Gibson's L-5: A Milestone

George Gruhn
"Rare Bird"
Guitar PlayerMagazine, September 1984
Gibson's L-5 carved-top acoustic guitar has been continuously in production since its introduction in 1923 (except for a brief period during World War II). It has undergone many changes over the years, hitting its peak in popularity during the big band era of the '30s and '40s. The L-5 of that period, the Advanced model non-cutaway acoustic, is considered by many to be the quintessential arch-top rhythm guitar.

The model pictured here was made in 1946, according to its serial number (99246) and specifications. It is all original and still in excellent condition. L-5's made at that time were available in either a sunburst or natural finish. The natural finish, introduced in 1939, is less common, possibly because it was initially more expensive by $15.00 (roughly equivalent to $150 today). Gibson claimed that the higher price was due to the extra pretty maple used on the natural finish guitars, and the 1946 pictured here is certainly a good example of that. It has a two-piece book matched spruce carved top, curly maple sides, and a two-piece book matched curly maple back.

I use the term carved as opposed to arched because that is quite literally the case. Gibson used arched to describe instruments in its lower priced lines such as Kalamazoo; while the wood might have been solid, it was pressed to produce the curve rather than carved. The finer models were machine carved with some hand finishing, and the thickness was graduated: thicker in the center and tapered at the edges, a standard violin pattern. It is generally felt that carved-top instruments are superior to pressed in both strength and tone. L-5's were supported with nearly parallel braces-a treble bar and a bass bar-except for a short period beginning in 1934 when Gibson switched to X bracing. The neck is constructed of two pieces of curly maple with a very thin dark center strip, and the dark color is extended by the black paint covering the back of the headstock veneer. The headstock is inlaid with "Gibson " in the pre-War style script that was used through mid-1948, and is a bit chunkier than in the '20s and '30s. It has a typical L-5 flowerpot inlay, again done a bit heavier than on the early models.

Introduced into Gibson's Master line in 1923 during the tenure of renowned engineer Lloyd Loar, the L-5 was the company's first f-hole guitar, one of the first (by any manufacturer) to have an adjustable truss rod, and the first rod-equipped carved-top to have a neck with 14 frets clear of the body. At $275.00, it was Gibson's most expensive model, and until the Super 400 ($400.00) was introduced in 1934, it was the top of the line, setting the standard for f-hole guitars by Epiphone, Stromberg, and D'Angelico. (Super 400's were quite expensive, and never caught on like the L-5's.)

L-5's were signed and dated by Loar until December of 1924, after which he left the company. Loar models have narrow "snakehead " pegheads with "The Gibson" inlaid diagonally. They also featured a Virzi Tone Producer, a small wooden disc mounted inside the body directly under the bridge, designed to increase power and improve the guitar's tone. The device was dropped after Loar left the company. Early L-5's are quite plain looking compared to later versions, especially the Advanced model shown here.

In 1925, the L-5 changed from a birch back to maple, and in 1929 it switched from dot inlays to block markers beginning at the 3rd fret. The Advanced model was introduced late in 1934 with unbound f-holes and a plain trapeze-style tailpiece. It featured a wider body (17") and a longer scale (25.5"). In 1939, the hinged tailpiece was replaced by a heavier unit carrying a Vari-Tone tension adjuster-which allowed the player to adjust the string tension (thus altering the tone) with a small screw.

This 1946 model has an ebony fingerboard and a rosewood bridge. Early L-5's and Advanced models had matched ebony fingerboards and bridges, but by the late '30s rosewood bridges had become standard. During WW II, very few instruments were built at all-the Gibson plant was used mostly for military work-but by 1946, production had geared up again. At that time and even into the early 50s, there were shortages of ebony, so you will find that some made at random times during this period have rosewood fingerboards instead of ebony. This natural finish model has top-of line amber-handled tuning gears made by Kluson and 5-ply white-black-white-black-white binding around the top, pickguard; fingerboard, and headstock, with 3-ply binding around the back and white binding around the f-holes. This coupled with the block pearl fret markers and inlaid headstock made for a fairly heavily ornamented instrument with lots of flash.

Its construction makes the L-5 a very powerful instrument well-suited to rhythm playing in orchestras; however, the mode was introduced 10 years before guitar gained popular acceptance in brass band settings During the '20s, the heyday of Dixieland, the emphasis was on the banjo. In 1929, Eddie Lang began playing his L-5 in dance orchestras, and soon other guitarists began doing the same. With the advent of the big band era around 1933, the L-5 became the premier rhythm guitar. It is extremely powerful and can cut through a 12-piece or larger brass band with no amplification. Though a cutaway was introduced in 1939 (another first for American guitars), it was not particularly necessary for the chop-chord style of rhythm used in big bands. Because the L-5's raised fingerboard and tailpiece do not deaden the top, the entire top is acoustically active and vibrates with sound. Some musicians feel that the cutaway causes a loss of volume due to the lack of symmetry and disruption of the pattern. By the '50s, playing styles had changed and cutaway guitars were more in vogue among studio players and jazzmen. By the early '60s, non-cutaway f-hole guitars were virtually gone. Today, there is a revival of interest in music from the L-5 's heyday, and musicians are beginning to use acoustic rhythm guitars again.

While L-5's in fine original condition like this one are pretty difficult to find these days, they can generally be had for $ 1,200.00 to $ 1,500.00, which is less expensive than the cost of a replica of equal quality. Unlike Martin D45's of the '30s and '40s that can be sold today for $10,000.00, the L-5's of that period have an intrinsic value that is greater than their current market value. Since there's not much being built today in non-cutaway carved-top acoustics, and thanks to the revival of interest in swing rhythm guitar, I feel there is room for prices on these vintage models to go higher, and possibly the guitars will become true collectibles.