The Gibson Nighthawk was introduced in 1993, and while not a big seller, was successful enough to garner the top design award from The Music Trades magazine. Well known musicians such as Jorma Kaukonen (The original 60's Jefferson Airplane, and Hot Tuna) used this very different new guitar.
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It was the third design in a series of guitars that utilized complex coil tapping on the pickups to give the player a greater range of tones. Also, it was also the unspoken mission of these guitars to tap into the market that the Fender Stratocaster dominated.
The first attempt in the late 70's was the ill-fated S-1, a guitar that combined a maple Les Paul Body with a Flying V neck. It had three pickups, specially designed by Bill Lawrence to act in both single coil and humbucker combinations. It gained some initial traction by being endorsed by Ron Wood, but when it became obvious that he never actually used the guitar onstage, the model died a quiet death.
Also, the S-1 design incorporated a bolt-on neck, which seems to have always been rejected by Gibson users. To this day, it's one of the few Gibsons that have virtually no collectors value, which is a shame, because when properly handled, it was a pretty good guitar.
Gibson's second try in the 80's was the Sonex series. Those also utilized a complicated coil tapping setup, and in appearance, looked more like a traditional Les Paul. However, the body was made of a synthetic material that was supposed to increase sustain, and that seemed to turn off Gibson users once again. Like the S-1, it's a Gibson a person can get relatively cheaply as it has very little collector value (but once again, a pretty decent guitar).
In 1993, the company introduced the Nighthawk, and it was clear that the company intended to create a guitar that was radically different from it's past. It had a mohogany body with a maple cap that was carved slim and light, gold hardware, and in the case of the Standard, two newly designed pickups.
Most importantly, even if it seems trivial to the average person, it had a set neck. This has always been an important point to Gibson players, and this feature helped the Nighthawk debut more successful. If for no other reason that there wasn't the usual outcry over a bolt-on neck on a Gibson.
The neck pickup was a super hot version of the traditional mini-humbucker that was found in the Gibson Firebird. The bridge pickup was a large single coil that was a special ceramic alloy type that put out twice the normal output.
The result was a guitar that really could scream, yet had a creamy smoothness that was a Gibson hallmark.
My first experience with it was typical of a guitar love affair. After trying it as a mere formality (it was already love at first sight), I bought it, and it became one of my favorite guitars. I was never comfortable with Strats, but this one had sort of the same profile, but light, and the sleek neck just seemed to make one a faster player even with the longer Fender-like scale.
The Nightawk body was carved in such a way that it fit my body perfectly, and the guitar had good balance (unlike, say, an SG which is neck heavy). It had a vintage sunburst finish that was both retro and beautiful. It sported a Fender style bridge with the strings going through the body (like a strat or tele).
In terms of sound, the five way switch gave me a range that included a strat-like twang, a rich and sharp rock attack like an SG, and a sweet clean tone that was very similar to a Les Paul. It was probably one of the most versatile guitars Gibson ever made.
The Nighthawk had a five year run, and was produced in other variations, spawning a semi-solid body cousin, the Blueshawk (another subject in itself). Those models incorporated three pickup models, Floyd Roses, and soapbar pickups in the case of the Blueshawk.
Unfortunately, the Nighthawk may have been the right guitar built by the wrong company. Gibson is a big industry leader, and the Nighthawk sales figures were apparently too low to justify continuing the line. The Nighthawk and all of it's variations were discontinued in 1998.
I'll have to explain the "wrong company" remark. The Nighthawk has remained a relatively popular guitar on the used market. Anyone who wants to sell one can alway find a buyer. It has a cult audience that loves it's unique, bluesy tone, and cool looks. A smaller company would love such a level of success.
In contrast, Gibson's practice has been to introduce new guitars, variations on the Les Paul in particular, and when sales tail off, to discontinue it and produce new versions.
It looks like the Nighthawk was the last time (for now) that Gibson made an attempt to move into Fender's home territory.
Gibson did achieve one thing in creating the Nighthawk. It's final try at making a Gibson version of a stratocaster is still loved by a strong cult of guitar players who appreciate it's fine design and distinctive sound.
Unlike the ill-fated S-1 or the Sonex, no one calls the Nighthawk a failure. If you look at Ebay, there's still more demand than supply for this guitar. If you can find one, it's a fine guitar to add to any collection.
It's not a stretch to say that some day this interesting and beautifully designed guitar could be regarded as a classic like other past designs like the Mosrite.
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