by Mark Kemp
In late 2013, Keith Richards told the Wall Street Journal how he came up with the right textures for one of the Rolling Stones’ most famous riffs: the intro to “Street Fighting Man.” He’d been experimenting with open tunings, recording his ideas on the fly on an early Philips cassette machine. But he had to use an acoustic guitar, because the little stick mic on the primitive recorder couldn’t handle the volume of an electric. When he finally got the riff he wanted, he pulled in Charlie Watts, who brought along a simple high-hat and tambourine.
“I had Charlie sit right next to the mic with his little kit and I kneeled on the floor next to him with my acoustic Gibson Hummingbird,” Richards said. “There we were, in front of this little box, hammering away.”
“After we listened to the playback, the sound was perfect.”
It only makes sense that I would test-drive Epiphone’s new Hummingbird Pro acoustic-electric by tuning it to an open G, just like Keith did, and hammering away on “Street Fighting Man.” While the tone doesn’t have the velvety warmth of the classic 1965 Gibson Hummingbird I owned as a teenager, this budget Epiphone sounds perfectly good for its highly affordable price point. And when you plug into an amp and fiddle with the settings—no need to worry about blowing out a cheap cassette machine these days—you can make a bright racket that’s pretty close to the chiming butterscotch Telecaster Richards uses when the Stones play “Street Fighting Man” live.
A Cosmic Classic
The Hummingbird has hovered over the rock, cosmic cowboy, alt-country, and even jazz worlds like the capricious bird it was named for since Gibson introduced it in 1960. It was the company’s first big, square-shoulder dreadnought, designed to compete with the popular D-series Martins.
With its rosewood bridge and fretboard, pearl inlays, and tortoiseshell pickguard whimsically engraved with flowers, birds, and butterflies, the Hummingbird should have been a favorite among Nashville’s Nudie suit-clad country stars of the era, like Porter Waggoner or George Jones. Instead, it quickly caught the fancy of Richards, and later his American country-rock guru Gram Parsons, as well as other British rockers such as Jimmy Page and T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, who used these acoustic guitars on their gentler, folk-based songs. Remarkably, jazz-fusion pioneer John McLaughlin put a pickup in a Hummingbird to play his wailing parts with the adventurous late-’60s power trio Tony Williams Lifetime, as well as the spacey noodling he did on Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. Since then, Hummingbirds have found spots in the guitar collections of artists ranging from heartland rocker Sheryl Crow to alt-country troublemaker Ryan Adams.
It’s a good thing, then, that Gibson’s Epiphone division offers a remarkably high-quality budget Hummingbird that looks and sounds great, but won’t break your bank account. The guitar—one of three acoustic-electrics released under the Pro line—has a solid spruce top; select mahogany neck, back, and sides; and a rosewood fretboard and bridge, although the woods are not of the high grade that Gibson uses for its Ferrari version. Like the Gibson classic, the Epiphone Hummingbird comes in cherry sunburst, but the yellows and reds appear to have been sprayed on and are lighter and less rich than the colors on the original.
When I strum hard on a few open-position and barre chords, the Pro’s sound is bright and balanced, with good intonation and plenty of low-end heft for rock riffing, but with a clear and crisp twang that also would play well with fiddles and pedal-steel. The action at the nut is nice and low, but where the neck meets the body, it loses power and is hard to play leads. It’s likely that a new Hummingbird Pro would need a good set-up before you use it.
Amped-up on Avian Nectar
Plugged into a Fishman Loudbox 100 amp, this guitar really comes to life, the brights even brighter and the low-end deeper and meatier; yet it still has the ring and chime of an acoustic. Like many Epiphone acoustic-electrics, the Pro comes with a Shadow ePerformer preamp and NanoFlex pickup system carefully hidden away inside the sound hole, picking up the strings’ vibration just under the saddle. You can easily man the controls—volume, treble, bass, mute, and dynamics—on the upper bout, and change the CR 2032 batteries without having to reach inside the guitar. Best of all, the electronics are so unobtrusive that, from the stage, the guitar retains its vintage Hummingbird look.
While the similarities to the original Gibson are striking, there are notable differences. The Gibson’s neck is 1.72 inches wide at the nut; the Pro’s neck is slightly narrower at 1.68 inches. The Gibson has real pearl inlays; the Pro uses a plastic imitation. More significantly, the current Gibson Hummingbirds are handcrafted at the company’s Bozeman, Montana, facility, using the highest quality woods; the Epiphone Pro is manufactured in Indonesia at a fraction of the cost. While it’s important to consider the ramifications of those differences, one thing is for sure: The Epiphone Hummingbird is a fantastic bargain at around $300 compared with the Gibson’s sticker price of more than $3,000.
At A Glance
Square-shoulder dreadnought body with 14-fret neck. Solid spruce top. Select mahogany
back and sides. Ladder bracing. Faded cherry sunburst finish.
Slim taper select mahogany neck. Rosewood fingerboard and bridge. 24.75-inch scale. 1.68-inch width at nut. Nickel Grover tuners.
D’Addario Phosphor 12-53
$499 list; $299 street.
Made in Indonesia. Epiphone.com