The history of the Gibson L-5CES by Paul Alcantara

Introduced in 1951, the L-5CES (the earliest examples were labelled L-5SEC) was intended as an electric version of the L-5C. In effect, it replaced the three pickup ES-5 – described in Gibson’s literature as ‘the supreme electronic version of the famed Gibson L-5’ – as the company’s flagship electric model (the model’s reign would prove short, as the pricier Super 400CES was added to the line shortly after!). 

This first year L-5CES has the SEC label (Special Electric Cutaway?), two P-90 pickups and a Sunburst finish. Images courtesy of John Stewart (

Like its acoustic counterpart, the L-5CES had a 17-inch wide body with a single rounded ‘Venetian’ cutaway, a carved spruce top, a carved two-piece maple back (the body of ES-5 was built from laminated maple) and a 25 ½ inch scale length. The neck was constructed from two sections of maple with a dark centre lamination (described by Gibson as a ‘three-piece neck’). Electronics comprised two P-90 pickups with individual tone and volume controls and a three-way toggle switch mounted on the cutaway bout. The L-5CES and Super 400CES were the first models to be equipped with this circuitry, which has since become standard to most two pickup Gibson electrics and is familiar to anyone who has picked up a Les Paul or ES-335TD. Early examples are fitted with clear ‘Barrel’ knobs that were 5/8 of an inch tall with the numbers 0 to 10 visible through the top. In 1953 these were replaced by ‘Speed knobs’, which were similar but ½ an inch tall.

In keeping with its status as an electric instrument, the spruce top of the L-5CES was carved a little thicker than that of its acoustic counterpart . In addition, the top bracing was more rigid. This added strength to a top that was routed for two pickups and helped to reduce feedback by cutting back on acoustic vibration.

Hardware was gold-plated and much the same as that of the acoustic L-5, comprising Kluson Sealfast tuners with plastic ‘keystone’ buttons (later changed to metal) and a Varitone tailpiece. The L-5CES was offered in a choice of Sunburst or Natural finishes.

Alnico V

In 1954 the model’s P-90s were replaced by a pair of Alnico V pickups. Designed by Seth Lover, these featured six individually adjustable magnets. Around the same time, the L-5CES and Super 400CES – along with the ES-5 and ES-350 models – were upgraded with the then new Tune-O-Matic bridge (the L-5CES had previously been fitted with a rosewood bridge with compensated rosewood saddle). A year or so later the ‘Speed’ knobs were replaced by ‘Bonnet’ controls knobs with a flared base.

In late 1957 the Alnico V pickups were replaced by humbuckers – again designed by Seth Lover – and in 1959 Stereo-Varitone circuitry was listed as an option.

Details of this 1959 L-5CESN include two gold-plated PAF humbuckers and a Natural finish. Images courtesy of Ten Guitars (

Florentine Cutaway

The most significant visual change came in late 1960 when the L-5CES was re-launched with a pointy ‘Florentine’ cutaway and a one-piece laminated maple back (according to André Duchossoir, author of ‘Gibson Electrics The Classic Years’ the laminated back was introduced in 1963).  1960 also saw a new style of control knob with a metal cap that read ‘tone’ or ‘volume’.

In late 1961, the neck construction was modified to comprise three sections of maple with two narrow mahogany laminations. Examples from this period have a slimmer neck profile that is more rounded in cross section. 

André Duchossoir notes that at least one L-5CES was custom built with a sharp ‘Florentine’ cutaway and Johnny Smith style floating mini humbucker.

In 1965, the guitar’s nut width was narrowed to 1 9/16th inches. This didn’t prove popular and in mid to late 1969 the original 1 11/16th inch nut width was reinstated. The late 1960s also saw the return of the rounded ‘Venetian’ cutaway and carved two-piece maple back.

From 1967 through to the early 1970s opaque control knobs with grooved sides, a sharper angle at the base and the numbers imprinted were fitted.

In the mid 1970s a volute was added just behind the nut. This was intended to strengthen the area where the neck meets the headstock, which is a notoriously weak spot on Gibson guitars. The effectiveness of this feature was questionable however and since it didn’t prove popular it was dropped in the early 1980s. Around the same time (mid 1970s) the tailpiece’s Varitone control was eliminated and a few years later, the Tune-O-Matic bridge was replaced by a Johnny Smith style compensated ebony saddle with a matching ebony bridge base.

Two additional finishes were offered from the mid 1970s. These were Wine Red and Ebony. 


Scotty Moore playing his 1954 L_5CESN with a young Elvis Presley
Jazz legend Wes Montgomery with his single pickup Gibson L-5CES

Further Reading

‘The Gibson Super 400’ by Tom A. Van Hoose

‘’Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars’ by George Gruhn and Walter Carter

‘Gibson Electrics The Classic Years’ by Andre Duchossoir


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