1967 Gibson Century

Demand for lap steels fell steadily after World War II, and by the mid ‘60s their popularity had reached its nadir. A number of manufacturers still maintained several models in their lines, but none had significant sales of Hawaiian-style instruments. Sales of pedal steels were somewhat more promising, but it was slowly becoming clear that none of the major guitar manufacturers had pedal mechanisms that could compete with new instruments from Emmons, Sho-Bud or MSA. Gibson’s Electraharp series were the first commercially available pedal steels, hitting the market in 1940, but their mechanisms had never been significantly updated and they were withdrawn in 1966. Most of Gibson’s lap steels were withdrawn by the end of the 1950s, leaving mainly console and pedal steels to survive into the 1960s.

Gibson made one last effort to revive its lap steel line in the mid ‘60s. Most models had already disappeared, but the Skylark and Century were given makeovers. In 1965, the Skylark was given a cherry red finish and its body was changed from korina to mahogany, perhaps in an attempt to simplify Gibson’s wood stock. The attempt may have been half-hearted, though, as the previous (natural korina) Skylark was still shown in the 1966 catalog. Although the Skylark was the more popular of Gibson’s two lap steel models at the time, very few seem to have been built in the last two years of production.

A similar but more significant facelift was given to the more upscale of Gibson’s two lap steels in 1966. The Century was introduced in 1948; several variations appeared before 1966, but all had maple bodies, two tone controls and opaque finishes. The new Century was more like a cross between a lap steel and a Firebird: a mahogany body with a translucent cherry finish and new contours, an anodized aluminum pickguard, a modernized headstock logo, and a completely new fretboard. Most significant were the completely revamped electronics: a conventional volume and tone control, as well as a pickup borrowed from the Firebird line of guitars. Although it retained the Century name, this was actually a completely new instrument. Many of its features were unique in the history of Gibson steels; it was, in fact, the only legless Gibson steel ever to receive a humbucking pickup.

Perhaps Gibson anticipated that these changes would breathe new life into the Century: the factory upped production from just 19 in 1966 (including both old and new-style Centuries) to 41 in 1967. However, it must have quickly become obvious that their lap steels’ unpopularity wasn’t simply due to antiquated designs. The market for non-pedal steels had reached its nadir, and no amount of revamping would change that. Along with the Skylark, the Century was discontinued altogether in 1967. This last version thus became one of the rarest Gibson instruments, with between 41 and 60 produced altogether.

Considering that it’s effectively a lap steel version of a Firebird, it’s not surprising that the last Centuries are excellent rock and roll steels. It is surprisingly lightweight, making it easy on the knees. The pickup is bright and clear but the tone becomes nicely rounded when the tone control is backed off. The string balance isn’t perfect, with the center strings being slightly louder than the top and bottom strings; perhaps the pickup was balanced for a Firebird with a radiused fretboard instead of a lap steel with the strings sitting level. The instrument shows moderate wear, including damage to the finish from sitting in the case in contact with a coiled cable. Still, everything is original and it sounds wonderful.