually worth the same or less than Cherry Red.
This probably wouldn't apply to a Firebird, but on models where Cherry
Red is the norm (such as an ES-335, 345, or 355), this does
seem to be the case. This is probably because Gibson's Sparkling Burgundy
does not wear well (but either does Fender's CAR).
Gibson's Original Firebird Custom Colors
* these Fender colors are slightly darker than Gibson's equivalent color.
|Golden Mist Poly
|Silver Mist Poly
|Pelham Blue Poly
||Lake Placid Blue*
|Inverness Green Poly
** this Gibson color is the exact same color as the Fender's equivalent color.
*** Lacquer is no longer available, and unfortunately many of
the original Gibson automotive lacquer colors were not translated to the
new low VOC paint formulas. There are some alternatives though. For example with
Pelhem Blue, the color "Astra Blue Mica" as used on 1992 Iszuz
vehicles is an excellent match, Sherwin Williams
color code 718/B204 and Dupont ChromaBase H-9623K.
Ernie from the Gibson Custom Shop claims that after
extensive research by Gibson this is the equivalent to the
original Pelhem Blue.
Note Gibson used the term "poly" when referring to metallic finishes. The
term "poly" does not mean it's a polyurethane finish. It's just another
way of referring to a metallic finish. They probably did this to be unique
since Fender used the term "Metallic" when referring to finishes with metal
flakes. Or Gibson used Ditzler's convention (instead of DuPont's) of
calling metallic paints "poly".
It was fairly difficult to determine the exact origins of these Gibson
colors. Fender was very informative on their custom color chart: they
provided the paint manufacturer, the paint color name, the paint type, and
the paint code number. Gibson, on the other hand, provided nothing but
the paint color name and whether it was poly. So identifying the exact
Gibson color was a bit tricky. Compounding the problems was the auto
industry's general belief that more was better. So more colors were being
offered than in the 1950's, and many manufacturers used the same paint
My first step was to go through all of the different manufacturer's paint
color names and look at the paint chips. Many times different car companies
would have the same paint color name. But usually they weren't both
metallic or both non-metallic. This helped narrow the colors down
significantly since I knew which Gibson colors were metallic.
Next I bought the paint and sprayed samples. Since all of Gibson's custom
colors were from cars made after 1957, all of their finishes where acrylic
lacquer, not nitrocellulose (the difference between acrylic and
nitrocellulose lacquer was discussed in part one). Because of this, all
of the original Gibson custom colors from 1963 are still available
in lacquer today (but lacquer will soon be discontinued). Unfortunatly, all
but four of the colors are not available in the newer low VOC
DuPont ChromaBase or PPG DBU.
Lastly, I compared the samples to the Gibson custom color chart and actual
1963 to 1969 Firebirds. I also sent samples to some other collectors to
get their opinions. From this I was able to determine and confirm the
actual paint codes for the colors on the Gibson custom color chart.
Also be aware of the "standard" custom colors Gibson offered
through the 1950's and 1960's. The "standard" colors included black,
cherry red, and Les Paul gold. Firebirds were also available in these
colors too. Since these colors are pretty easy to spot, you should have
no problems confusing them with the ten "true" custom Gibson colors,
though Golden Mist poly with a very yellowed clear coat does look
much like "Les Paul Gold".
As with Fender colors, during 1998 Gibson acyrlic automotive
lacquer colors will be (supposedly) banned for sale in the United States.
In this case
you'll have to use a low VOC paint. For those colors where there is
no low VOC color available, you're kinda stuck. If you have lacquer
versions of the Gibson colors, now is the time to make a four by four inch
sample of each color. Then these can be scanned by your local paint store
and an equivalent low VOC paint formula devised. As I run out of lacquer,
I will have my Gibson sample colors scanned and custom low VOC paint formulas
created. I'll keep you posted when I have these formulas available.
Color by Color, blow by blow.
I will now discuss each Gibson color and their origins. When purchasing
these colors, I recommend buying the DuPont version. Although I'm not
100% positive Gibson used DuPont paint (like Fender did), according to
many sources they did. And all of the Gibson colors are still available
in lacquer from DuPont (at least until sometime in 1998).
Unfortunately, not all of the colors are still available
from PPG (Ditzler) in lacquer. And after 1998, only four of these
colors are available in low VOC paint formulas.
So to be consistent, I would recommend DuPont paint.
Remember, as discussed in part one, other manufacturer's colors are
approximately the same, but never exactly the same as OEM (Original
Equipment Manufacturer), which I believe to be DuPont.
Pelham Blue Poly
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 4038L
Original Car was 1960 Cadillac's only. No other aliases.
A lighter version of Fender's Lake Placid Blue. Tied
with Cardinal Red as the most popular custom Gibson color.
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2931L, Ppg DDL70961
Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2931K
Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Mandalay Red
(59,62 Pontiac), Seminole Red (59 Cadillac),
Tampico Red (59-61 Buick), Roman Red (59-62 Chevy), Chariot Red (62
Oldsmobile), Cardinal Red (62 Buick).
One of the most popular Gibson custom color. Similar to Fender's
Dakota Red. Interestingly, this color was used in 1959 by all GM lines.
But in 1960 all lines dropped the color except for Buick and Chevy, which
continued it till 1961. Then in 1962 the color was brought back to all GM
lines, but the name "Cardinal Red" switched to the Buick name plate.
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2721L
Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2721K
Original Car was 1958 Edsel. No other aliases.
Similar to Fender's Fiesta Red.
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2697L, Ppg DDL8160
Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2697K
Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other Aliases include Cameo Ivory
(59 Pontiac), Arctic White (59 Buick), Snowcrest
White (58-59 Chevy). This color was actually first available in 1958 in the
Chevy line as "Snowcrest White". The name "Polaris White" was not used until
1959 in the Oldsmobile line. Similar to Fender's Olympic White.
Golden Mist Poly
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2935L, Ppg DDL21722
Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2935K
Original Car was 1959-1960 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Shoreline Gold
(59-60 Pontiac), Pearl Fawn (59-60 Buick), Fawn (60 Cadillac).
The exact same color as Fender's Shoreline Gold, just Gibson
used the Oldsmobile name "Golden Mist" instead of the Pontiac name
Silver Mist Poly
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2934L
Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Silvermist Gray
(59 Pontiac), Silver Birch (59 Buick),
Silver Metallic (59 Cadillac), Grecian Gray (59 Chevy).
Similar to Fender's Inca Silver.
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 4304L, Ppg DDL71257
Original Car was 1962 Cadillac. No other aliases.
A lighter version of Fender's Burgundy Mist color.
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2937L, Ppg DDL12003
Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Castle Blue
(59 Pontiac), Wedgewood Blue (59 Buick).
Similar to Fender's Sonic Blue.
Inverness Green Poly
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2940L, Ppg DDL42480
Original Car was 1959-1960 Cadillac. Other aliases include Jademist
Green (59 Pontiac), Glacier Green (59 Buick), Emerald Mist (59 Olds).
A very light version of Fender's Sherwood Green.
Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 4148L, Ppg DDL42838
Original Car was 1961 Buick. Other aliases include Seafoam Green (61 Chevy),
Seacrest Green (61 Pontiac), Alpine Green (61 Olds).
Similar to Fender's Surf Green.
To Clear, or Not to Clear, that is the Question.
Unlike Fender, Gibson always used a clear nitrocellulose coat over their
custom colors. So you should too when doing a restoration. Because the
clear coat has always yellowed with age to some degree, some original
Gibson colors are difficult to identify. The white, silver, blues, and
greens will be effected the most by the yellowing clear coat. The golds
and reds will be real easy to identify regardless of the yellowing effect.
When trying to identify an original Gibson custom color, remember blue plus
yellow makes green. So often Pelham Blue can look like Inverness Green if
the clear coat has yellowed heavily. And Frost Blue can look like Kerry
Green with a yellowed clear coat.
Fender & Gibson Lacquer Applications Tips
When purchasing colors for refins, I recommend buying the DuPont version if
it is available. Fender used DuPont paint, so their colors would match
Fender's colors best. As mentioned above, other manufacture’s colors are
approximately the same, but never exactly the same as OEM (Original
How Far Does it Go?
When applying acrylic lacquer under a nitrocellulose clear coat, I
recommend doing three things. First, use acetone instead of lacquer
thinner. Lacquer thinner consists mostly of acetone and Methol Eythel
Ketone (or MEK, a lacquer retarder). The reason for using straight acetone
is you’ll get a faster dry time. Since acrylic and nitrocellulose lacquers
are different, a thinner that evaporates quickly and thoroughly will help
prevent any compatibility problems. To eliminate blushing (a problem if
lacquer drys too quickly), add two or three caps full of lacquer retarder
per half pint of reduced acrylic lacquer (the amount needed to paint one
Fender body). Using this method will give you better control of your
solvents, and ultimately, better results.
Second, wait overnight before spraying your nitrocellulose
clear coat over the acrylic color coat. Once again, this will help prevent
any compatibility problems. I have waited as few as 6 hours, but I wouldn't
suggest it. An overnight dry time (or longer) will minimize any compatibility
Third, for refinishing, use a "fish eye" eliminator in your reduced mixture.
This will prevent any compatibility problems if a silicone polish was ever
used on the body. Even if you stripped the old finish clean, silicone can
still be present. A "fish eye" eliminator will improve the paint flow-out
and increase gloss. Because flow-out is better, you can even use fish-eye
eliminator for new wood finishes too. I use the "Smoothie" brand by Marson
(Chelsea, MA and Toronto, ONT). Use a "shot" of smoothie per reduced pint
of lacquer. I also use Smoothie on the clear coats too. For that matter,
I use Smoothie even on new-wood finishes as the lacquer glosses better.
For low VOC paint application tips, see the Fender custom
Were you wondering how much acrylic lacquer or ChromaBase you need to
paint a Strat? Really, not much (remember, use as few coats as possible
to keep the film thickness down). A pint of acrylic lacquer or ChromaBase
should paint four Fender bodies, or three complete Gibsons.
You'll be reducing the acrylic lacquer by 150% with acetone and retarder,
and the ChromaBase by 100%. Two or three color coats is all you need,
just enough to cover. And if you use a white undercoat/primer, you can use
even fewer coats.
Note you'll get a little more out of a pint of DuPont's lacquer because it's
thicker than PPG's lacquer. Also, DuPont metallic lacquers hold the aluminum
particles in suspension better than PPG. With PPG metallic lacquer, all
the aluminum settles to the bottom of the can in a thick glob much quicker
than the DuPont version. So you'll
spend more time getting those particles back in suspension before you can
reduce and apply PPG's paint. With DuPont's metallics this is much less of
a problem. That's another reason why I like DuPont better than PPG.
As I run out of my stock pile of automotive acrylic lacquer, I will convert
all the remaining Gibson custom colors to DBU or ChromaBase formulas.
I will keep you posted on the
new formulas so you can still get the "original" Gibson custom
colors. This will certain help those that don't have samples of the
original lacquer colors.
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