Let’s face it: carrying gear on the road is a pain. Anything that minimizes the load of guitars, effects and amps that needs to be piled in the van by Joe Roaddog and his bandmates before he hits the highway for Hackensack is a positive. And for the working road warrior, that’s Job One for the Firebird X.
It’s great to rave about the revolutionary guitar’s on-board effects, its fast neck, the lightweight body, its electro-acoustic properties and lightning speed microprocessor technology. But what really counts for a working musician is practicality. What the Firebird X offers in all those functions is an all-in-one replacement for multiple guitars and effects pedals that also makes switching between amps — for players who carry expanded rigs — needless. That, plus bold tones with a lot of output and punch.
For studio players, those same virtues apply. No need for banks of rack-mounted chorus, delay, distortion, reverb and emulation when those qualities are built right into the Firebird X’s easy to access controls. And with the X’s ability to generate classic sounds on its own, plus the ability to go acoustic at the flip of a toggle, it’s possible to do sessions that require great sonic versatility, like a film score, with just one guitar.And the Firebird X is ready to plug into any board or computer D.I. and rock out without any of the weird buzzing characteristics that can sometimes occur with direct injected vintage instruments while producing accurate vintage tones — which makes it the ideal six-string for the ProTools universe.
But the studio world isn’t where most working players live. Vans, cars and cheap hotels are their typical environment — along with the dimly lit clubs where they keep the heart of soul of real music alive. And that’s where the Firebird X is an ace in the deck.
There are several reasons guitar players carry multiple instruments on the road. The first is entirely practical. A second guitar is a lifesaver if a six-string fails at a gig or breaks on the way to a show. If you’ve ever opened up a guitar case while setting up on stage and seen a cracked-off headstock or a bridge suddenly lifted off a body — or plugged in during sound check only to hear nada, you know the importance of a back-up. Plus, if you break a string on one guitar, you might want another so there’s no slack time on stage.
But then we get into aesthetics. And that’s where the Firebird X is an MVP. If a string-whipper plays music that calls for acoustic and electric sounds, that requires at least two guitars or, at minimum, a stomp box with radical EQ properties. If one plays in multiple tunings, two or three or even more guitars might be required to keep sets flowing. And there are the properties of single-coil verses humbucking pickups to consider.
That’s where the Firebird X really gets to work.
With the flick of one of its Gibson engineered “tog-pots” — toggle switches that also double as rotary controls — the Firebird X leaps from electric to acoustic mode. Inside its bank of acoustic sounds lies the ability to reproduce the voices of a number of instruments, from the sonic standard of the Gibson J-45 to the bright colors of a resonator guitar. Use another toggle and a body-mounted fader to dial in just the right amount of built-in modulation effect to create shimmering chorus, for example, and Firebird X’s palette expands further. Face it, there’s no other instrument that will let you play Metallica’s “Battery” or “Stairway To Heaven” without switching guitars, or to reproduce your own arrangements that blend acoustic and electric six-string on stage with such accuracy.
There’s more to the Firebird X’s winning acoustic sounds than electronics, by the way. The guitar’s highly resonant swamp ash body is built with chambers to enhance acoustic vibration and sustain.
When it comes to tunings, the Firebird X can go from standard to dropped D or a myriad of other preset and programmable combinations in under 10 seconds thanks to its Robo-Tuning technology. The Firebird X features the fourth generation of Gibson’s automated tuning technology, so it boasts lighter weight tuners and mechanisms that help keep the X at around six pounds total weight (about two thirds the nine pounds of the typical Gibson Les Paul Standard).
Besides replacing multiple guitar cases in the van and backstage, the Firebox X is great for fly-to gigs. There’s never enough room to stuff more than one guitar into an overhead compartment, so features like onboard effects and robot tuning make it the ideal take-along instrument. And if you’re not lucky enough to be able to carry the Firebird X on board, no worries. It comes in an innovative lightweight road case that can withstand airline-level punishment – or even a drop from a sixth-story window.
The pickups of the Firebird X are another trick card. Gibson’s engineers estimate that some 2000 pickup combination and blended tones are available thanks to the guitar’s innovative circuitry. Three mini-humbucker pickups are standard in the X, but here’s the good news: either coil in each pickup can be switched off; their polarity can be switched for that classic Peter Green/Mark Knopfler out-of-phase sound; and they can run in single-coil mode in series or parallel, or blended as single-coils and humbuckers. With on-board distortion and modulation, the sonic possibilities are only limited by a player’s imagination — not the size of the band’s van.
Now, let’s talk about the effects and the onboard EQ, which have the power and sonic characteristics to make most pedal boards and the need to carry multiple amps obsolete. The EQ, controlled via the tone pot, is similar in function to the classic Vari-Tone switches employed in vintage ES-345s and ES-355s, and today’s B.B. King Lucille model. It scoops the frequency range up or down by rolling into six positions in the middle ground of the tone pot’s range. And the pot, by the way, also functions in the conventional manner — back to roll off highs, full front to crank ‘em up.
For players who carry a pedal board, the modern Vari-Tone technology is a bonus. They’re far more concerned with distortion and gain, modulation, delay and, for modernists, looping.
The Firebrird X is on top of that entire game. The guitar’s wide options for distortion are based on software maker McDSP’s acclaimed Chrome Tone plug in, here goosed up by Gibson’s engineers to include reverb (including spring reverb), multiple modulations, delay (including an Edge favorite, dynamic delay), compression and a 10-second looper. With those effects built into the guitar, there’s no need for them on the floor.
They’re all easily controllable through the tog-pots on the guitar’s face and sliders built into the upper rim of the Firebird X. Players can slip between different effects and baseline distortion settings without the slightest interruption or change in signal, which can’t be said for all stomp boxes. What’s also killer about the Firebird X’s on-board arsenal is that the effects signal path is integrated within the path from the pickups, which means less noise than outboard effects, even with high-gain distortion and mucho compression.
If one needs the comfort of at least one pedal on stage, the Firebird X comes with two foot controllers that can be used to manipulate the parameters of its effects and more. But the ante’s upped there, too. They use Bluetooth technology, so don’t require cables.
Of course, what’s most important is the sheer playability of the instrument. The Firebird X plays as good as it feels. It has a super-cutaway giving access to all 23 frets and good balance so it hangs just right, with the guitar’s neck at a 45-degree angle. And the neck has a blend of classic and modernist virtues. At the nut it’s thin enough to make campfire chords a snap, and it super-flat fretboard broadens as its approaches the body, so it’s perfect for shredding above the 12th fret. Plus, the frets are fat and flat, begging for fast fingers and preserving intonation for even the most heavy-handed jammer.
One more thing worth mentioning: the piezo pickup in the bridge that governs the guitar’s acoustic sound. It’s a hex pick-up, with outputs for each string, which means entirely different sounds can be assigned to every string on the guitar. But only the most outrageous experimental players are likely to go that route. For most of us, the Firebird X’s array of giant tones and effects — all available in the microseconds it takes to flip a switch or move a fader — is much, much more than enough to make it the ultimate stage six-string.