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One of the ways Dietrich whiled away his retirement was to give talks on his life in car design. Gibson boss Ted McCarty happened to go along to one, and afterwards, he introduced himself and asked if Dietrich would be interested in designing a guitar.
Dietrich agreed, and Gibson hired him to devise a new solidbody electric line. He eventually came up with the design we know as the Firebird, but at first it didn’t have a name.
“I was sitting in my office one day with Ray and a couple of the other fellas,” McCarty later recalled, “and we were trying to come up with a name for this thing. He said, ‘Why don’t you call it Phoenix?’ I said, ‘Phoenix, that’s the firebird, the old story of rising from the ashes.’ So, that’s where the name Firebird came from. And Ray also designed the firebird logo that’s on the pickguard.”
The new models appeared in Gibson’s 1963 catalogue, with the blurb insisting the Firebirds were a “revolutionary new series of solidbody guitars. Exciting in concept, exciting to play. You’ll find a whole new world of sound and performance potential... plus that sharpness in the treble and deep, biting bass... A completely new and exciting instrument that offers all the sound, response, fast action, and wide range that could be desired.”
There were four Firebirds for the 1963 launch – I, III, V, and VII – each with different appointments but following the same overall design and build. The missing numbers II and IV went to two complementary Thunderbird basses, but there was no VI.
Gibson announced the new line just before the July 1963 NAMM show in Chicago, and they first appeared on a July price list, with production starting about three months later.