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The Flying V was born on a field of battle that still rages: Gibson verses Fender. In 1957 Gibson’s then-president Ted McCarty wanted some new six-strings to tussle with Leo Fender’s popular Stratocasters. Sure, the Les Paul was already making history, but McCarty wanted more contemporary reinforcements with some eye-candy appeal. After all, the Les Paul had debuted in 1952 during the height of the Korean War. It was a new era.
So Gibson’s design gurus came up with patents for both the Flying V and the Explorer. They were modern looking instruments during a period when Americans were enjoying peace and prosperity, and more leisure time than ever before. And they smacked of the day’s yen for progress. Scientists had elaborated on technology from World War II and Korea to make great leaps in rocketry. Satellites began to circle the Earth. Science fiction novels and movies were the rage.
The aerodynamic charms of both models, but especially the “swept back, forward looking”—as Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons has put it—Flying V made it seem like personal jet packs were just around the corner.
The prototype Flying Vs were mahogany and deemed a bit too heavy and a bit too costly to compete with the Strat. So the first models to leave Gibson’s original factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, during 1958 were made of the lighter and more readily available korina wood. Their sales didn’t break the sound barrier. According to Larry Meiners’ thoroughly enjoyable Flying “V”: The Illustrated History of This Modernistic Guitar, less than 100 were ordered by dealers in ’58 and ’59.
It would take another decade-and-a-half before the Flying V would have the last amplified laugh, but early sales were so slack that in 1960 the model was struck from Gibson’s catalog. Dave Davies of the Kinks tells a story about buying an original-production V from a Los Angeles guitar shop in 1964 at the fire-sale price of $60. The V’s suggested retail at the time was $247.50. Today a ’58 or ’59 V fetches between $120,000 and $145,000.
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