The Current's Guitar Collection: Bryce Dessner of The National

A close-up look at the body of Bryce Dessner's 1965 Gibson Firebird, taken during The National's live performance in the UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio.
A close-up look at the body of Bryce Dessner's 1965 Gibson Firebird, taken during The National's live performance in the UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)

When The National played an exclusive in-studio performance in the UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio, we asked Bryce Dessner about his guitar. Here's what he had to say:

What kind of guitar is it?

It's a 1965 non-reversed Gibson Firebird.

Where did you get it?

That's an interesting story. Ben Lanz, who plays trombone, he and I found it on eBay, covered in stickers and bad neon paint, and it was stripped of its electronics. A Gibson Firebird is a very sought-after vintage instrument. They're difficult to find for less than $6,000 or $7,000. This one, just the wood alone was worth a lot of money. Whoever had it didn't realize it was worth something, so they were selling it for $300. So we bought it because we could tell, based on the neck and a brass electronics plate in there, that it was vintage.

And then I stripped the paint off and found the serial number and it's a 1965, so that was a good return on my investment. It's worth at least 10 times what I paid for it.

We rebuilt it ourselves and put Lollar pickups — they're hand-wound pickups from California — in it. So it's now my main instrument. It's really fun.

How did you get the stickers and neon paint off of it?

Actually, I used really nasty paint remover — the kind you don't want to get on your skin. I tried some eco paint remover and it, like, didn't do anything, so I had to use real acid. And then it came right off! It was surprisingly easy to do.

What do you like about playing this guitar?

Its size is kind of amazing, you feel like you're playing a bass. It's not heavy, but it has a really kind of imposing presence about it. I do play three other instruments on stage, but this one can sound like a Les Paul, but it can also sound more like a single-coil. It's a really nice rhythm instrument.

I use flatwound strings on it — sometimes you can sweep-play the bass strings, and it almost sounds like a bass. It's just really flexible. I can play slide on it. It's a good all-around instrument.

I guess I'm kind of proud of it because my other guitars cost far more, but this one is just like a personal favorite.

Any other anecdotes to share about it?

It's always funny — people sometimes will try to figure out what they'll write about the guitars we play, and I think this one has been confusing people because it looks a little weird. It looks like a Gibson Firebird but the electronics have changed, obviously, so it's always interesting to see people try to figure it out because it's a weird story.

Watch this site for future additions to The Current's Guitar Collection.

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  • The National's efficient guitar techs have clearly labeled the case that holds Bryce Dessner's 1965 Gibson Firebird.
    The National's efficient guitar techs have clearly labeled the case that holds Bryce Dessner's 1965 Gibson Firebird. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)