Until recently, it was assumed that the L-5 was launched in 1922 along with the F-5 mandolin. However, as the earliest surviving example on record dates from July 6, 1923 link, the later year appears to be more likely.
Although Gibson’s Catalogue N of 1923 included the F-5 Mandolin, it made no mention of the L-5. Nevertheless, the model was pictured in an artist endorsement photo and also appeared on a price list dated April 15th 1923.
Catalog N, Image courtesy of Paul Fox
Artist endorsement picture, Catalog N, image courtesy of Paul Fox
The 1924 ‘Mastertone Stringed Instruments’ brochure pre-dates Catalogue O and is the first piece of Gibson promotional literature to mention (but not show) the L-5 link.
Gibson’s Catalogue O (issued in either late 1924 or early 1925) shows the entire Style 5 Master Model line, including the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola, the K-5 mando-cello and the L-5 guitar link.
The first L-5s – along with other ‘Master Model’ instruments – were signed and dated by acoustical engineer, Lloyd Loar. Loar left Gibson in December 1924 and the last Loar-signed label appeared in that month. Our database lists 34 Loar signed L-5s.
The original Gibson L-5 had a 16-inch wide body with a spruce top, a birch back and maple sides (Gibson literature misleadingly described many instruments built prior to 1925 as having maple bodies). A few examples with maple back and sides were shipped in 1924 and 1925. Both the top and the back of the body were triple bound.
Details included unbound f-holes (earlier Gibson archtops had a round or an oval sound-hole), a fingerboard that was raised off of the top and twin parallel braces or ‘tone bars’. Most Loar-signed L-5s and some later examples were fitted with a small spruce disc suspended within the body, its feet positioned slightly behind the centre-line of the bridge. Known as a Virzi Tone Producer, this device was intended to enhance the guitar’s overall tonal characteristics.
Neck and Headstock
The L-5’s neck – which joined the body at the 14th fret – was constructed from two sections of maple with a dark centre lamination. Gibson referred to this as a three-piece neck. Other Gibson guitars of the period had mahogany necks.
Fitted with 20 nickel-silver frets, the single bound ebony fingerboard had a pointed end and was inlaid with a series of pearl dots that began at the fifth fret. The scale length was 24 ¾ inches.
The ‘snake’ headstock, which was narrower at the top, was triple bound and inlaid with a diagonal ‘The Gibson’ logo and Gibson’s iconic ‘flowerpot’ motif in pearl. Three-on-a-strip Waverly tuners featured an engraved base plate and pearl buttons. Access to the truss rod was at the headstock, the routing concealed beneath a bell shaped black plastic cover.
The 16-Inch L-5 sported an all over sunburst finish evocatively named ‘Cremona Brown’ link. Though Sunburst was the only finish officially offered, a number of examples were shipped with an all-black finish (see image).
Though the first L-5s had an unbound pickguard, most were triple bound. Hardware was silver-plated including the tuners and trapeze tailpiece. On early examples the strings passed through and over the tailpiece but by the late 1920s this arrangement was altered so that the strings passed directly through the crossbar (through the late 1920s and early 1930s L-5s can be found with both style of tailpiece).
By the late 1920s, the diagonal ‘The Gibson’ logo had been replaced by a similar logo positioned horizontally on the headstock. Some examples shipped at this time had a fingerboard with dot inlays from the 3rd fret. 1927 was the last year for the ‘Master Model’ label.
Backward facing Grover Banjo style tuners were fitted to some examples for a short period in the late 1920s/early 1930s.
The first L-5s with a block inlaid fingerboard appeared in the early 1930s. The inlays were fabricated from genuine pearl or pearloid plastic. For a time, Gibson continued to ship L-5s with the old style dot inlaid fingerboard – perhaps in an effort to use up existing stock. A 1931 pamphlet entitled ‘The Road To Happiness’ pictures a block inlaid L-5 for the first time link.
There are several variations of both dot and block inlaid fingerboards. For an in depth discussion of this see ‘The L-5 in Detail’ link.
The majority of block neck L-5s were fitted with individual gold-plated Grover 98G ‘Sta-tite’ tuners.
By the mid 1930s, the ‘The Gibson’ logo had been replaced by a new script logo that read ‘Gibson’, with no ‘The’.
In August 1935, Gibson updated the L-5 with a new 17-inch body. The company continued to ship a number of the 16-Inch L-5s however, presumably in an attempt to use up existing stock. Go here for a list of 16-inch L-5s shipped between 1935 and 1939.