Pros: does not sound like a cardboard box with strings
Cons: inferior to comparably priced guitars in terms of bass volume, treble quality, liquidity, and sustain
There was a time when Gibson made some of the best acoustic guitars around. Many older Gibsons are classics, and some are worth a lot of money. At a recent Strawberry Music Festival near Yosemite, I played an older (was it from 1958? I can't remember) Gibson acoustic, and the thing was great: nice, woody tone, good intonation, good projection. I think they were asking something like $3,000 for it, though it probably cost about $150 in 1958. But in recent years, Gibson seems to have lost its edge. At each price point, guitars from Martin, Taylor and Larrivee outperform Gibson acoustics.
I've made it my quest to find a modern Gibson acoustic that I can recommend. Though I've found some that weren't that bad, I have yet to find one that competes with the best at its price range from other manufacturers.
The Gibson Songbird (now called the "Songwriter," according to an email I received from Gibson) is a fairly standard looking guitar. In size, it compares with the many entry-level mahogany dreadnoughts available from Martin, Taylor and Larrivee, including the Martin D-16GT, the Taylor 310, and the Larrivee D-04. The basic mahogany Songbird, without electronics, retails for about $1850, and can probably be had for about $1350 at your larger guitar stores.
The Gibson Songbird is described on the Gibson website as "Designed for the working musician who demands a superior sound at an affordable price." It has solid mahogany back and sides, and a solid Sitka spruce top. The fingerboard is made of Morado, which is a kind of faux-rosewood apparently harvested from near the Bolivian Andes.
Some of the appointments on the Gibson Songbird are a bit fancier than on Martin, Taylor and Larrivee's entry-level dreadnought mahogany guitars. The fingerboard inlays are what Gibson calls "pearloid trapezoids" and the tuners are gold plated "kidney beans." The pick guard is a fairly typical Gibson style (I find them too busy, but that's a matter of personal taste).
Scale length is 25-1/2", and the neck is fairly streamline. As with comparable models from Martin and Taylor, the top is finished gloss, while the rest of the body is finished matte (Gibson calls it "satin").
So how did the thing play and sound?
Playability was actually pretty good. The action on the samples I played was set medium to medium low, and the neck was comfortable. The fingerboard was not as luxurious as on the Taylor 310, but I noticed that this led to a bit of a paradox: Although the Taylor FELT like it was easier to play, I actually found myself making fewer mistakes on the Gibson. I couldn't play quite as fast on the Gibson, but it's as if I had to concentrate a bit more, leading to cleaner playing. I've noticed a similar thing happening with Martin acoustics. Maybe Taylors lure one into a false sense of security.
The sound of the Gibson Songbird was far better than that of the round shouldered "Workingman" guitar I panned more than a year ago, but it still wasn't quite to my liking. Treble tones were not bad, but they were a bit harsh and coarse compared to similarly priced guitars from Martin, Taylor or Larrivee. Sustain was OK, but it did not compare with the Taylor 310 or Larrivee D-04 (or most Martin D-16GTs). Bass was not missing in action, as it was on the horrible "Workingman" guitar, but nor was it particularly impressive. The Martin D-16GT was fuller and more authoritative. The Taylor 310 was tighter. And the Larrivee D-04 was more liquid and seductive, even through the bass range. The Gibson Songbird was fairly loud, especially though the midrange and treble, which might be helpful if you're going to be playing with others.
Some Gibson Songbirds come outfitted with a pick-up, allowing you to plug it directly into an amp. I'm not sure how much this adds to the price, but I think it is about $200. I didn't have a chance to use the Songbirds I played as electrics, but I noticed the electronics were not the same high quality Fishman electronics used on most Martin, Taylor and Larrivee acoustic-electrics.
Overall, the Gibson Songbird was a competent performer, but there were no areas in which its sound was superior to comparably priced guitars from Martin, Taylor and Larrivee. The electronics-equipped Gibson competes with the Martin DC-16GTE, the Taylor 310CE, and the Larrivee D-04E. These three sell for a few hundred dollars LESS than the electronics-equipped Songbirds. The all-acoustic versions mentioned above can be had for under $1000, also several hundred dollars less than the comparable Gibson Songbird.
If you want a thousand dollar guitar with an authentic bluegrassy sound, check out the Martin D-16GT first (Martin DC-16GTE if you want electronics). If you want a thousand dollar guitar with excellent definition and sustain, check out the the Taylor 310 first (Taylor 310CE if you want electronics). If you want a thousand dollar guitar with remarkable liquidity and seductiveness, check out the Larrivee D-04 first (D-04E if you want electronics). If you really want a mahogany Gibson, check out the Gibson Songbird. It's not a bad guitar.
But for me, the search continues.
Note: I recently played a couple of guitars at a local Guitar Center that were labeled as Gibson Songbirds, but that obviously had rosewood, not mahogany, back and sides. I think they also had ebony fingerboards. Some of these rosewood Songbirds sounded pretty darned good! If you see a Gibson Songbird on display, look into the soundhole. If the wood of the back appears very dark, it's probably rosewood. Give it a strum and see what you think. The rosewood Songbirds might not be my first choice in rosewood guitars, but the ones I've played so far were good enough that I would probably recommend them if I found them on Epinions. In fact, having recently read Sparkospunky's excellent review
my hunch is that I was playing (and enjoying) the "Songwriter Deluxe." Maybe rosewood is just what the Songbird/Songwriter needed.
But the regular mahogany Songbird (Songwriter) gets three stars and a yawn from me.