Back in 1957, Gibson’s then-President and chief designer, Ted McCarty, undoubtedly had an eye on the ‘50s tailfins of cars by Cadillac and Chrysler when he designed the V, part of Gibson’s 1958-launched Modernistic line alongside the Explorer and super-rare Moderne.
The Flying V has a rich history in music of all genres. You’ll be needing this Flying V 101 to impress your buddies.
1. Ted McCarty’s earliest 1957 prototypes were made of mahogany, and had the ‘V’ sides but a rounded Les Paul-like rear bout. These were simply too heavy, so the cut-out bottom was added to the design and the wood changed to Korina (aka Limba). “One of the design team guys said, ‘that looks like a flying ‘v’,’” recalled McCarty, “and the name just stuck.” Pickup designer Seth Lover once claimed the cut-out was actually his idea and was done so the guitar could be stood-up vertically against a wall with ease.
2. Gibson’s Flying V was first shown in the 1958 Gibson catalogue where it was listed at $247.50, the same price as a Les Paul Standard.
3. On its 1958 commercial debut, Lonnie Mack started using a Flying V immediately. Some claim his famed Bigsby-equipped V was the only such-appointed V to leave the Gibson factory. Not true. Mack had the Bigsby retro-fitted by Cincinnati’s Glenn Hughes Music store. Mack called his V “Seven,” as it was the seventh off the production line.
4. When Gibson's Custom Shop examined "Seven" to create the signature Lonnie Mack Flying V, its humbuckers were found to have extra windings, which added to “Seven”s fat tone.
5. Mack’s Bigsby-equipped V shaped guitar lingua franca. Due to Mack’s extensive usage of his Bigbsy-loaded V on his 1963 album Wham, bridge vibrato systems gradually became knows as whammy bars.
6. Blues legend Albert King was another early adopter. His first V was a Korina ’59 and some King historians claim it was his first electric guitar. In his early career, King was a drummer. King called all of his Vs “Lucy.” His upside-down, left-handed style was unique, using a minor tuning of C?-G?-B-E-G?-C? (but hardly ever using the sixth string). ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons also gave King a custom-made replica V as a 65th birthday present.
7. The craziest fact about King’s original Vs and V copies is that three are now owned by Steven Seagal. The action-movie actor is a major guitar collector and player.
Seagal told Vintage Guitar, “There’s a rumor that Albert lost [his original V] in a craps game in the late ’60s. Whether at the game itself or as a debt he paid later, this guitar went for $2,500. The person who bought it was supposed to hang on to it – he promised never to sell it. So it disappeared for more than 20 years, hidden in Memphis. But I knew who had it, and found him. I’ve kept it quiet for many years; not many have seen it,” said Seagal.
“I think it is the most important blues guitar in the world, period, and it’s the best-sounding V around – a voice from another planet. It has the most amazing tone and it has all of Albert’s energy in it. It’s one of my greatest treasures. I have Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Firebird with the personally-carved names of Stevie, Albert King, and Muddy Waters, but this one is much more important.” Hey “Casey Ryback”, you’re a lucky guy!
8. An original 1959 Korina Flying V like King’s is one of the most valuable production-model guitars ever, ranked at #4 on the 2011 Top 25 published by Vintage Guitar. If you can even find one, be prepared to pay $200,000 to $250,000. (A ’58 Gibson Explorer and ’58 Gibson Les Paul Standard are at #3 and #2 on Vintage Guitar’s list.)
9. Part of the early Vs value is due to sheer rarity. Gibson built just 81 in 1958, and only 17 in 1959.
10. But early Flying Vs were not always so coveted: The Kinks’ Dave Davies got his V for peanuts. “In those days, I used to only carry one guitar around and I had to get a replacement quick. I went into a store and they didn't have anything I liked. I saw this dusty old guitar case and I said 'What have you got in there?' He said 'Oh, that's just some silly old guitar.' He got it out and I bought it for about $60.” Deal!
11. The Scorpions’ Rudolph Schenker is Flying V crazy. He owns over 60 Gibson Vs, including three 1958s, three '67-'69s, two '71 Medallions, three '83 reissues of the '58, four ‘80s models, as well as a few of his own '84 Rudolf Schenker Signatures, a custom double-neck Custom double-neck V and more.
12. Rudolph would have one more, were it not for his younger brother Michael who permanently “borrowed” one of his ’71 Flying V Medallions when he started playing. Michael’s later 1975 Flying V (refinished in black and white) became one of the most iconic guitars of ‘70s and ‘80s heavy metal in UFO and The Michael Schenker Group.
13. Schenker was the inspiration for Metallica’s early twin-V sound. Though James Hetfield’s white “V” was not a Gibson, but a cheap copy. "I got it in 1980, " Hetfield told Guitar World. "It was the second guitar I ever owned, and I probably bought it for $200. I knew it was a copy, but we treated it as a real Gibson. I wanted a white one because of Michael Schenker.”
Kirk Hammett explained: "I bought my black V in 1979, and it's either a '74 or '75. It was my first Gibson, and it was $450. I raised the money for it washing dishes. I played it in Exodus, and then I went on to play it on the first four Metallica albums and the accompanying tours. It was the first guitar I ever put EMG pickups in. I don't take it out on the road anymore... it's really fragile now because of the weather and traveling. It's just been overplayed, basically. and it's been thrown around quite a bit. I remember one time I got really mad during the Kill ‘Em All tour - of course, I was a little inebriated - and I took off the guitar and threw it at the amp. Another time I threw it at my tech because something wasn't working right, and he didn't catch it. Surprisingly, I never snapped the neck."
14. Maybe that’s because Gibson introduced a vollute to strengthen the headstock/neck joint in 1970. The feature first appeared on that year’s Medallion V. Flying Vs are strong, but they are best not thrown across a stage, people!
15. All Flying V's have two humbuckers, with the exception of the VII (two “boomerang” single-coils) and the V90Double (one ‘bucker, one single coil).
16. The VII was an interesting twist. Introduced by Gibson in mid-1979, its sculpted body and neck were crafted from quality five-ply walnut and maple: either w/m/w/m/w (’79-‘80) or m/w/m/w/m (from mid-1980). It had “bling” too, with gold hardware, an ebony fingerboard and a mother-of-pearl inlaid logo. It remains a collectors’ item, despite it not being widely popular at the time.
17. Jimi Hendrix owned at least three Gibson Flying Vs. Two were right-handed – a 1969 tobacco sunburst and a 1967, originally black, that Jimi himself painted to become his so-called “Psychedelic V.” The third was a left-hander, built for Jimi by Gibson in 1969 and first used live in 1970.
Jimi’s “Psychedelic V” remains iconic, but it has had a bizarre journey. In January 1969, Jimi gifted the V to Mick Cox of Eire Apparent, an Irish band who toured with Hendrix. Cox decided to strip the guitar of Jimi’s nail-varnish paintings (doh!) and later sold it to Ken Hensley of U.K. rockers Uriah Heep. It ended up with U.K. session musician Dave Brewis, who restored it to its old glory in 1999. This guitar, along side pictures of Jimi’s “original”, was used by the Gibson Custom Shop to make a run of just 300, the artwork done by artist Bruce Kunkel.
18. In 1981, Gibson introduced a Flying V bass, making just 375. So they are very rare, but this television appearance by U.K. post-punkers Killing Joke appears to see bassist Paul Raven playing a genuine Gibson Flying V bass.
19. At 44” from headstock to end bouts, the Flying V is one of the longest production guitars ever made. Not as long, though, as this V-alike made by Ralph Ciociano from New York store Guitar Shack. Now, that’s a big guitar.
20. In 2007 Gibson created a limited-run Reverse Flying V, with the tips of the wings facing forward and a backwards V headstock, but other aspects of the design –body contours, vintage style pickups - remained faithful to the ’57-designed original. Just 300 were made.