I’d long admired the design of Gibson’s Hummingbird, with its cherry sunburst finish and fanciful, engraved pickguard, but I had never come across an example that sounded and played as good as it looked—until recently, when I received a Hummingbird Vintage Edition to audition. New for 2016, this modern iteration has smooth playability, and it sings with a warm and balanced voice.
It just might be better than, vintage.
New Old Wood
The Hummingbird made its first appearance in 1960. It was Gibson’s first square-shouldered dreadnought. Before then, all of the company’s flattop guitars had rounded shoulders. The earliest Hummingbirds featured solid Sitka spruce tops and solid mahogany backs, with either solid or laminated mahogany sides. Not only does the Hummingbird Vintage boast all-solid woods, but its Sitka soundboard is thermally aged—it’s been torrefied, or baked, to mimic the structural and sonic properties of the “old wood” that so many guitarists covet.
The Hummingbird Vintage is one of four thermally treated models released by Gibson this year: The others are the equally impressive J-45 Vintage (reviewed in August 2016 ) and an L-00 and SJ-200 Vintage that were unavailable for review.
From its dovetail neck joint that’s been attached with hide glue, to the gold vintage-style Gotoh tuners with green plastic keys, to the tortoise side dots on the fretboard binding, this guitar has many of the details found on the earliest Gibson Hummingbirds. Collectors who are into the minutia of vintage Gibsons might be disappointed that the original adjustable bridge saddle has been swapped out for a fixed saddle, but this is an improvement: The adjustable saddle, dropped from the specs in 1970, is notorious for being sonically inferior.
The first thing I notice about the Hummingbird Vintage is what a terrific player it is. The builders have softened the fingerboard edges, giving the instrument the broken-in feel of a vintage guitar. The neck has a perfect rounded profile, not club-like or skimpy—fortunately Gibson has given it a 1.725-inch nut, as opposed to the 1.625 found on late-1960s examples. And since the frets and nut have been Plek’d—dressed with the help of a computer—the Hummingbird Vintage is free of fret buzzing. But the best part of the guitar’s sound is its evenness—the bass and the treble frequencies are perfect equals, with impressive clarity in all registers. No matter what region of the fretboard or what harmonic choice, the individual notes of chords are easy to discern.
Keith Richards is one of a number of prominent guitarists who have used a Hummingbird to excellent effect, on such Rolling Stones classics as “Street Fighting Man” and “Angie,” so it’s only appropriate to test the guitar with this fare. The latter song reveals that the guitar sounds just as good in open-G tuning as it does in standard, and that it makes an excellent choice for strummed accompaniment. The instrument makes both compact and full chords sound lively, without being overly loud or boomy. Playing the arpeggiated riffs from “Angie,” in standard tuning, shows that the Hummingbird Vintage is also a terrific choice for finger picking—the notes cascade beautifully, without turning to mush, and the guitar is sensitive to the nuances of pick-hand placement and technique.
A Well-Built Bird
The craftsmanship on the Hummingbird Vintage is impeccable. There’s not a flaw in the gloss lacquer finish on the neck and body, and the binding and inlay work are clean and flush. A look inside the body finds the scalloped bracing and kerfing to have been sanded and glued to perfection.
Besides the torrefied soundboard, the Hummingbird Vintage left the factory with other aging treatments—the metal parts are oxidized, with simulated loss of gold plating on the tuners; the neck and body binding are yellowed; and the finish is dulled. On one hand, this looks pretty convincing. On the other hand, some players might prefer a shiny new guitar that will develop a patina with time. It’s too bad that this isn’t an option, along with the vibrant original cherry sunburst finish, rather than the more subdued aged burst on this new example.
But those are minor quibbles on a beautiful guitar that has a strong old-school vibe with optimal modern playability. It’s not just one of the best Hummingbirds I’ve played, but an excellent flattop by any yardstick—one as graceful and nimble as its name suggests.
Solid thermally cured
Sitka spruce top
Solid mahogany back and sides
Vintage Cherry Sunburst finish
Gold Gotoh tuners
VOS lacquer finish
Care kit includes Masterbuilt Premium 80/20 Bronze Wound Strings (12–53), Gibson picks, leather keychain, and a “Gibson Acoustic” sticker
Lifetime limited warranty
$5,486 list/$4,249 street
Made in the USA
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.