Gibson Mystery Resophonic

George Gruhn
Guitar Player Rare Bird, March 1983
"EXTRAORDINARY GUITAR, is it not, Dr. Watson?"

"Indeed so, Mr. Holmes."

"What would you surmise--is this splendid, if peculiar, specimen really a Gibson, or is it in actuality some type of hoax?"

"Well, Mr. Holmes, I'm afraid there can be but little doubt about that, for you see, I have it on good authority that Gibson never made such a guitar--a 7-string resophonic? Ha, preposterous!"

Now just hold on a second, Dr. Watson, because the issue is by no means that clear-cut. It is true, the Dobro-style Gibson guitar shown here is, to say the least, a most unusual instrument. I have encountered no other Gibson resonator guitars, nor had I ever heard of one before seeing this piece. After sending photos of the guitar to Gibson in Kalamazoo, I was informed that the company had no records of having made such an item, and consequently they doubted its originality. This information would seem to confirm Dr. Watson's judgment and doubtless discourage many collectors and potential purchasers, yet I am convinced that this instrument is not only original, but is of exceptionally high quality.

Clearly this specimen does not conform to the catalog description of any model Gibson guitar. While Gibson and other companies have made numerous custom instruments, the vast majority of custom-mades conform to standard catalog specifications, and exceedingly few are as radically unusual as this resonator guitar. While every collector would like to have a one-of-a-kind, high-quality instrument by a famous maker, one must be extremely cautious in purchasing such items. Most pieces which differ radically from catalog specifications are either forgeries or standard models that have been customized at a later date.

Now, to the argument in favor of authenticity. Every maker has his own style of workmanship, just as distinctive and personalized as a handwritten signature. In view of the tremendous amount of hand labor involved in the construction and design of a guitar or any other stringed instrument, I think it is reasonable to say that an instrument contains some element of the "soul" of the maker, and may be a better example of his signature than any scrawl on a piece of paper. Even machine work on an instrument can be a distinctive characteristic, since no two companies use exactly the same type of tooling at every stage of the manufacturing process. Almost any operation in the construction of a guitar can be accomplished in numerous different ways, but in any given year each manufacturer will generally display a consistent technique. Conclusion: It would be virtually impossible--even for a skilled craftsman--to build a perfect forgery of a Gibson or any other well-known brand of guitar, since the forgery would be handmade, while the Gibson would be a factory-made item. Not only does machine work look different from handwork, but each type of machine effectively leaves its own signature. The only way for an instrument to look exactly like a Gibson is for it be be built in exactly the same manner as a Gibson. For all practical purposes, this means it would have to be built by Gibson employees utilizing standard Gibson materials and tooling. Although a skilled luthier could produce an excellent quality replica of a Gibson, tooling up and producing an exact replica could cost millions of dollars.

The Gibson resonator guitar shown here has a dreadnought-size body with mahogany back and sides, a spruce top, and multiple white and black binding. The resonator and coverplate are standard Dobro components which appear to be of mid- to late-1930s vintage. The cover plate is engraved in the same manner as some of the higher-grade Dobro-brand instruments. The resonator is mounted on an internal circular sound well which is of the same type of construction used in the Dobro brand guitars. While most Dobros have two screen-covered soundholes in the top. this instrument features four. The tailpiece is stamped with the name "Radio Tone" and lightning bolts. The neck is constructed of mahogany, with a rosewood fingerboard and multiple white and black binding. Two features reveal that the guitar was meant to be played Hawaiian-style rather than as a standard guitar: the square contour of the neck, and the inlaid fret position markers (rather than raised frets). While I have never come across any acoustic 7-string Gibson Hawaiian guitars, the company has made numerous 7-string lap steels.

Although this instrument is quite different from any other Gibson I've encountered in my many years of experience, all aspects of its workmanship (with the exception of the resonator components) appear to be consistent with Gibson factory work of the period from late 1948 through 1952. All materials, binding, inlay, finish, and tooling appear to be fully original. Could it be a conversion, then? Impossible. The top and soundwell are clearly designed to accommodate the resonator, and appear to be completely original.

Now we come to the hybrid theory. Gibson did produce a very limited number of 6-string squarenecked Hawaiian guitars during this period. Although the neck on this instrument is set up with seven strings (note the unusual peghead), the workmanship is consistent with other Gibson Hawaiian-style necks. Since Dobros are especially well-suited to Hawaiian styles, the combination of this body and neck is quite logical. This guitar bears no serial number--however, custom instruments and experimental prototypes made during this period frequently were not numbered.

Further speculation is invited by the following facts: During the late 1940s and '50s, Dobros were out of production. Rights to the Dobro and National brand names and many of the Dobro and National components belonged to Valco, the company that succeeded National Dobro. Valco in turn made distribution agreements with the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, which also owned Gibson. Many National-brand guitars featured Gibson bodies with Valco necks, bridges, and other components. While I do not have documentary proof, it is my opinion that this Gibson resonator guitar utilizes pre-World War II Dobro parts that Valco had in stock. We can only speculate whether this instrument was intended to fill one custom order or was an experimental prototype for a model that never went into production.

Although the guitar is in excellent condition, it shows clear signs of age. In this fad alone we find another argument for its authenticity. While there are many excellent luthiers today, 20 years ago this was not the case. In the past, few makers would have been able to produce a convincing forgery, nor would they have had the financial incentive to do so. It is only since vintage guitars have become collector's items, with some models commanding high prices, that forgeries have become a problem. Since the prime motivation in producing a forgery is profit, such instruments are almost invariably copies of models for which there is a well-established demand. Although the Gibson resonator guitar is a very fine instrument, this piece would be exceptionally difficult to reproduce and would not offer nearly as great a financial reward as a copy of another model. While I do not claim to be infallible, if this instrument is not original it would be the best hoax I have ever encountered. If indeed it is a hoax, then it must have been made by a luthier of surpassing skill, with lots of time on his hands, access to original Gibson and Dobro components, plenty of money, no profit motivation, and possibly--a great sense of humor.