Rebel Without A Cause: The Gibson M-III Superstrat

The early 1990s were an unusual time of rapid change for guitar design. In the 1980s, the classic shapes of the 60s and 70s had fallen by the wayside, replaced by sleek shredder’s axes. Where once guitar players demanded elegant carved maple tops and fixed bridges, the typical guitarist of the 80s wanted high-output humbuckers, Floyd Rose tremolos, 24 frets, and flash. Lots of flash. Slash helped turn things around with his low-slung Gibson Les Pauls after Appetite For Destruction hit, but for the most part, day-glo finishes and pointy curves were where it was at. 

In the early 90s, that all changed. Suddenly, by the end of 1992 shredding was out. And 80s-style hard rock was really out. And the guitars that made that music were really, really out. Players were instead seeking vintage – or at least retro-styled – guitars in keeping with the alternative aesthetic. Nobody wanted thin necks, hot pickups, whammy bars or reverse headstocks. As a result, a lot of innovative guitars never quite got their shot. Once such instrument was the Gibson M-III. 

After a decade of trial and error, guitarists and guitar companies alike were really starting to get the hang of hard rock-oriented guitar design by the early 90s. The Gibson M-III, introduced in 1991, was a sleek, double-cutaway instrument which was surprisingly un-Gibson-like, with the exception of its Les Paul-style volume and tone knobs and reverse Explorer-type headstock. The Standard and Deluxe models sported Schaller-made Floyd Rose tremolos and a H-S-H (humbucker/single coil/humbucker) pickup layout married to a five-way blade switch and a two-way toggle, making the guitar capable of both humbucker and single coil sounds. The pickups were a 496R in the neck position, a 500T in the bridge and an NSX single coil in the middle position. Flip the two-way switch one way and it focused on humbucker sounds: flip it the other for single coil voicings. A total of nine separate sounds were possible, including an enhanced neck pickup tone and a stand-by mode for muting or kill switch effects. Great care was taken to make the pickup layout seem intuitive, presumably to ease the learning curve for an admittedly un-Gibson-like Gibson. One particularly interesting touch was the ‘zebra’ pickup color scheme: the white coils of each humbucker, combined with the white single coil, provided a visual reminder that the guitar was capable of traditional 3-pickup single coil sounds as well as twin-humbucker ones.

An advertisement from 1991 touted the M-III’s slim-taper neck, “shaped to your hand, not some alien’s.” That 1-14/32-inch wide neck (which was set in, compared to the bolt-on necks one might expect on such an instrument) featured 24 jumbo frets, offset arrowhead-shaped offset inlays and a maple fretboard. The neck joined the body at the 22nd fret for superb upper-fret access, and to this day, if one digs deep enough, internet message boards are peppered with players reporting how pleasant the M-III’s neck is to play. In February 1992 Guitar World’s Chris Butler reviewed the M-III Standard and remarked that the instrument’s only drawback was that it was so addictive to play that he found himself noodling instead of focusing on the recording session at hand.

The M-III Standard and Deluxe each had a uniquely-shaped tortiseshell pickguard with an almost tigerstripe effect, which followed the crescent-like arc created by the treble and bass side cutaways. (Actually, if you squint hard enough, the pickguard almost looks like an upside-down and backwards Explorer body). The pickguard was echoed by a tortiseshell truss rod cover and toggle switch surround. The guitar was available in ebony, white and candy apple red (Standard) or a clear finish which showed off the quality of the mahogany body (Deluxe).

Other variants included some which were rear-routed (ie: no pickguard); different pickup layouts (a pair of humbuckers with no single coil); different tremolos (Steinberger); and different woods and construction methods (neck-thru models were produced, and there are unconfirmed anecdotal reports of a handful of bolt-on models out there in the wild). The innovative switching system and pickup layout were also incorporated into a few Les Paul models, while Epiphone made a version called the EM-2 Rebel (1991-1998), and offered basses inspired by the M-III body shape all the way into 1999. The M-III, meanwhile, remained in the Gibson catalog in one form or another until 1996, and today the body shape lives on in two guitars from Epiphone’s prophecy series, the EM-2 EX and EM-2 FX (the EM-1 was discontinued in 2010).

An early adopter was Sid Fletcher of the band Roxy Blue, who used the guitar in the video for the band’s single “Rob The Cradle” and appeared in a print advertisement campaign for Gibson in 1992. But for the most part, the M-III was bought and loved by regular players who required a high-performance instrument with Swiss Army Knife-like tonal flexibility.

Gibson brought the M-III back for a while in the early 2010s but in a stripped-down format without a lot of the stuff that made the original M-III cool, like the mini-toggle and the pickguard. They’re fun guitars if you ever get to try one, but it’s just not the same.

So here’s to the original M-III and its quirky weirdness!