THE OVERVIEW AND REVIEW
One of the key difficulties for the Gibson guitar company at the end of the 1970s, was that the hotspot for high prosperity in the market was channeling itself into a new area. Formerly, there had been two basic purchase options in the overall market: really good guitars which cost a lot of money, or cheap guitars which weren’t very good. But this fairly well-polarised rags or riches situation was coming to an end. Companies like Fernandes/Burny and Tokai were now offering a third option: really good guitars which, whilst not exactly dirt cheap, were within realistic financial reach for the kind of musician whose only previous choice had been a poor or (at best) mediocre instrument.
This was the start of a revolution in guitar manufacture, and it was going to change amateur guitarists’ lives for the better. But it was a huge threat to established, high-end guitar makers. Were guitarists really gonna bust their balls to buy an expensive product, when they could now get a much cheaper one which, in terms of look, tone and playability, was essentially the same?… Nope. If the ‘old school’ didn’t adapt and somehow compete, they were going to get buried by the new wave of modestly-priced, high-value production coming out of Japan.
|Me looking like a 1987|
person with my Gibson
Sonex, in a pretty grim
photo from 1987.
So it was much more difficult to significantly reduce costs with guitars built to typical Gibson spec, than with Fender designs. Hence, Gibson had to consider some fairly dramatic design changes as a route into this new, burgeoning market of good, highly playable guitars, which sold for widely affordable prices.
Enter the Sonex. Hitting the shops in 1980, it might have looked vaguely like a cross between a Les Paul and a Les Paul Special, but very quickly it became apparent that the Sonex was something else entirely. There were multiple variants of the Sonex, but the most basic – the Sonex 180 Deluxe – was Gibson’s most inexpensive guitar. That’s the model I’m exploring in this retrospective.
Almost inevitably, Gibson had dropped the glued neck join and gone for a Fender-style bolt-on. But this was going to be no Fender copy. The body spec was radical in the extreme. Not only did it do away with the Les Paul’s mahogany/maple fusion, with expensive arching on the top – it in fact did away convention entirely, and utilised a moulded, wood-resin composite which Gibson called Resonwood.
The economic advantages of Resonwood construction were most significant. Firstly, it was moulded into shape, and that eliminated cutting, shaping, smoothing, etc. Secondly, it was more predictable as a material than natural wood, which would be plagued with inconsistencies, knots, etc. Thirdly, Resonwood’s surface provided an instant base for paint, and that made finishing much, much simpler than with natural wood. Gibson could spray a coat or two of lacquer directly onto the Resonwood’s surface, and let it dry – job done. No building up a finish with numerous coats, then rubbing down, then adding more coats, then rubbing down again, then polishing, etc. The finishing process could be rendered very quick and very cheap. And finally, Resonwood was a way of using up all the waste and rejected wood from other projects, so it saved on the purchase of materials.
Other than that, the Sonex 180 Deluxe was just a basic guitar with Gibson electrical appointments and visual styling. A straightforward bolt-on neck with unbound rosewood fingerboard and dot markers, two increased-output humbuckers with exposed bobbins and no metal covers, and initially, just a standard black finish, which Gibson called Ebony. Other colour options were added in due course. Another concession to budget on the Sonex 180 Deluxe was the mounting of its electrics onto a plastic scratchplate rather than directly onto the body.
The finish was very thin, and as shipped, matt, not gloss. Why matt? Well, because if you’re not going to rub down and cut the finish to a perfectly flat, professional shine, a gloss finish shows up the ‘orange peel’ effect of the spray process and looks amateurish. Matt looks acceptable without all the rubbing down and polishing stages, and since Gibson were cutting every last dollar off the manufacturing cost, the rubbing down and polishing was an unaffordable luxury. The UK manufacturer Gordon Smith also used matt finishes on the budget GS guitars for the same reason. But of course, the problem with using matt finishes on guitars is that they get buffed by the player’s arm and body during use, and over a period of time the matt surface turns to gloss… Only, however, where it’s been buffed. So some of the guitar body remains matt, whilst other areas render themselves shiny. The result is patchy, and not a very attractive look at all.
I bought my black Sonex Deluxe in early 1987, by which time the model had for long been discontinued. I didn’t have a guitar at all at the time. I’d sold both my guitars (along with some other gear) in 1986 to raise the money for a Yamaha DX7 synth, but I was desperate to get back to guitar playing. I didn’t know anything about the Sonex when I first saw it in a secondhand shop, but it seemed ridiculously cheap for a Gibson guitar, and straight away I set about finding some cash.
This was a pretty boisterous guitar, and in terms of sound, good value – provided you were a rock player. For other styles, the Sonex was a bit raucous and lacking in finesse. The pickups were hotter than PAF-style units, but still pretty bright for humbuckers. They weren’t, incidentally, the Dirty Fingers units used in more upmarket Sonexes – just the basic cream/black zebra-bobbin jobs. I’d managed to hang onto my Laney Pro Tube AOR 30 combo amp, and its high-gain distortion made a nice match with the Sonex.
But the Sonex was far from perfect. It was very heavy, but that was the least of its problems. By far the most serious bug was the tuning stability, which was just about the worst of any guitar I’ve ever had. And I lost count many years ago of how many guitars I’ve had. I’ve got a demo I made in a commercial studio in ’87 with the Sonex, and midway through the solo it loses its tuning in dramatic fashion. I merely bent the G string up a tone, and it dropped about a quarter tone flat. It sounds pretty excruciating, but of course amateur bands couldn’t edit recordings in those days. If you had time, you’d record it again, but if you didn’t, the problems would have to remain on the finished article. I don’t think I ever forgave the Sonex for that, but in truth it was my own fault. I knew what the tuning was like. I should have borrowed something reliable.
Later in the year, I bought a new Japanese Squier System 1 Strat, and put in a Hot Rails humbucker at the bridge position. The modified Strat was far, far superior to the Sonex for rock sounds, as well as being massively more versatile. Up against a superb instrument like the Japanese Squier, there was only one realistic eventuality for a guitar with excess weight, a patchy finish and an uncanny knack of losing its tuning at key moments. It had to go. I sold the Sonex in 1988 to a guy who was buying stock for a musical instrument shop he was setting up. The shop, incidentally, did well for itself and is still going strong. I wonder what happened to my Sonex?
It was interesting that afterall, Gibson’s rather maverick approach to cutting costs created an instrument which was clearly, for me at least, inferior to those amazing Japanese-made guitars that prompted the cost-cutting in the first place. True, the Squier was made under the auspices of Fender, but it precisely followed the principles set at the end of the ‘70s by the likes of Tokai and Fernandes. Relatively low price, but very high quality. No buts, no bugs. Yes, Tokai and Fernandes took extreme liberties on patent, but the statement they made – you do not need to downgrade the quality to make great guitars affordable – was their real contribution. The Gibson Sonex was innovative, but ultimately, it only served to underline how invincible those Japanese firms were.
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