1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe
1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe

 

CRAVE Guitars says…

Pluses: Very rare (& cool) silver finish, fantastic condition and originality, vintage market price

Minuses: The ‘resonwood’ body construction, bolt on neck, Japanese hardware

Verdict: A very nice example of an underrated Gibson. It is nowhere near as bad as its reputation might suggest. The Sonex-180 remains an affordable vintage guitar with the Gibson logo on the headstock, although don’t expect it to make a massive return on investment. Often criticised, it now deserves re‑assessment.

Model Description:

The Les Paul-shaped single-cutaway Gibson Sonex-180 was made in America for a short period between 1980 and 1984, intended to replace the outgoing S-1 and Marauder models. There were four Sonex‑180 models in the series, the basic Deluxe with Bill Lawrence‑designed ‘Velvet Brick’ humbuckers, the Standard with ‘Dirty Fingers’ pickups, and coil split switch, the pricier Custom with an ebony fingerboard, and a very small number of Artist versions with active electronics and set necks. When pundits describe the highs and lows of Gibson guitars, they often point to the Sonex-180 as the nadir. To many, the model was symptomatic of the problems that Gibson was facing during the Norlin‑owned years (1969-1986). The Sonex-180, like its predecessors, had a maple bolt‑on neck, which alienated many traditionalists, as did the large scratchplate covering a voluminous pickup cavity. However, it was the radically different body construction that drew intense disapproval. Gibson named the body Multi‑Phonic™, comprising a thick outer layer of moulded resin and wood composite (called ‘resonwood’) surrounding a hardwood ‘tone core’. Despite justifiable reasons for using alternatives to solid wood, detractors over the years have described it as an unacceptable step too far in Gibson’s decline and symbolic of management failings at the company. As a result, the ‘experimental’ Sonex-180, rightly or wrongly, attracts a fair degree of notoriety in the Gibson pantheon.

 

Guitar Description:

Now, here’s a real ‘diamond in the rough’ and another underdog guitar that I deliberately sought out. If you have read the model description or checked out Internet (mis)information, you may wonder what the rationale for acquiring it could possibly be. Primarily, I am intrigued by the experimentation used by Gibson to make what was their cheapest ‘Made in U.S.A.’ guitar at the time ($299 in 1981). Secondarily, the intense vitriol aimed at it piqued my curiosity and I wanted to experience one for myself so that, maybe, I can bring some objectivity to the matter. This example is in exceptionally good condition, having been barely played by the previous owner for over 25 years, and comes with its original owner’s manual and case. The matt solid silver finish is very scarce – Wikipedia states that, “Less than 100 (by factory record) solid‑colour silver units were produced, making it the rarest of the Sonex models”. Personally, I think the combination of unusual silver and black is really cool as well as rare. Despite reports to the contrary, it isn’t particularly heavy at just 8lbs. Tonally, it is actually quite strong and, boy, does it sustain – perhaps Gibson was actually onto something. The groovy ‘zebra’ pickups are quite hot and it certainly doesn’t sound thin and harsh, as some have indicated, making it great for alternative, garage, punk, reggae and rock styles. While, technically it may be more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’ in the Gibson canon, the Sonex‑180 provides plenty of ‘bang for the buck’. Because of its reputation, it remains very good value on the vintage market, as long as you know what you are looking at. In conclusion, the Sonex‑180 may fall into the ‘it seemed a good idea at the time’ category but that doesn’t make it a bad guitar. Being positive, it is much better than the numerous diatribes would lead you to believe. OK, it isn’t Gibson’s best guitar ever but, spoiler alert… it doesn’t suck! However, because the Sonex-180 has attracted so much unwarranted bile over time, it is unlikely to become hugely collectable, at least for the time being. However, be advised, it may just be a bit of a misunderstood ‘sleeper’ that is ripe for sensible reappraisal at some point in the future… maybe.

Features:

  • Manufactured in Nashville, Tennessee, USA in 1981
  • Multi-Phonic™ body comprising moulded ‘resonwood’ outer layer over a solid mahogany core
  • Body and neck finished in matt silver nitrocellulose finish
  • Maple bolt-on neck
  • Unbound rosewood fingerboard with 22 frets and pearloid dot markers
  • Original unbranded tuners
  • Unbound headstock with gold screen-printed ‘The Gibson Guitar Company U.S.A.’ logo
  • Nut width 111/16” (43mm)
  • Scale length 24¾” (629mm)
  • Original chrome plated hardware (made in Japan)
  • Original 2-ply black/white scratchplate
  • Original twin Bill Lawrence-designed ‘zebra-coil’ ‘Velvet Brick’ 3-point humbucking pickups
  • Original 3-way pickup selector switch, 2 volume and 2 tone controls, jack socket and strap buttons
  • Original tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece
  • Weight – 8lbs (3.6kgs)
  • Original ‘The Gibson Guitar Company U.S.A.’ logo hard shell case
  • Original Gibson ‘Sonex Series’ owner’s manual
  • Serial Number: 81731552 (1981)

 

Artists:

  • Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) NB. very heavily modified

 

Trivia:

As well as being economic and efficient to produce, Gibson claimed a number of benefits for the consistency, durability, weight, resonance and sustain of ‘resonwood’ used for the Sonex‑180’s body. Although unconfirmed, the ‘180’ in the model name may derive from the temperature testing applied to the Multi‑Phonic™ body, which survived temperatures from -40°F to +180°F.

 

The Sonex-180’s headstock logo varied over the 4 years it was in production, including the normal Gibson logo, ‘The Gibson Guitar Company U.S.A.’ design (as here), and even ‘Sonex by Gibson’. The variant logo(s) not only differentiated the model from other Gibson lines, it was apparently also used by the company to circumvent their existing high-end dealerships so that they could distribute the budget Sonex‑180 through a broader distribution network.

 

The use of resin/wood composite had been used by Gibson before in its budget brand of Kalamazoo guitars produced between 1965 and 1969, the KG-1 and KG-2 guitars and a KB bass.


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