When you think about iconic Gibson electric guitars, the SG is right up there. It’s a design classic and, thanks to the likes of Angus Young, Tony Iommi and Cream-era Eric Clapton, it’s probably second only to the Les Paul as Gibson’s most recognizable axe.
But, there’s a black sheep to the SG family that not many – save guitar enthusiasts – are aware of. Introduced in 1971, the SG-100, SG-200 and SG-250 were intended to supersede Gibson’s budget friendly Melody Maker instrument as the company’s entry level offering. As you’re probably aware, however, they didn’t. Indeed, within one year, production of SG-100s, 200s and 250s had ceased altogether.
So what happened? Why did these budget model SGs fail, and are these much-maligned guitars due a re-evaluation today? Hold on to your hats, ‘cause we’re about to find out.
Gibson: The Wilderness Years
To understand why the SG100 came to be in the first place, it helps to have a broader view of where Gibson was at as a company circa 1970.
For Gibson, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of massive upheaval. Ted McCarty, the visionary who had led the manufacturer through their late ‘50s to early ‘60s golden period, stepped down as company president in 1966. And, without his leadership and vision, Gibson was at a loss. They responded by diving headlong into a period of freeform research and development. In effect, the early 1970s were Gibson’s “experimental” phase, where they threw anything and everything at the wall to see if it stuck.
On paper, of course, a budget model SG made perfect sense. After all, Gibson’s Melody Maker, modeled on the Les Paul, was a tried and tested winner. The company had even experimented with SG-styled Melody Makers in the late 1960s, so there was already a precedent.
Three types of budget model SG hit store shelves in 1971. The SG-100 came with a single pickup in the neck position and was available in Cherry and Walnut finishes. The SG-200 – also available in Cherry and Walnut – added an additional pickup to the bridge. Identical to the SG-200 in specs, the only thing that distinguished the SG-250 was its premium Cherry Sunburst color scheme.
Aesthetically –at least to a non-guitarist –these three instruments bore the hallmarks of a classic Gibson SG. But in terms of build, it was a very different story. Firstly, there was the choice of material. Unlike its full-fat counterpart which was usually made of mahogany, the SG-100 and its siblings were crafted out of maple. With bodies much chunkier than the standard SG, the SG-100 family were heavy instruments.
Heavy in look, yes, but not so heavy in sound. Rather than the P90s or Humbuckers customarily found in Gibson guitars, the company opted for single coil pickups on these models. And, those pickups, combined with the guitars’ slider-knob control switches, non-angled headstock and thin neck profile, leave the SG-100, 200 and 250s feeling more like Telecaster/SG hybrids than light-model SGs.
Ultimately, that confused sense of identity was the SG-100 family’s downfall. People didn’t buy a Gibson SG-branded guitar because they wanted a Fender Telecaster… they bought one because they wanted an SG! While the 100s, 200s and 250s might have looked the part, you’d be hard pressed to get your favorite Sabbath or Cream riffs sounding right on one.
Upon its release in 1971, the SG-100 was seen as a downgrade over the better spec’d Melody Maker. And, as a result, sales were slow. Gibson shipped a mere 5000 S-100s, 200s and 250s in 1971, quietly phasing out production of the instrument by 1972.
Looking back, the SG-100 wasn’t exactly Gibson’s finest hour. But, it’s a fascinating curio nonetheless. And, because of their marginalized status in the Gibson guitar pantheon, you can still pick one up these days without breaking the bank. While it’ll never be your workhorse, Gibson devotees may still get some joy out of this hybrid peculiarity.
Have you ever played an SG-100? Did you own one? And do you think they deserve a re-evaluation? Share your stories in the comments!
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.
This week, to satisfy my yearning for live music, I’ve taken a deep dive into my record collection and rediscovered some live favourites. Given how much joy I’ve got out of these records, I thought I’d share them with you today. Putting together this list, I’ve tried to take the road less travelled. I didn’t want to put together a list of classic live albums that everyone already knows like the back of their hand. Instead, my three picks serve as alternatives to some of those classic albums, offering a new look at some legendary bands.