Born in Grenada, Mississippi in 1936, Eddie learned to play guitar in the styles of Chet Atkins, Albert King and Wes Montgomery. After finishing school, he moved to Detroit to become part of the city’s bustling music scene. He kept busy with local gigs and session work until Motown founder Berry Gordy came calling and made him a member of the record label’s house band in 1959.
After becoming a Funk Brother, Eddie would begin using this Gibson Firebird in the studio on an unparalleled run of hits. The tracks Eddie cut with this guitar include "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Jimmy Mack," "Second That Emotion," "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and countless others.
The Gibson Firebird was originally released in 1963 with four different models, including the Firebird I, III, V and VII. This guitar features the traditional reversed body shape that made Firebirds famous and it is beautifully worn from years of use. The Firebird III employs an ebony fretboard and bound neck with block inlays that is similar to the classic 1959 Gibson neck profile.
Typically, Firebird IIIs only have two pickups, but this particular guitar is outfitted with three. Eddie Willis added the third pickup and it is a period-correct Firebird pickup. In addition, he also outfitted the guitar with phase reverse and coil tapping switches. The original Maestro Vibrola sidearm unit did break at some point and Eddie replaced it with an era-correct wrapped tailpiece.
This 1964 Gibson Firebird III comes with the original case used by Eddie Willis. The case itself is an amazing time capsule as it features backstage passes and stickers from many of the Four Tops and Temptations tours that he played on. Also included with the guitar and case is a photo of Eddie and a letter of authenticity signed by the guitarist from when he originally sold the guitar. In the letter, Eddie lists out the songs he played the guitar on:
“Stubborn Kind of Fellow”
“My Cherie Amour”
“The Way You Do The Things Yo Do”
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
“Second That Emotion”
“Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”
“I Was Made To Love Her”
“Don’t Mess With Bill”
“Nowhere To Run”
“I’ll Be Doggone”
“Your Precious Love”
Before putting this 1964 Gibson Firebird III up for sale, we had to re-record some of the classic tracks that Eddie Willis played the guitar on. We headed into Rustbelt Studios with a killer trio of local players including guitarist Brett Lucas, bassist James Simonson and drummer Ron Otis. Watch below to hear the Firebird in use, which we captured using the Acme Audio MTP-66 Motown Tube Preamp and DI and mixed with vintage Motown EQs.