Paul Alcantara looks at custom-built Gibson l-5s from the prewar era

Though the Gibson Custom Shop wasn’t officially established until 1993, it has been possible to order a one-off instrument from the company for almost as long as it has existed. A custom feature might be as simple as a truss rod cover engraved with the owner’s name or as extensive as an instrument with a non-standard headstock, neck heel and fingerboard inlays. Below we take a look at some of Gibson’s prewar custom archtops ranging from relatively modest departures from catalogue specs to guitars radically redesigned to meet a player’s needs.

Serial Number: 84471 (1929)

Shipped in 1929, L-5 serial number 84471 has the name William Hengold engraved on its truss rod cover and ‘Billy’ on a pearl block just above the 19thfret. Billy may well have been a banjo player. He custom ordered his L-5 with a fingerboard inlaid with a ‘hearts and flowers’ pattern similar to that found on some Mastertone banjos and a position marker at the tenth, rather than ninth fret, which is standard practise on banjos.

Maybelle Carter’s L-5 Serial Number: 85558 (1930)

Today Maybelle’s L-5 sports a number of non-standard features, including a later tailpiece and tuners. This of course is not how it left the factory. The pearl truss rod cover however – which is engraved ‘Mae Belle Carter’ – was already in place in early photos of Maybelle with the guitar, suggesting that it is indeed original. While it’s impossible to say for certain we have come across several other prewar L-5s with similar personalised truss rod covers.

12-fret L-5 Serial number: 86885 (1931)

The label of this unusual L-5 reads “SPC L-5”. It has a neck with 12 frets clear of the body and, as a result, a bridge that is positioned closer to the tailpiece than usual – the tailpiece itself a downsized version of the wrap-over item commonly fitted to L-5s at this point. One can only imagine that this L-5 was custom ordered by a guitarist used to playing a gut strung classical guitar or a Martin with a 12-fret neck.

Pearloid L-5 Serial Number: 87708 (1931)

In the 1930s, the use of plastic in musical instrument manufacture was seen as innovative and modern. Banjo manufacturers were quick to adopt the new material, which frequently adorned the the face of the headstock, the fingerboard and the resonator. The unique L-5 pictured here has a pearloid headstock facing with an engraved horizontal Gibson logo and floral motif (no flowerpot), a pearloid truss rod cover and a pearloid fingerboard with offset dot position markers at the 17th and 19th frets. Shipped in 1931, it predates the Gibson L-Century guitar, which also made extensive use of pearloid. L-5 serial number 87708 appears briefly in ‘Old Santa Fe’, one of the first ‘Singing Cowboy’ movies.

L-3/L-5 Serial Number: 87780 (1931)

Shipped in 1931 this custom ordered L-3 Special (serial number 87780), boasts various L-5 appointments including a pearl flowerpot headstock inlay, gold-plated Waverly three-on-a-strip tuners with pearl buttons, a gold-plated wrap-over tailpiece, a 20-fret, dot inlaid ebony fingerboard with a pointed end and f-holes. The maple used for the back, sides and neck exhibits a bold flame pattern and is fully equivalent in quality to the timber used for a full-sized L-5. Perhaps the guitar’s original owner was a man or woman of small stature who wanted a top-of the-line instrument but found the L-3’s smaller body more comfortable to hold?

Roy Smeck Serial Number: 89764 (1933)

Shipped in 1933, L-5 serial number 89764 adheres to catalogue specs in most respects, with the exception of its Grover tailpiece, its truss rod cover and its tuners – the first two items engraved with Roy Smecks’ name while the buttons of the latter are hand engraved with an ‘S’ motif. While it’s unusual to find this style of tailpiece on a Gibson, it was routinely fitted to Martin’s F-7 and F-9 archtop models and was presumably included here at Roy Smecks’ request. 

L-5 Serial Number: 90077 (1933)

The 20 fret fingerboard of this L-5 displays custom ‘picture frame’ inlays that are enclosed in rosewood rectangles with an ivoroid border. These are the same as those found on some 1930s Style 3 Mastertone banjos, the Style 5 Deluxe Mastertone banjo and some L-75 archtops. The same fingerboard inlays can be seen on L-5 serial number 91615 and L-5 serial number 89849, both of which were built for guitarist Carl Kress. The word “Special” is hand-written on the interior label. The cross bar of the tailpiece appears to have been replaced with an item similar to the tailpiece bar found on various Gibson off-brand models including the Recording King M3 and Cromwell G4 archtops.

Carl Kress’ L-5s; Serial Numbers: 89849 (1933) and 91615 (1935)

Gibson custom built the two L-5s pictured here for guitarist Carl Kress, one in 1933 and the other in 1935. Both have a combination of features unlike those of any other Gibson guitar of the period. The fingerboard inlays are the same as those found on some Mastertone banjos and L-75 archtops, the neck heels are rounded and the long headstocks display a pearl motif the same as that found on the 1924 Gibson trapdoor banjo.

Allan Reuss Serial Number 95122 (1938)

This elegant 17-inch L-5 belonged to guitarist Allan Reuss. It has a Natural finish, an option that Gibson didn’t officially introduce until 1939. The tailpiece is engraved with Mr Reuss’ same and his initials appear on both the truss rod cover and end pin. Gibson’s ledgers list it as a ‘Long Scale’ L-5.

Nick Lucas Black L-5

We have few details of this L-5 apart from a picture of Nick playing it. The combination of a dot inlaid fingerboard and diagonal ‘The Gibson’ headstock logo suggest that it dates from the mid to late 1920s. The guitar’s only non-standard feature is its Black finish, something that would become a distinctive feature of the L-10 model, which was introduced in 1931.

With the exception of Nick Lucas’ Black L-5, all of the guitars above are featured on our site but there must be many more unusual/unique examples out there still waiting to be discovered!

If you own a Pre-War Gibson L-5 that is not currently listed on this site, we’d love to hear from you. Email us here. 

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