Hands-On Review: Gibson SG Reissue & Thunderbird Basses

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Two ’60s classics that are still rockin’

By Jerry "Birdman" McCaulley

Gibson has always been more guitar company than bass company. Their basses have mostly been offshoots of guitar designs. Nevertheless, all have been excellent instruments, well made and unique in character. Two of them are extra special—the SG Bass and the Thunderbird—two rock legends from the ’60s that have stood the test of time. I personally have a special fondness for both basses. The SG was my first proper bass, the instrument I learned on. The Thunderbird was my step-up bass and remains my favorite to this day.

The SG Reissue

The SG bass was introduced in the early ’60s as the EB (electric bass) Series. Rockers took to it immediately and when Jack Bruce played it with Cream it gained serious rock cred. Between ’59 and the mid-’60s the SGs went through a number of changes: short scale, long scale; one pickup, two pickups; three knobs, four knobs. There was even a model that came with a fuzz tone circuit and a six-string model. The consistent feature was the Gibson SG body shape.

The SG Reissue is the quintessential ’60s short-scale version, combining the best features from the early days: solid mahogany body, set mahogany neck, two pickups, and three controls. The Vintage models had a neck pickup that tended to be muddy. Gibson has solved this problem by redesigning the pickup, thus clearing its voice, and they added a newly designed bridge pickup as well. The Reissue also has the three-knob setup—a volume/volume/tone, instead of the four-knob guitar-type configuration. It’s simple and makes more sense for bass than four knobs.

I opened the case to find a bass that looked pretty much the same as the one I used to own, with the same Heritage Cherry finish. On close inspection, I found the craftsmanship to be flawless. It seemed better to me than I, at least, remembered the vintage model to be. After 40 some years of making the SG Bass, Gibson has perfected the process. One obvious improvement is the hardware. The bridge is heftier and more adjustable than on the vintage SG, and the Shamrock tuners are smoother and more precise.

Gibson SG Reissue Bass

Tons of Fun

The neck, as on the Gibson SG guitar, is thin and hand-friendly; and the short scale, once you get adjusted to it, plays fast. Of course, the SG body shape has icon appeal, but it is also compact and sculpted from solid, dense mahogany that resonates well. The SG shape works well for bass—it's balanced better than the Les Paul model; and the set neck enhances sustain.

Tonally, it’s an excellent bass for rock. You can dial up the bridge pickup for a grind sound, or use a little of it to add definition to a full, round tone. And with the highs trimmed back and the neck pickup dialed up, it has a buttery smooth sound that is very usable for many kinds of music. All in all, I’d say Gibson should keep reissuing the SG. It has major charms.

The Bird is the Word

The Thunderbird is not only among the most distinctive-looking basses ever made, it is also one of the best-playing basses ever. It was the bass I graduated to from the SG. I was a Gibson guy. I was hankering to move to a 34"-scale bass, and the Thunderbird IV had a look I liked. At the time, I didn’t even realize what an exceptional bass it was, but as I improved as a player, my appreciation for the Thunderbird grew.

The current Thunderbird IV is pretty much the same as the ’60s version—the same laminated, thru-body neck; mahogany wings; leaning-back body shape; and the hooked headstock that has sort of a Seattle Seahawks thing. It was a radical look in the ’60s and is still radical today. It’s a look that hard rockers and metal maniacs find fits their style, and it is a bass capable of pounding out the heaviest and loudest music.

Gibson Thunderbird Reissue Bass Guitars

Tons of Tone

For me, it isn’t its look that distinguishes the Thunderbird. What matters is its incredible tone and playing feel. It has amazing sustain and a clean, clear tone from the bottom of the fretboard to the top. These can be attributed mostly to its neck-thru construction, but it is really the whole package. The spacing of the two humbuckers, the combination of neck woods, the size of the mahogany wings, its balance—all of these features combine in a bass that can do it all.

From slap to funk, from heavy, grinding metal to the most articulate fusion, the Thunderbird is a bass that sounds fantastic no matter what the musical style. It is also an extremely comfortable instrument. It is perfectly balanced which makes it rest lighter on the shoulder. The two soapbar-style pickups give you comfortable thumb positions forward and back, and the neck is relatively narrow and fast fretting.

Oldies but Goodies

Both the SG Reissue and the Thunderbird are bass classics that deserve to be honored for their histories and their unique virtues. If you haven’t had a chance, you should look for the opportunity to give both of them a try. They’re great basses.

SG Reissue:

  • Made in the U.S.
  • Mahogany SG-style body

Gibson Thunderbird IV Electric Bass Guitars

  • Slim mahogany neck with rounded profile
  • Rosewood fretboard with pearloid dots
  • 30-1/2" scale length
  • 20 frets
  • Corian nut
  • Chrome hardware
  • Shamrock tuners
  • Vintage-style TB Plus Bass humbucker (neck); Bass Mini-humbucker (bridge)
  • Controls: 2 volume, 1 tone
  • Hardshell case

Thunderbird IV:

  • Made in the U.S.
  • 9-ply mahogany and walnut thru-body neck
  • Mahogany wings
  • Ebony fretboard
  • 34" scale
  • Black chrome hardware
  • Black top-hat knobs with inserts
  • Schaller tuners
  • 3-way adjustable tailpiece
  • TB Plus humbucker pickups
  • Controls: 2 volume, 1 tone
  • Hardshell case

Tags: Gibson Electric Bass

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