There she stands, sleek and sexy, like a John Glenn-era rocket ready to launch: the Gibson Flying V.
I am not whispering “It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine,” like Wayne Campbell eyeing a Fender Stratocaster in “Wayne’s World.” You see, the Flying V belongs to the Grand Rapids Public Museum, along with the well-weathered Gibson acoustic in the case behind it. Part of the museum’s display of musical instruments situated near the Planetarium, these handsome axes stand as testimonials to the care and artistry of the former Gibson guitar factory in Kalamazoo – and to the dreams of would-be rock guitar gods everywhere.
These two guitars, along with a demure white electric in the archives, are the only ones in the museum’s vast collection. Which I would count as a shame, perhaps even a dirty shame. Because guitars are beautiful things to behold and even more so to hear – especially when played loudly and with plenty of attitude. We should always have more of them, in museums and in the hands of would-be guitar gods.
Loud guitars with attitude have loomed large in my personal history ever since I first plunked out the eternal riff of “Pipeline” by the Chantays. When I was 15 I was given my first electric guitar, a 1957 Gibson Les Paul Special, by my older brother, Mike. This was only right and proper, since Les Paul fashioned the first guitar named after him in 1952, the year of my birth.
My picking up the Les Paul quickly put an end to my career on trombone (a fine example of which sits in another case at the museum). Playing Eric Clapton riffs in front of high school girls vs. playing the trombone in the marching band – well, what is there to talk about, really?
I have since used that Les Paul often in performances by my band, the Honeytones, whether stunning Festival crowds or annoying the neighbors.
Anyway, the Les Paul with its singing solos and dinosaur roar is one of the most splendid products Gibson ever made down there in Kalamazoo. But so is the Flying V, if for no other reason than it just looks so awesomely cool. It was first produced in 1957 to counter the knock that it was, in the words of former Gibson honcho Ted McCarty, “a fuddy duddy old company.” Gibson touted the naughty-looking Flying V as “a real asset to the combo musician with a flair for showmanship.”
Many young rock guitarists wanted that flair, all right. Among them was Dave Davies, who as lead guitarist for the Kinks wielded the Flying V through raucous performances of “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” For me, a longtime Kinks devotee, this vision of Dave on shows like “Shindig!” has remained burned deep in my reptilian rocker psyche.
The museum’s instrument is a 1989 reissue of a 1967 model that was used by a Kiss cover band. Could there be any more prestigious provenance, or any higher bar except perhaps the ones that cover band played in?
As for the humble acoustic mounted behind the randy V, it is more Woody Guthrie than Gene Simmons. It dates from about 1945, the gift of one John Howard who had his nickname, “Happy Jack,” emblazoned across its sunburst top. I find this a suitably jaunty name, and one that happily presages the Who hit single of some 20 years later.
I’m afraid I don’t know much about the white electric in storage, but have no doubt it is worthy of more prominent display. Indeed, I must believe there are many more beautiful guitars, whether of the sexy-sleek or humble variety, worthy of being showcased at our magnificent museum. Why, we could fill the foyer with gleaming axes arrayed beneath the whale. We could even end the exhibit with an all-star jam of Grand Rapids’ finest guitar gods and goddesses.
We could call it VanAndelstock. Or something like that.
Charlie Honey is the religion columnist for the GR Press/MLive.com. by day. At night he rocks out with the Honeytones as lead guitar and vocalist.