All known Loar-signed L-5s had maple rims and a birch back with the exception of serial numbers 76478, 77400 and 77410, which had maple back and rims. L-5s built after Lloyd Loar’s departure from Gibson in December 1924 have figured maple back and rims.
The back usually comprised two sections of book matched timber but some examples exist with a four piece back (see Serial Number 96202) and others have a three-piece back, (see Serial Number 91304)
16-inch L-5s were fitted with an ebony bridge, whereas the 17-inch Advanced model (introduced in 1935) had a bridge made from rosewood.
Ebony bridge (above) from 16-inch L-5 Serial Number 91774 – note the Serial Number written in white pencil on the underside of the bridge base
Rosewood bridge from Serial Number FA 5172
All 16-inch L-5s employed a parallel bracing pattern and most Loar-signed examples (and a few later L-5s) were factory fitted with a Virzi Tone Producer – a small spruce disc suspended within the body that was intended to enhance the guitar’s overall tonal characteristics. The first Advanced L-5s incorporated an X-braced (as opposed to parallel braced) top. From 1939 the model was offered – as the L-5 Premier – with a single rounded ‘Venetian’ style cutaway and around this time, Gibson reverted to parallel top bracing. All L-5 Premiers had parallel top bracing.
The L-5 initially had solid top braces that were carved to fit the inside arch of the top. At some point, Gibson substituted kerfed braces that incorporated a series of slits, thus allowing the braces to be ‘bent’ to fit the inside arch. Kerfed braces are usually associated with block neck 16-inch L-5s but – as with all things Gibson – it’s not as simple as this and some block necks do have the earlier solid braces. In addition, guitars with kerfed braces do NOT necessarily sound bad – indeed many sound pretty good! Use your ears and judge accordingly.
Advanced and Premier 17-inch L-5s
As far as we know, all Advanced and Premier 17-inch L-5s have solid carved top braces. If you own or have come across a pre-war 17-inch L-5 with kerfed top bracing please contact us here!
In the photo above, which shows L-5N serial number 97291 with its back removed, the solid carved top braces are clearly visible (the sections of timber on either side of the end-block are part of an earlier repair).
Pictures courtesy of Lynn Wheelwright
Top and back thickness
Guitar historian and collector, Lynn Wheelwright has mapped out the carve thickness of the top and back of a 1941 L-5 (Serial Number 97291), using a MAG-ic Probe thickness gauge. Read more here.
From left: small unbound f-hole from 16-inch L-5; large unbound f-hole from 16-inch L-5 (serial number 92033); small unbound f-hole from 17-inch Advanced L-5; large unbound f-hole from 17-inch Advanced L-5; large bound f-hole from 17-inch Advanced L-5
16-inch small f-holes
All Loar signed L-5s and Type Two L-5s have small, unbound f-holes.
All Type Three L-5s on our site have small, unbound f-holes with the exception of serial numbers 92033 and 95359, both of which have larger, unbound f-holes.
17-inch small unbound f-holes
Most early 17-inch Advanced L-5s have small, unbound f-holes.
17-inch large unbound f-holes
Some examples from the mid to late 1930s have large, unbound f-holes.
17-inch large, bound f-holes
Most Advanced L-5s from 1938 onward have large bound f-holes.
f-holes in summary
All Loar-signed and Type Two L-5s have small, unbound f-holes, as do most Type Three L-5s. The majority of 17-inch Advanced L-5s shipped before 1938 have small bound f-holes, while those shipped from 1938 onward have large, bound f-holes.
From 1939, the L-5 was offered – as the L-5 Premier – with a single rounded ‘Venetian’ style cutaway (the model was renamed the L-5C c. 1948).
In most respects, the L-5 Premier was identical to the non-cutaway L-5 of the period, though the earliest L-5Ps had a fingerboard that was glued flush to the top of the guitar rather than elevated, as on the non-cutaway L-5. In 1940, the neck angle was altered so that the fingerboard was elevated once again.
The L-5 above was shipped in 1939. You can see that its fingerboard is set flush with the top. The example on the right was shipped in 1940, by which point the neck angle had been altered and the fingerboard was elevated once again – as on non-cutaway L-5s, which never had the flush fingerboard.
The Virzi Tone Producer
Brothers Joseph and John Virzi moved to the United States at the beginning of the 20th Century, settling in Manhattan where they established a sales office at 503 Fifth Avenue in New York City.
By the late 1920s, they offered a range of six violins, the most expensive of which cost $250 – the same price as Gibson’s F5 mandolin. In addition to violins, the company offered a full line of accessories, as well as the installation of its patented ‘Tone Producer’.
Giuseppe Virzi Senior (Joseph and John’s father) had applied for a U.S. Patent on the ‘Tone Producer’ in 1920 and this was granted on 11th April 1922.
Intended to enhance the overtone series, the item comprised of a thin spruce disc or ‘tone plate’ that was suspended within the body, its feet positioned slightly behind the centre-line of the bridge. Depending on the type of instrument, it attached to the soundboard via two or three feet.
Images above courtesy of Mike G Thompson from L-5 Serial Number 76699
Lloyd Loar’s personal viola was fitted with a Virzi Tone Producer and the Virzi catalogue included a letter in which Loar describes the viola’s improved tone: “In my opinion,” he says, “you have contributed one of the most noteworthy improvements applicable to the construction of all string instruments of which there is any record in the last two hundred years.”
The Virzi Tone Producers intended for violins were oblong in shape with two ‘feet’, while those fitted to mandolins and guitars were oval with three locating points. Some Tone Producers were installed in Gibson L-5s and the plates of these were teardrop shaped (re: the L-5, Gibson’s Catalogue O of late 1924 to early 1925 stated: “The Virzi Tone-Amplifier is standard equipment”).
Archtop maestro John Monteleone has been vocal in his dislike of the Virzi Tone Producer: “I would have loved to have overheard the convincing sales pitch that Mr Virzi sold to Mr Loar,” he comments. This statement would appear unfair to Loar, who as a former staff member of the Virzi Brothers New York office, would have been more than familiar with the product. Monteleone is not alone in his dislike of the Virzi however and many Tone Producers have been removed – particularly in Loar-signed F-5 mandolins – in an effort to achieve more volume. One thing is certain, Loar himself would not have approved of this act, as the air chambers of Gibson’s Master Models were tap-tuned with the Virzi Tone Producer in situ.
For more on the Virzi Tone Producer see http://siminoff.net/virzi-tone-background/
Virzi photo courtesy Roger H. Siminoff, reproduction rights reserved
The picture above shows the original endpin from L-5 serial number 77394, which was signed and dated by Lloyd Loar on December 1st 1924 and shipped the following year.