Introduced in 1912, the Gibson L-4 had a 16-inch wide body, an oval soundhole, a neck that met the body at the 12th fret and a 20-fret fingerboard (below, left). By 1928 the model had been relaunched with a round soundhole, a neck with 14 frets clear of the body and a 20-fret fingerboard (below, right).
The pictures below, however, show three L-4 archtops, all of which have the earlier oval soundhole and an L-5 style neck with 14 frets clear of the body. This version was never catalogued and to our knowledge is not mentioned in any contemporary reference books.
The first example has a 19-fret fingerboard with a pointed end and wide block position markers from the third fret. As a result of its 14-fret neck-to-body junction, the bridge is positioned closer to the sound hole than on a regular 12-fret L-4. In addition, the fingerboard end is further from the soundhole when compared with the usual 20-fret neck found on this model.
The serial number is 87953, which tells us that this L-4 was first shipped in 1924. This date doesn’t fit with the guitar’s horizontal ‘The Gibson’ headstock logo however, its Grover 98G ‘Sta-tite’ tuners, regular trapeze tailpiece, 19-fret fingerboard, block markers (which appear to be celluloid rather than pearl) or its long celluloid pickguard. Perhaps the guitar was returned to Gibson and re-necked in the early 1930s, which would explain the idiosyncratic features listed above?
Gibson historian Joe Spann tells us that there is no record of this L-4 having been returned for repairs during the period March 1935 through to January 1953. Gibson shipping records prior to March of the year 1935 have never been located, so there is a 10-year period in which the guitar might have been returned to the factory for repairs but of which there is no available record.
The second example appears in a photo of British guitarist Horace Craddy. Like the guitar described above, it has 14 frets clear of the body and wide block inlays – but with an extended fingerboard that carries a total of 23 frets (there is an additional block marker at fret 19). It is fitted with an unusually long pickguard, which may not be original.
Though the photo appeared in a British music magazine dated June 1946, the L-4 that Mr Craddy is holding clearly dates from an earlier period. The combination of a horizontal ‘The Gibson’ headstock logo and block markers suggest that it was shipped in the early 1930s. As a side note, there appears to be something attached to the tailpiece – perhaps a makeshift vibrato unit?
Aside from its dot inlaid fingerboard, the third example looks much like Horace Craddy’s L-4. It has the same horizontal ‘The Gibson’ headstock logo, Waverly three-on-a strip tuners with white plastic buttons and an extended fingerboard. Closer examination however reveals that the fingerboard is fitted with 24 frets, giving the guitar a full two octave range! Other details include an old-style wrap over tailpiece and a dot inlaid fingerboard.
Its serial number is 87953, indicating that it was shipped in 1931. By this date the L-4 had been updated with 14 frets clear of the body and a round soundhole – but a total of just 19 frets. In addition, the standard round-hole model had a fingerboard with a square end, while all three of the oval hole instruments pictured here have an old-style fingerboard with a pointed end.
Assuming that the serial number of Example 1 is correct (87953), the guitar has clearly been re-necked at some point.
So, were Examples 2 and 3 custom ordered by players wanting an oval hole archtop with the extended range offered by the combination of a 14 fret neck and extra frets, or were they prototypes built by Gibson with a view to introducing a model with a full two octave fingerboard – and at the same time taking the opportunity to use up existing stock of obsolete oval hole bodies?
We put the question to vintage guitar expert George Gruhn, who favoured the first interpretation. At this point Gibson was certainly willing to indulge customers’ requests for unusual features (see our feature on Gibson custom-built archtops), so this explanation is likely the correct one. It will be interesting to see if any other 14-fret oval hole L-4s come out of the woodwork!
Pictures courtesy of John Stewart, The Twelfth Fret and Guernsey’s Auctions
Special thanks to Joe Spann for providing information from Gibson’s shipping records