Vintage Guitar - March 2017 - Open - 54

COLUMN The (Way) Back Beat
and at $550, by far the most expensive. In '31,
the company's guitar-oriented promotional
efforts were focused on the Recording Grand
Amplifying Hawaiian Guitar, a jumbo flat-top
with a second body inside the first. This proved
a failure, and with the success of National
resonator instruments, the market for
Hawaiian flat-tops was declining.
Fortunately, Gibson had a handle on
the future of the guitar - the Master
Model L-5. Introduced in 1923, the L-5
was the first "modern" archtop, but
languished through the '20s. Its combination of a carved/parallel-braced
f-hole top on a 16"-wide body, 14-fret neck,
and elevated/adjustable bridge proved to
be the template for the majority of subsequent archtops, even though it took years
to catch on. At $275, the Master Model
was the most expensive production guitar
in the world - nearly $100 more than the
top National or Martin offerings. Still,
the highest-grade '20s tenor banjos cost
twice that or more, so its price was not
prohibitive for a professional orchestra
player. In '29, the L-5 first graced the
front cover of Gibson's Catalog R with
the guitars finally listed ahead of the
mandolins. By this point, the L-5 was
finding a market as the instrument of
choice for top orchestra and radio players, the only guitar with the power to
carry through a full horn
section. Eddie Lang was
by far the most influential guitarist of the
day, and he switched
to an L-5 from an L-4
circa 1928, convincing
many other professionals to do the same
- if they could afford
to. The obvious answer
should have been a line
of guitars based on
the f-hole/14-fret
L-5, but at price
points accessible to all
players. Gibson itself was
slow to see
this and for
a time simply
m a i nt a i ne d
its '20s archtop
line, stable for
much of the decade
as the company emphasized banjos.

Gibson's guitar line for 1930, shown in Catalog
S, still consisted of just one f-hole/14-fret archtop
- the L-5 - with the venerable 16" oval-hole L-4 at
$150 and the even-older small-body/round-hole
L-2 at $100, all little changed from the mid '20s.
Models below this - the Nick Lucas
Special, L-2, L-1, and L-0 - were all
flat-tops, a style that the Gibson
catalogs had denigrated until the
mid '20s. The ancient-looking
Style U harp guitar was stuck at
the back end, its presence likely
representing Gibson's efforts to
move old stock.
After several years of separate banjo
catalogs, this marked the first time since
1925 that the entire Gibson line was
presented under one cover. The banjos
- and banjo players - were still up-front,
but the guitar section led off with the
phrase "Modern Music Glorifies the
Guitar" - perhaps premature, but not
entirely inaccurate!
By 1929 - even before the stock market crashed - all fretted manufacturers
had to figure out where the market was
heading. The end of the '20s finally saw
the emergence of competing archtops,
first from Vega. The Boston company's
(LEFT) The stately 1930 L-5.
(RIGHT) The upgraded '33 L-5.

VINTAGE GUITAR

54

March 2017

$100 Arched Model (a spinoff of it cylinder-back
mandolins) was shown in ads in the spring of
1929, and the Cremona with an f-hole top debuted
around the turn of 1930-'31. At the same time,
Martin adapted its flat-tops to the "orchestra"
mode with a slimmer fingerboard,
solid headstock, and 14th-fret neck/
body joint - all influenced by the
L-5. Though designed as rhythm
instruments, the resulting OMs are
now ironically considered the greatest fingerstyle guitar. Martin began
offering round-hole archtops in '31,
and for a time they sold fairly well.
In this period, the L-5 began to evolve,
dressed with fancier block fretboard
inlays and gold-plated hardware, giving
it a bit of banjo-like flash. A number of
mostly cosmetic modifications - longer
pickguard, new tailpiece, Grover tuners,
kerfed top bracing in place of hand-fit
tone bars - made the increasingly popular
guitar a bit quicker to build. Extant L-5s
of the era often show an imprecise mix
of features, and serial numbers are not
always in order. In some cases, dot-neck
guitars have numbers sequentially well
above block-neck examples, and many
were either custom-ordered or shipped
and returned multiple times. While
discerning players today seek out earlier
examples, all 16" L-5s tend to be
superlative instruments.
According to legend,
Eddie Lang selected
his block-neck L-5
by going to the factory and listening
to a number them in
various stages of finish
played from across the
room.
Despite this patronage, Gibson was
struggling with a
rapidly shrinking market.
Sales of a
single model
could not
support
a fac tor y
work force.
If Gibson
appeared
indecisive,
the Epiphone
Banjo Company
was not. The firm
had issued the eccentric


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Contents
Vintage Guitar - March 2017 - Open - Cover
Vintage Guitar - March 2017 - Open - IFC
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