Electric guitars have been the foundation of many types of our most popular music styles for decades now, and over that time a lot of funky and oddball instruments have been designed. The mid-1970s through the 1980s seems to have been a particularly fertile period for guitar models that came from major manufacturers but were strange departures from their usual creations.
In some cases, they were adventurous reactions to what those guitar companies thought were changing times. In others, they were a way to market a less expensive instrument to people on a budget, and in others, who knows? Drugs? The result of a fever dream? It's hard to say. These guitars are either pretty cool or horrible abominations, depending on whom one asks, but they represent some ambitious free-thinking on the part of the companies who released them.
9. Gibson Marauder
Originally rolled out to the public in 1975, this oddity from Gibson was an attempt at breaking into the bolt-on neck, single-coil pickup market dominated by their main rival, Fender. The Marauder wasn't a huge seller, with around 7,200 sold by the time production ceased totally in 1982. Despite lasting until the Miami Vice decade, the Marauder's peak years were definitely in the 1970s, and both Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley of KISS endorsed them at one point.
8. Gretsch BST
Gretsch released their BST line of guitars in 1979, with advertising referring to them as "The Beast," which is awesome. They were a departure for a brand more associated with hollow-bodied and semi-hollowbodied guitars, and were crafted as a bare-bones, affordable alternative to similar models flooding into the market from Japanese competitors. The model only lasted until 1982, when interest in these types of instruments was replaced by super-Strat-style guitars. The BST line had several different models during their short run, and while they didn't receive a lot of high praise at the time, they've found a cult following since then.
7. Gibson S-1
Launched in 1974, the S-1 was another attempt by Gibson to capture a chunk of the single-coil, bolt-on neck guitar market. It's very similar in design to the Marauder — shaped similarly to a Les Paul, with a maple neck and headstock reminiscent of a Flying V. The guitar featured three Bill Laurence-designed single coil pickups and complex electronics which were designed to give players a large variety of sounds to choose from. These guitars have a dedicated fan base, probably helped along by early endorsements from Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Carlos Santana, and were designed with interesting features. They were discontinued in 1980, and replaced by the Sonex model.
6. Ovation Breadwinner
Ovation is better known for their acoustic guitars than their electric solid-bodies, but they've made quite a few of them over the years. In the early '70s, the company released its Breadwinner electric guitar, an ugly duckling guitarists either loved or hated. With a body shape that looks like a battle axe or a can opener, the Breadwinner line was not for everyone. Their distinctive shape was supposedly designed to be more ergonomic and comfortable than more traditional-minded guitars, and Breadwinners were the first mass-produced American guitars to feature active pickups. Tonal attributes aside, Breadwinners are just groovy-looking, and players like Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA used them live.
5. Fender Starcaster
A lot of changes were occurring in the domestic guitar market during the 1970s, and that may be why so many odd instruments came out of that era. American manufacturers were under fire from many sides — Gibson and Fender were both criticized for a perceived dip in the quality of their instruments, and increasingly, foreign guitar companies were putting out quality instruments that were more affordable. Of course, Fender and Gibson also continued to try to outdo each other, attempting to snatch a piece of each other's market share. Gibson's S-1 and Marauder models were both aimed at replicating certain design features that had traditionally been their rival's, and with the Starcaster, Fender tried the same strategy. Originally released in 1976, the Starcasters were semi-hollow bodied with humbuckers, which was a departure for the company. Unlike most semi-hollowbodied guitars, they retained the typically Fender bolt-on neck, which at the time was attached with an often maligned three-bolt system. Starcasters were not popular, and weren't big sellers for the company. Some people love them, though, and Fender reissued the model with significant changes in 2013.
4. Gibson Sonex
In 1980, Gibson replaced the S-1 and Marauder with the Sonex line, a budget entry with the same "Les Paulish" shape, this time created from a wooden core covered in "Resonwood" — an artificial material I've seen described as "Not quite wood, not quite plastic." There were four models of Sonex's created before the guitar line was cancelled in 1984, and all featured either Velvet Brick humbuckers or Dirty Fingers, which were designed by Bill Laurence. The Sonex-180 Deluxe was Gibson's least expensive guitar when it was released, costing a mere $299 in 1980. As a result of the price, and the unconventional use of Resonwood, the Sonex line never got a lot of respect from players who expected their guitars to be built from more traditional materials. There's something quirky-cool about them though, and I've always wanted one.
3. Gibson Nighthawk
A lot of players consider the 1990s to have been another golden age for Gibson, and a return to higher-quality instruments after a long period of decline. I'm not sure that's entirely fair, as the company has always produced some good guitars (and a few bad ones), but that is the perception among many people. Perhaps it was riding that wave of renewed interest in the brand that led them to release the Nighthawk guitars, an ambitious family of models combining classic Gibson features with a few new ideas. Looking similar to a Les Paul but with sharper contours and another shot at adding "Fenderish" attributes to a Gibson, they once again met with a collective "Meh" from most players, and did not sell well. It's sad, too, because while combining Fender and Gibson features was not a new idea, the Nighthawk designers did a better job than most had previously. The Nighthawk originally appeared in 1993, and also inspired the similar-looking Blueshawk, which was (big surprise) aimed at blues players and released in 1996. Sadly, low sales (or an unfortunate name share with a TV dinner company) hurt the model, and Gibson pulled the plug on the original Nighthawk line in 1998. In 2009, the company revived the line in various low-production models.
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2. Fender Performer
By the mid 1980s, one of the biggest trends in guitar manufacturing were "Super Strats." Players like Eddie Van Halen had popularized the idea of taking a Stratocaster-shaped guitar body (or close), combining it with a thin, fast playing neck, "hot" humbuckers, and some sort of Floyd-Rose-style double-locking tremolo. Just like the lyrics to a Van Halen song say, the trend hit the ground running, and it left the more traditional designs companies like Fender and Gibson were famous for looking old-fashioned. Fender tried to reach out to players excited by the hard-rock and heavy-metal styles that were popular at the time, and the Performer model was one of those attempts. It sort of looks like a Strat with sharp "Metal friendly" horns in the cutaways, floating tremolo, a pointy headstock and angled pickups; it's also relatively rare, only being released between 1985 and '86. The model was assembled in Japan, adding insult to injury in the eyes of Fender traditionalists, but were high-quality instruments that stir collector interest today. A few years later, Fender would try to reach the same market with the HM (for "Heavy Metal") Strat. Those are also pretty solid guitars that some players collect today.
1. Gibson Corvus
This is another model series from the early '80s that only enjoyed a short run before getting cancelled by Gibson due to disappointing sales. And that's a shame, because the Corvus line of guitars were pretty cool instruments. Named after the genus of birds that includes the crow, some people claim the weird shape of a Corvus is modeled after a bird in flight. There were three models in the line, each designated by the number of pickups the instrument had. They were only produced between 1982 and '84, and are rarely seen these days. Robert Smith of The Cure played one at one point, but Corvus sightings in the wild almost never happen. I'd love to own one of these early-'80s ugly ducklings someday.