Gibson custom colors as used on Gibson vintage guitars until 1970. Complete analysis of the colors used and how they were applied.
Gibson Custom Colors: Color Confusion part 2 (09/09/97), Copyright 1997-2006.
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    Part one covered Fender custom colors and their industry-wide color confusion. This article will talk about Gibson custom colors, lacquer application tricks, and what to use if automotive acrylic lacquer is not available in your geographic area (during 1998, it will be supposedly discontinued across the U.S.).

Firebirds: Gibson's Canvas for Color.

    Starting in 1961, Gibson changed its Les Paul solidbody design from the traditional single cutaway, arched top solidbody used from 1952 to 1960. The new "SG" body was a hipper symmetric sharp double cutaway, scalloped body style. In 1961, the first year of production of the SG body shape, sales of the SG Standard were two and a half time greater than the single cutaway Les Paul Standard sales of 1960. But by 1962, SG Standard sales fell 15% from 1961. Gibson wasn't happy that their solidbody market share was shrinking. They were now looking to take a piece of the pie from Fender and its successful solidbodies such as the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, and Telecaster. Gibson figured it should take another stab at a "modernistic" solidbody guitar design. But at the same time, Gibson was also remembering the 1958-1962 Flying V/Explorer korina series which sold less than 150 units in total. They wanted a slick new design, but not an over-the-edge design disaster like the korina project produced.

    Gibson consulted with Detroit car designer (Duesenberg body designer, to be exact) Ray Dietrich. His guitar design, strangely enough, was similar to a mirror image of a long Fender Jazzmaster. The asymmetric body design has a rounded treble cutaway that protruded more than the bass cutaway, and an extended rear forearm area. The headstock was reversed of Fender's with the low-E string being the longest string, and the high-E being the shortest. Gibson then added its own design ideas such as a one piece neck-through body design, using a laminated set of long mahogany boards going the entire length of the guitar. The winged mahogany cutaways were then notched and glued to this 4" wide center neck/body block. The wings were also slightly thinner at 1 1/4" thick, compared to the body which was 1 1/2" thick. This gave a unique tapered ledge body design. Mini-humbucking pickups (as used on Epiphones of the same period) without adjustable poles were used and mounted to the 4" wide center section. This made the body "wings" function as visual balances and volume/tone control holders only. The 17 degree pitched headstock also used a ledge design and unique banjo-style tuners to complete the new look. This is known as the "reverse" Firebird design, and was introduced in the spring of 1963, but did not ship till October.

    The sound of the new reverse Firebird series was different than other Gibson models. A neck- through mahogany body provided some fullness, but the mini-humbuckers tended to have more treble and less bass and mids than standard humbuckers. This gave a treble-rich sound with some bass and middle, but not like a twangy Fender. Also, since the banjo-style tuners were very large and heavy, reverse Firebirds are neck-heavy and prone to headstock damage when accidentally dropped.

An original 1964 Firebird III in Gibson's
Golden Mist Poly finish. Note with a very
yellowed clear coat, the color looks amazing like
"Les Paul Gold" as used on 1952-1958 Les Paul
Goldtops. Note the back of the neck where the
serial number resides. Someone has sanded the yellowed
clear coat off in an attempt to better see the serial
number. This reveals the true tint of Golden Mist Poly
as being far less "gold". The yellowed clear coat really
adds to the gold color.

    There were four reverse Firebird models available. These included the Firebird I with one pickup and no neck binding (like a Les Paul Junior), the Firebird III with two pickups and dot inlays and neck binding (like a Les Paul Special), the Firebird V with two pickups and trapezoidal inlays (like a Les Paul Standard), and the Firebird VII with three pickups, block inlays and gold parts (like a Les Paul Custom). All models had a vibrato tailpiece except the Firebird I, which had a wrap- around tailpiece. The upper line Firebird V and VII used a tuneamatic bridge and a fancy vibrato cover. The Firebird I and III used a "stairstep" tailpiece as the bridge, and the III had a simple spring steel exposed vibrato. These reverse models lasted until mid-1965.


    Unfortunately, sales of the reverse Firebirds were not what Gibson had hoped for. In 1964 Gibson sold 2,434 Firebirds compared to 7,419 SG's (all models). Disappointing sales may have been due to the high 1963 retail price of $189 to $445, without case. And the price increased 3% to 5% in 1964, which didn't help. So Gibson decided in the summer of 1965 to change the design to cut the retail price. The idea was a less expensive Firebird model would sell better. The changes included a conventional glue-in neck, a flat (no ledge) body with the bass horn protruding longer than the treble horn, a conventional flat (no ledge) Fender-style headstock design with the high-E string being the longest, conventional style tuners, and all models had dot fingerboard inlays and vibrato tailpieces. This is known as the "non-reverse" Firebird design.

    All the non-reverse Firebirds models were basically the same guitar with only slightly different electronic configurations. All models were routed for three pickups, but had a full wrap-around pickguard to hold the desired pickup configuration and hide unused pickup routes. This kept the manufacturing process simple and less expensive. Now the Firebird I had two P-90 pickups, the Firebird III had three P-90 pickups, the Firebird V had two mini-humbucking pickups, and the Firebird VII had three mini-humbucking pickups and gold parts. The Firebird V and VII still used a tuneamatic bridge and fancy vibrato cover, while the Firebird I and III had stairstep tailpieces as the bridge and simple spring steel exposed vibratos. This simplified non-reverse design lasted until 1969 when the Firebird series was dropped.

1965 Firebird III, Cardinal Red
with P-90 pickups

    During the summer of 1965, some transition Firebird models were sold. These included a mix of reverse and non-reverse features. For example, a full reverse Firebird with all reverse features except for a non-reverse peghead with a ledge (the high-E is the longest string), and banjo tuners. My personal favorite variation is a Firebird III full reverse neck-through body with ledge, two P- 90 pickups, a reverse peghead but with no peghead ledge, conventional tuners, and no neck binding. This style combines the best of both worlds: full reverse mahogany body with neck- through design, standard lighter weight tuners, and P-90 pickups. This gives the Firebird a much fuller, fatter sound than the mini-humbuckers could provide. And since standard Kluson tuners (a la Fender) were used, the body was more balanced. You would think this variation would sound like a Les Paul Special, because of the same mahogany wood and P-90 electronics. But actually the P-90 reverse Firebird still has more treble and the same lows and mids as the Les Paul Special.

    The Firebird guitars were truly a unique design for Gibson, though they did copy several of Fender's features. Besides the basic body shape of a Jazzmaster, Gibson also contoured the back of the body like a Stratocaster to fit the player (Fender threatened lawsuits based on their "Contour Body" design patents, but never followed through). Lastly, Gibson also offered the new Firebirds in Sunburst plus ten custom color finishes to compete with Fender's fourteen original custom colors. This was unique for Gibson. If you wanted a custom colored Gibson prior to 1963, you could choose from sunburst, natural, white, black, Les Paul gold, or cherry red. There were no other choices, until the 1963 Firebird series.

1967 SG Melody Maker, in Pelham Blue.
photo: Dave Boze.

Gibson Custom Colors.

    With the advent of the Firebird, Gibson offered ten new custom colors and a pretty chart that displayed them. Although developed for and seen most often on the Firebird series from 1963 to 1969, basically all Gibson guitars were available in these colors. Models that utilized the new colors most often were the SG solidbody series and the ES-335, ES-345, and ES-355 series. But occasionally you'll see these colors on other models too.

    All ten of Gibson's new custom colors were automobile finishes, just like Fender's custom colors. And the colors Gibson choose where amazing similar to Fender's color pallet. So close, all of Gibson's custom colors had a basic Fender color equivalent in 1963. The Gibson colors were so close to Fender's, one Gibson color was even exactly the same as one of the Fender colors. If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Gibson was certainly flattering Fender.

    Note there was another custom Gibson color introduced in 1965 that wasn't on their Firebird custom color charts. This color was "Sparkling Burgundy", and was Gibson's equivalent to Fender's Candy Apple Red. It was even applied in the same manner as Fender's CAR. That is, it had a silver metallic basecoat beneath a translucent red color coat. This gave a deeper metallic finish than the one-step automotive metallics which combined the metallic particles with the color.

    Strangely, the vintage guitar market does not value Gibsons in Sparkling Burgundy as highly as Fenders in Candy Apple Red. Sparkling Burgundy seems to be the only Gibson color that is actually worth the same or less than Cherry Red. This probably wouldn't apply to a Firebird, but on models where Cherry Red is the norm (such as an ES-335, 345, or 355), this does seem to be the case. This is probably because Gibson's Sparkling Burgundy does not wear well (but either does Fender's CAR).

Gibson's Original Firebird Custom Colors
Ember Red Acrylic 63-69 58 Edsel Yes Yes Fiesta Red
Cardinal Red Acrylic 63-69 59 Oldsmobile Yes Yes Dakota Red
Polaris White Acrylic 63-69 59 Oldsmobile Yes Yes Olympic White
Golden Mist Poly Acrylic 63-69 59 Oldsmobile Yes Yes Shoreline Gold**
Silver Mist Poly Acrylic 63-69 59 Oldsmobile Yes No Inca Silver
Heather Poly Acrylic 63-69 62 Cadillac Yes No Burgundy Mist*
Pelham Blue Poly Acrylic 63-69 60 Cadillac Yes Yes*** Lake Placid Blue*
Frost Blue Acrylic 63-69 59 Oldsmobile Yes No Sonic Blue
Kerry Green Acrylic 63-69 61 Buick Yes No Surf Green
Inverness Green Poly Acrylic 63-69 59 Cadillac Yes No Sherwood Green*
* these Fender colors are slightly darker than Gibson's equivalent color.
** this Gibson color is the exact same color as the Fender's equivalent color.
*** Lacquer is no longer available, and unfortunately many of the original Gibson automotive lacquer colors were not translated to the new low VOC paint formulas. There are some alternatives though. For example with Pelhem Blue, the color "Astra Blue Mica" as used on 1992 Iszuz vehicles is an excellent match, Sherwin Williams color code 718/B204 and Dupont ChromaBase H-9623K. Ernie from the Gibson Custom Shop claims that after extensive research by Gibson this is the equivalent to the original Pelhem Blue.

    Note Gibson used the term "poly" when referring to metallic finishes. The term "poly" does not mean it's a polyurethane finish. It's just another way of referring to a metallic finish. They probably did this to be unique since Fender used the term "Metallic" when referring to finishes with metal flakes. Or Gibson used Ditzler's convention (instead of DuPont's) of calling metallic paints "poly".

    It was fairly difficult to determine the exact origins of these Gibson colors. Fender was very informative on their custom color chart: they provided the paint manufacturer, the paint color name, the paint type, and the paint code number. Gibson, on the other hand, provided nothing but the paint color name and whether it was poly. So identifying the exact Gibson color was a bit tricky. Compounding the problems was the auto industry's general belief that more was better. So more colors were being offered than in the 1950's, and many manufacturers used the same paint color name.

    My first step was to go through all of the different manufacturer's paint color names and look at the paint chips. Many times different car companies would have the same paint color name. But usually they weren't both metallic or both non-metallic. This helped narrow the colors down significantly since I knew which Gibson colors were metallic.

    Next I bought the paint and sprayed samples. Since all of Gibson's custom colors were from cars made after 1957, all of their finishes where acrylic lacquer, not nitrocellulose (the difference between acrylic and nitrocellulose lacquer was discussed in part one). Because of this, all of the original Gibson custom colors from 1963 are still available in lacquer today (but lacquer will soon be discontinued). Unfortunatly, all but four of the colors are not available in the newer low VOC DuPont ChromaBase or PPG DBU.

    Lastly, I compared the samples to the Gibson custom color chart and actual 1963 to 1969 Firebirds. I also sent samples to some other collectors to get their opinions. From this I was able to determine and confirm the actual paint codes for the colors on the Gibson custom color chart.

    Also be aware of the "standard" custom colors Gibson offered through the 1950's and 1960's. The "standard" colors included black, cherry red, and Les Paul gold. Firebirds were also available in these colors too. Since these colors are pretty easy to spot, you should have no problems confusing them with the ten "true" custom Gibson colors, though Golden Mist poly with a very yellowed clear coat does look much like "Les Paul Gold".

    As with Fender colors, during 1998 Gibson acyrlic automotive lacquer colors will be (supposedly) banned for sale in the United States. In this case you'll have to use a low VOC paint. For those colors where there is no low VOC color available, you're kinda stuck. If you have lacquer versions of the Gibson colors, now is the time to make a four by four inch sample of each color. Then these can be scanned by your local paint store and an equivalent low VOC paint formula devised. As I run out of lacquer, I will have my Gibson sample colors scanned and custom low VOC paint formulas created. I'll keep you posted when I have these formulas available.

Color by Color, blow by blow.
    I will now discuss each Gibson color and their origins. When purchasing these colors, I recommend buying the DuPont version. Although I'm not 100% positive Gibson used DuPont paint (like Fender did), according to many sources they did. And all of the Gibson colors are still available in lacquer from DuPont (at least until sometime in 1998). Unfortunately, not all of the colors are still available from PPG (Ditzler) in lacquer. And after 1998, only four of these colors are available in low VOC paint formulas. So to be consistent, I would recommend DuPont paint. Remember, as discussed in part one, other manufacturer's colors are approximately the same, but never exactly the same as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), which I believe to be DuPont.

    Pelham Blue Poly

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 4038L
      Original Car was 1960 Cadillac's only. No other aliases. A lighter version of Fender's Lake Placid Blue. Tied with Cardinal Red as the most popular custom Gibson color.

    Cardinal Red

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2931L, Ppg DDL70961
      Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2931K
      Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Mandalay Red (59,62 Pontiac), Seminole Red (59 Cadillac), Tampico Red (59-61 Buick), Roman Red (59-62 Chevy), Chariot Red (62 Oldsmobile), Cardinal Red (62 Buick). One of the most popular Gibson custom color. Similar to Fender's Dakota Red. Interestingly, this color was used in 1959 by all GM lines. But in 1960 all lines dropped the color except for Buick and Chevy, which continued it till 1961. Then in 1962 the color was brought back to all GM lines, but the name "Cardinal Red" switched to the Buick name plate.

    Ember Red

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2721L
      Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2721K
      Original Car was 1958 Edsel. No other aliases. Similar to Fender's Fiesta Red.

    Polaris White

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2697L, Ppg DDL8160
      Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2697K
      Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other Aliases include Cameo Ivory (59 Pontiac), Arctic White (59 Buick), Snowcrest White (58-59 Chevy). This color was actually first available in 1958 in the Chevy line as "Snowcrest White". The name "Polaris White" was not used until 1959 in the Oldsmobile line. Similar to Fender's Olympic White.

    Golden Mist Poly

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2935L, Ppg DDL21722
      Low VOC Source(s): DuPont 2935K
      Original Car was 1959-1960 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Shoreline Gold (59-60 Pontiac), Pearl Fawn (59-60 Buick), Fawn (60 Cadillac). The exact same color as Fender's Shoreline Gold, just Gibson used the Oldsmobile name "Golden Mist" instead of the Pontiac name "Shoreline Gold".

    Silver Mist Poly

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2934L
      Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Silvermist Gray (59 Pontiac), Silver Birch (59 Buick), Silver Metallic (59 Cadillac), Grecian Gray (59 Chevy). Similar to Fender's Inca Silver.

    Heather Poly

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 4304L, Ppg DDL71257
      Original Car was 1962 Cadillac. No other aliases. A lighter version of Fender's Burgundy Mist color.

    Frost Blue

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2937L, Ppg DDL12003
      Original Car was 1959 Oldsmobile. Other aliases include Castle Blue (59 Pontiac), Wedgewood Blue (59 Buick). Similar to Fender's Sonic Blue.

    Inverness Green Poly

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 2940L, Ppg DDL42480
      Original Car was 1959-1960 Cadillac. Other aliases include Jademist Green (59 Pontiac), Glacier Green (59 Buick), Emerald Mist (59 Olds). A very light version of Fender's Sherwood Green.

    Kerry Green

      Lacquer Source(s): DuPont 4148L, Ppg DDL42838
      Original Car was 1961 Buick. Other aliases include Seafoam Green (61 Chevy), Seacrest Green (61 Pontiac), Alpine Green (61 Olds). Similar to Fender's Surf Green.

To Clear, or Not to Clear, that is the Question.

    Unlike Fender, Gibson always used a clear nitrocellulose coat over their custom colors. So you should too when doing a restoration. Because the clear coat has always yellowed with age to some degree, some original Gibson colors are difficult to identify. The white, silver, blues, and greens will be effected the most by the yellowing clear coat. The golds and reds will be real easy to identify regardless of the yellowing effect. When trying to identify an original Gibson custom color, remember blue plus yellow makes green. So often Pelham Blue can look like Inverness Green if the clear coat has yellowed heavily. And Frost Blue can look like Kerry Green with a yellowed clear coat.

Fender & Gibson Lacquer Applications Tips
    When purchasing colors for refins, I recommend buying the DuPont version if it is available. Fender used DuPont paint, so their colors would match Fender's colors best. As mentioned above, other manufacture’s colors are approximately the same, but never exactly the same as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer).

    When applying acrylic lacquer under a nitrocellulose clear coat, I recommend doing three things. First, use acetone instead of lacquer thinner. Lacquer thinner consists mostly of acetone and Methol Eythel Ketone (or MEK, a lacquer retarder). The reason for using straight acetone is you’ll get a faster dry time. Since acrylic and nitrocellulose lacquers are different, a thinner that evaporates quickly and thoroughly will help prevent any compatibility problems. To eliminate blushing (a problem if lacquer drys too quickly), add two or three caps full of lacquer retarder per half pint of reduced acrylic lacquer (the amount needed to paint one Fender body). Using this method will give you better control of your solvents, and ultimately, better results.

    Second, wait overnight before spraying your nitrocellulose clear coat over the acrylic color coat. Once again, this will help prevent any compatibility problems. I have waited as few as 6 hours, but I wouldn't suggest it. An overnight dry time (or longer) will minimize any compatibility problems.

    Third, for refinishing, use a "fish eye" eliminator in your reduced mixture. This will prevent any compatibility problems if a silicone polish was ever used on the body. Even if you stripped the old finish clean, silicone can still be present. A "fish eye" eliminator will improve the paint flow-out and increase gloss. Because flow-out is better, you can even use fish-eye eliminator for new wood finishes too. I use the "Smoothie" brand by Marson (Chelsea, MA and Toronto, ONT). Use a "shot" of smoothie per reduced pint of lacquer. I also use Smoothie on the clear coats too. For that matter, I use Smoothie even on new-wood finishes as the lacquer glosses better.

    For low VOC paint application tips, see the Fender custom color article.

How Far Does it Go?
    Were you wondering how much acrylic lacquer or ChromaBase you need to paint a Strat? Really, not much (remember, use as few coats as possible to keep the film thickness down). A pint of acrylic lacquer or ChromaBase should paint four Fender bodies, or three complete Gibsons. You'll be reducing the acrylic lacquer by 150% with acetone and retarder, and the ChromaBase by 100%. Two or three color coats is all you need, just enough to cover. And if you use a white undercoat/primer, you can use even fewer coats.

    Note you'll get a little more out of a pint of DuPont's lacquer because it's thicker than PPG's lacquer. Also, DuPont metallic lacquers hold the aluminum particles in suspension better than PPG. With PPG metallic lacquer, all the aluminum settles to the bottom of the can in a thick glob much quicker than the DuPont version. So you'll spend more time getting those particles back in suspension before you can reduce and apply PPG's paint. With DuPont's metallics this is much less of a problem. That's another reason why I like DuPont better than PPG.

What Now?

    As I run out of my stock pile of automotive acrylic lacquer, I will convert all the remaining Gibson custom colors to DBU or ChromaBase formulas. I will keep you posted on the new formulas so you can still get the "original" Gibson custom colors. This will certain help those that don't have samples of the original lacquer colors.

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