The Gibson L-5 went through a number of modifications before it was relaunched in 1935 with a larger 17-inch ‘Advanced’ body. The most notable of these included the switch from a birch to a maple back that followed acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar’s departure from Gibson in 1924 and – at some point in the early 1930s – the substitution of large pearl (sometimes pearloid) blocks for the understated dot fingerboard inlays that had been a feature of the model from its introduction.
Though it is commonly assumed that the 16-inch L-5 was discontinued with the introduction of the 17-inch Advanced model in 1935, this is NOT the case. Indeed, 148 16-inch L-5s were shipped between 1935 and 1939, when the last two examples left Kalamazoo!
Which brings us to our first question: did Gibson continue to build the 16-inch L-5 in order to accommodate continuing demand for the original design or simply in order to dispose of existing stock of what was now an obsolete model?
The second explanation seems more likely, if for no other reason than that from 1935 on, 16-inch L-5s were shipped in steadily diminishing numbers -110 in 1935, 17 in 1936, 11 in 1937, 8 in 1939 and just 2 in 1939.
We have come across several 16-inch L-5s that were shipped before the introduction of the 17-inch Advanced L-5 but display features more usually associated with that model. These are easily explained as factory repairs. Bear in mind that Gibson wasn’t fussy about fitting period correct parts. If you sent your guitar back to factory to have a new tailpiece installed you got whatever style was currently in use (Martin had much the same policy).
Shipped after the introduction of the Advanced L-5, the 16-inch L-5s listed below also present a number of non-standard features.
L-5 serial number 91930 has a 19-fret fingerboard with a square end and narrow block inlays from the first to the 17th frets, a wide neck heel and a flat tailpiece engraved with the ‘L-5’ legend while L-5 serial number 92033 sports an Advanced style 20-fret fingerboard with a pointed end and narrow block inlays from the first to the 17th frets, large unbound f-holes and solid, rather than kerfed tone bars.
Both of these instruments were returned to Kalamazoo for repair: 91930 on the 1st of October 1936 and again on the 8th of April 1937 and 92033 on the 2nd of January 1942.
Shipped in 1937, L-5 serial number 94352 is harder to explain. It has an Advanced style 20 fret fingerboard with pointed end and narrow block inlays from the first to the 17th frets, a wide neck heel, flared headstock and a long Advanced-style pickguard. Interestingly it is described in Gibson’s ledgers as an “L-5 special – small body”. There is no record of this guitar ever having been returned to the Gibson factory for repairs.
L-5 serial number 94666, which was also shipped in 1937, incorporates many of the same features but with the addition of a 25 ½ inch scale length, something that didn’t officially appear on the Advanced L-5 until 1938 (beginning in 1936, a number of Advanced L-5s were listed as ‘Spl L-5’, which may have indicated the early use of a 25 ½-inch scale length.) Like serial number 94352, there no record of this L-5 having been returned to the factory for repair work.
Which raises our second question: did any 16-inch L-5s leave Kalamazoo with the Advanced features they now display or are all of these simply the result of repair carried out at a later date?
It seems likely that production of the 16-inch l-5s shipped from the mid to late 1930s was set in motion before the introduction of the 17-inch Advanced model and it’s possible that as the supply of old-style necks, fingerboards and hardware was depleted, guitars were assembled using parts intended for the early Advanced models, which initially shared the same 24 ¾-inch scale length.
We do know that Gibson recycled fingerboard inlays from obsolete models – examples of the budget priced Special No. 7 archtop can be found with a Bella Voce banjo style headstock veneer. Decades later, in the early 1960s, the company shipped 1958 Flying V and Explorer bodies, which had been fitted with patent number pickups and nickel hardware.
At present it’s hard to reach a definitive conclusion but that may be possible as and when more post-1934 L-5s emerge from the woodwork. Watch this space!