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Gibson's "Norlin era" electric guitars

Gibson electrics produced during the "Norlin era" are units produced from 1970 through 1983; these are considered by many Gibson fans to be the worst guitars Gibson ever made, and for good reason - they were in fact awful.

The main reason why Gibson was churning out turd after turd during the 70s was because of corporate bean counters. During this time the corporate mucky-mucks running the Gibson show were blasting out that they wanted "NEW! NEW! NEW!" guitars. The end result is that Gibson delivered some seriously wacky junk the bean counters loved but guitar players absolutely hated. That's what happens when you let corporate idiots who aren't luthiers (or at least musicians) that know nothing about guitars run things.

After the near-total failure of the Norlin era, Gibson was put up for sale in 1984, and nobody wanted to buy the company for two years. Finally in 1986, the company was sold to Henry Juszkiewicz and David Berryman who bought Gibson for $5 million.

One more thing before continuing: Not all Norlin-era produced Gibsons are bad. Right before Gibson went into complete financial ruin in the early 80s, there were some good Les Pauls made, particularly from '78 to '81. However the vast majority of the rest of the line was just junk.

And now, on to the junk:

Gibson Marauder

Gibson Marauder (see current listings)

Take a Les Paul Jr. body shape, stick a pointy Flying V headstock on it, replace the better trapezoid inlays with cheap dots, whack off two knobs, move the output jack stupidly to the front, apply a crappy finish (or no finish resulting in "natural" just to save a buck on manufacturing costs), put in pickups that have a sound that do not sound like a Gibson at all, and you've got yourself a Marauder.

Pointy headstocks just don't go with the Les Paul single-cutaway shape design and never did. This turns an otherwise classic design into something that looks like a children's toy. The whole thing is just cheap looking.

Some Marauders did in fact have the trapezoid neck inlays, but not many. Most of them look like what you see above with the dots. There's also a very "woody" appearance, a weird leaning pickup in the bridge position that doesn't even match the pick guard's curve... it's like this guitar can't decide whether it wants to be a Les Paul or a Telecaster Custom, so it tried both and failed at both.

Depending on which year of Marauder you get, you're either going to get a 3-way toggle switch or a 6-way toggle/blend knob.

Worth owning as a player?

No. Those Bill Lawrence epoxy-sealed pickups are going to throw you for a loop because this guitar was specifically designed to compete with Fender, so the pickups have for lack of a better term have a much more "Fendery" sound to them. You'll never get Les Paul or SG growl out of the Marauder. Not happening. And no, it's not worth it to gut the guitar either because of the lack of controls that a Les Paul or SG would have.

Worth owning as a collector?

Somewhat. From a numbers perspective it's in the collector's favor as less than 1,400 Marauders were ever made. However, even with that low unit production count, these guitars are easy to come by and aren't scarce because even to this day, nobody wants them.

On the low end you can get a Marauder for $500 and on the high end around $1,100. In 10 years the guitar will probably be worth around $2,500 at most. Assuming the pickups aren't stone dead by the time you sell the thing, it's a safe bet you'll get double your money for what you paid for it - but it will take a long time to get there.

It's pretty much mandatory that if picking this guitar up for collector's value, all the electronics will need to be redone to overcome that oh-so-crappy build quality of the 1970s. When the wiring is replaced with modern proper braided wire with proper shielding, and the pots are cleaned out proper, she'll sound like she's supposed to. It's not a good sound mind you because it's that weird "dunno if I wanna be a Fender or a Gibson" tone, but at least it will work correctly.

Gibson S-1

Gibson S-1 (see current listings)

We're doing a little (but not much) better here as the S-1 does look more proper than the Marauder does. On most models the headstock color matches the pick guard, the shape of the pick guard works much better with the all-vertical 3-pickup configuration and things just seem to have more symmetry to them. However, you've still got that Les Paul shape with a dopey pointy Flying V headstock on the other side and the crappy dots on the neck instead of trapezoid inlays on most models.

What makes this guitar a nightmare is what you don't see - the circuitry. Once again, this guitar was Gibson's attempt to compete with Fender by using single-coil pickups to specifically sound like a Fender, but at the same time trying to keep traditional Gibson humbucking tones, and that's where the nightmare circuitry is involved in an attempt to make all that work. Anyone who has to work on the guitar under the pick guard without a schematic is in for a rough time trying to figure out how this thing does what it does.

In this instance, you've got a Gibson that can't decide whether it's a Les Paul or a Stratocaster. The answer is that it's neither - BUT - to my ears it does sound better than the Marauder does. The Bill Lawrence singles in the S-1 at least give the guitar some character, tone-wise. Can't say that about the Marauder, but it can be said about the S-1.

Worth owning as a player?

No - but only for the reason the circuitry is a nightmare to work on. If you're good with electronics and can grab yourself an S-1 schematic, then you're fine and can work on the guitar should it decide to screw up on you. Otherwise, this guitar is one to avoid because of its underpinnings.

Worth owning as a collector?

Not really. Strangely enough, it doesn't command as good of a price as the Marauder does. You'd think it would but it doesn't. Why? I've no idea.

For the collector, given the choice between the S-1 and the Marauder, the Marauder seems to be the better investment - however I could understand if a collector wanted both the Marauder and the S-1 "just to have the set", so to speak.

Gibson Corvus

Gibson Corvus (see current listings)

I saved the "best" for last - the Corvus.

The first question on your mind is probably, "What in tarnation is up with that body shape?" Oh, there was a reason for it. A bad one, but a reason nonetheless.

Corvus in this instance is Latin for crow, and the guitar's shape is supposed to look like a crow in flight with the head up and the wing down.

If you can't see that in the shape, here, I'll help you:

happy head

Nobody sees the bird in the design unless it's pointed out to them. For everyone else, this guitar is referred to as Gibson's "can opener" design.

What really gets me about the Corvus is that in the way guitars are designed, one guy doesn't make all the decisions for finalized shapes. Body shapes go through many people before they're actually made, meaning an entire committee at Gibson thought a bird-shaped guitar where nobody could see the bird in it was just a wonderful idea.

To add insult to injury, the part of the body at the bottom before the neck begins makes it look like the bird is taking a huge dump.

To add even further insult to injury, the Corvus looks even worse when hanging on a wall, because then it looks like a dead bird.

Now here's the truly ironic part: As awful as this guitar looks, it is the best of the Norlin-era new-design Gibsons as an instrument. It plays the best and sounds the best no matter what configuration you get it in, and does so for several reasons.

First is how the tuners are set up. The strings go straight from the nut to the tuning posts. This helps the guitar stay in tune a whole lot better compared to the pointy headstock where all the strings are at an angle after the nut to the post.

Second, the pickups are "the most normal". There's none of that epoxy see-through crapola here. As a result, Corvuses with singles sound "Stratty" and ones with humbuckers sound "Gibsony". There's no surprises as to the tone you'd expect, and that's good.

Third, and most important, the electronics are simple on just about all Corvus models. On top, the controls are easy to operate and there's no learning curve. When under the pick guard, there's no nightmare to be found, as the layout is the model of functional, well-designed simplicity.

Out of all the Norlin-era new-design Gibsons, the Corvus was truly the only new guitar made and not some rehashed Les Paul or Les Paul Jr. made into something that couldn't decide what it wanted to be.

Unfortunately, the Corvus was dead even before the first one got delivered just from that unbelievably ugly body shape. Had Gibson been a little more reserved in the design for the Corvus, it probably would have done quite well.

Worth owning as a player?

If you can get past the body shape, yes. The Corvus is a good "workhorse" guitar. It's built well, can withstand gigging easily, plays easily and sounds proper.

Worth owning as a collector?

Also a yes - depending on color. White/Yellow and brown finish Corvuses command the most money. Basically speaking, the "more natural" colors (meaning not blue or orange) command the bigger bucks. However, pretty much any Corvus in good working order should double in value similar to the Marauder in 10 years. Right now a mint Corvus commands anywhere from $750 to $1,200, so it's probably safe to say it'll be worth the same as a mint Marauder in 10 years at around $2,500 if it's in one of the more desirable colors.

Will any of the Norlin-era guitars ever be worth more than traditional Gibson electric models?

That's an easy answer: No.

Guitar companies have hits and misses when it comes to electrics. All the new-design Norlin era Gibsons are misses. While Gibson tried like hell to get players to take notice of the new designs, nobody bought it. Gibson even had Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley of KISS fame endorse the Marauder in 1975 and that still didn't work. New-design Norlin Gibsons were just doomed from the start.

If you want something different from Gibson that might be worth something in the future, I suggest looking towards their "lower line" Epiphone brand for guitars that are made well and have good, usable features, such as the Epiphone Wilshire PRO. Good finish options available, great features (particularly the coil-tapping), and very affordable.

As far as Gibson-USA models are concerned, they're almost all overpriced to an extreme level, and you won't get back your investment until a significant amount of time has passed.

Note that I said "almost", as there are a few models new right now worth going for which aren't too bad, price-wise. One such model is the Melody Maker Special. For a USA-built, it's priced very well. Hang on to that for 10 years and you'll easily get more than double what you paid for it. It's certainly a better buy than any new-model Norlin era Gibson, that's for sure.

Gibson still has a few good gems that are decent investments, but you have to shop carefully and wisely to find them.

Published 2012 Sep 24

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