I learned to play on a P-bass copy. Later on, I switched to a Jazz bass and that that was it - easy to play, tone that works in every situation, you name it, the Jazz does it for me. But, lately, as I listen to music, I hear a smooth, round tone that my jazz bass doesn't quite nail. I thought to myself: "Self, let's try humbuckers." Being that I am who I am, I went back to the source, as far as I'm concerned. The Gibson Thunderbird.
I started with my Lakland earlier this year. I dropped '66 Thunderbuckers in it. And I liked it. I emailed Carlo about commissioning a JAEBird. Then Gibson and Epiphone released two new 'birds: The new Epiphone Tunderbird Classic IV and the Gibson NR Thunderbird. Mine arrived a day apart earlier this week, but I wanted to get past the first gig before I commented on them. Fit and Finish:
This is not as near-and-dear to my heart as it is for many of you. However, I have to give the "win" to Epiphone here, and in a big way.
My Epi bird has a few flaws. The black and white separation at the headstock isn't perfect. There is white paint on the end of the fingerboard. And, as with almost every Indonesian CorTek bass I have owned, it has inexplicable dings in the headstock that probably happened before the machine heads were installed. (My Skyline, Tribute, and others have them too.) But, the finish is beautiful, and the bass looks great. My only other minor gripes are these: I'm not sure the fret material is high quality, and time will tell about that. Also, when I was adjusting the bridge, one of the ferrules popped out and had to be reinstalled! As a final note, my Epi is 9lbs.
As for the Gibson, well, it was love at first sight. But I knew going in that (based on reputation) if I was a fit-and-finish nut, Gibson probably wouldn't be my brand. The Gibson looks like the wood wasn't filled before it was painted; I can see the grain in the blue paint. I actually like this look. But, there is also evidence that it wasn't sprayed in a particularly clean room - spots in the finish and a few rough spots in hard-to-polish areas. Also, the sanding of the body isn't perfect and you can see this, too. There are also a few spots on the neck that are yellow/green at the edge of the fingerboard. I think this is probably titebond discoloring the paint. As for weight, I don't know, but it is in the same ballpark as the Epi.
I really think this is a wash, but the neck profile means personal preference is a big factor. I prefer the Gibson, but it isn't really fair to say it plays "better."
The Epi has a nice, slender neck that is immediately comfortable. As others have mentioned, I couldn't get the action low enough to suit me until the ferrule popped out. When I reinstalled it, I had no trouble dropping the action; I can only assume it wasn't fully seated in the first place. With a slick-backed, 2.5" strap, it is definitely a neck-diver. It doesn't dive violently, but it does dive. This problem was solved completely with a leather strap. Having the strap pin on the back of the bass tends to make the bass point downward, though, and this is different for me.
The Gibson has a big, chunky neck and Plek'd frets. Given this, I have to say I was surprised by how high the nut was cut. The action can be adjusted lower than is playable on this bass. I won't call this one a neck-diver, but it doesn't miss by much. I gigged it on a not-too-slick strap without any issues. I will say that this bass has the smallest strap pins I have ever seen, I used a planet lock strap, but I would say either a locking strap or replacement pins is a requirement here; these tiny pins are not going to keep the bass on the strap. On the gig, this bass was perfectly comfortable, and won 2 out of 3 sets of playing time. Sound:
Thunderbird tone is probably love-it-or-hate-it, especially for finger-style players like me. I find it a little boxy and less articulate when compared to Jazz pickups. I really am starting to prefer a bridge humbucker over a single coil though. (Maybe Lakland is on to something here...) Between the two birds, though, the Gibson is my preference, being just a little "meatier." The one surprise I found here is that the Gibson's neck pickup is set a bit closer to the neck than on the Epi. This is a factor in the tone (I think), but even so, the Gibson is just a fuller, warmer sounding instrument. (Any fuller and I would say it is starting to be muddy.) Don't get me wrong, though, the Epi sounds good too. In the mix with a classic rock band, they both work well - full sounding and more articulate than I expected. (I did cheat a little and run them through my Sadowsky pre- with a little treble boost, which for me is a no-no with a Jazz bass. The Sadowsky pre- really lives up to the hype in the mix.) Sweetwater:
A few years ago, I bought ear plugs from these guys. They have made me a loyal customer. After my first purchase, they assigned a sales rep to me, and he calls periodically. I placed the order for the Gibson via telephone as it is not listed on their site. After that, Stuart@Sweetwater called me every couple weeks to update me with the order status. When I ordered the Epi online, Stuart called me to update me as to the order status. I got next-day delivery for free, and when each bass shipped, I was emailed a bunch of pictures of my bass. Stuart even caught a shipping address mistake that would have been a significant problem for me. Conclusion:
I like them both. The Epi wins cosmetically, but the Gibson has some extra cool-factor. With the Gibson, the best fit-and-finish happened with the case - the case is beautiful. I like the playability and sound of the Gibson a little better, but both are very giggable. Plus, gigging ANY thunderbird makes me cooler than all you guys that gig Jazz basses!
However, the Gibson has a street price of $1200. The Epi, with case, has a street price just shy of $600. When price is figured in, I would have to say the Epiphone is the better buy.
Pics: (Plus a few of my Skyline Thunderjazz, which is the hands-down fit-and-finish winner of the three.)