The history of the Gibson L-5

Introduced in 1923, the L-5 was Gibson’s first f-hole archtop guitar (see 16-Inch Timeline for more on the introduction date). Indeed, it was the first guitar by any manufacturer to combine a carved top and back, f-holes, an adjustable truss rod and a neck that joined the body at the 14th fret. At a time when Martin’s pearl-encrusted 000-45 retailed at $150, the L-5 carried a princely price tag of almost $304.50 (including a Gibson 515 case) and it remained Gibson’s flagship model until the launch of the Super 400 (costing $400.00 including the case and cover) in 1935 .

The ensuing years saw the L-5 undergo many changes, evolving from the original 16-inch wide, non-cutaway design, through the 17-inch ‘Advanced’ model and finally on to the L-5 Premier, complete with a rounded ‘Venetian’ style cutaway. By the early 1950s, Gibson had successfully added an electric version – the L-5CES – to its line.

In the process, the Gibson L-5 established a benchmark by which archtop guitars from other manufacturers are judged. Epiphone, D’Angelico, Gretsch, Stromberg and later Guild all offered models based on the L-5, a tradition that is continued to this day by luthiers like Bob Benedetto, Mark Campellone and Bill Collings.

A photograph from 1920 (above) taken in the engineering department of the Gibson factory. Could that be Plant Manager, Thaddeus ‘Ted’ McHugh in the background? Image courtesy of Paul Fox

Though today regarded as the archetypal jazz guitar, the acoustic L-5 was envisaged (along with the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola and the K-5 mandocello) as a member of the mandolin family. Indeed, Lloyd Loar’s Style 5 Master Model line might be viewed as an attempt on the part of Gibson to reignite interest in the mandolin orchestra, which by this point was in a state of terminal decline. Despite the demonstrable superiority of Loar’s creations, they failed to revive the mandolin family’s waning fortunes and the L-5 guitar might have been forgotten were it not for one Salvatore Massaro, better known as jazz guitarist, Eddie Lang.

Lang single-handedly pioneered the guitar as a member of the dance band’s rhythm section, in the process displacing the tenor banjo, the rise of which had earlier played a central role in the demise of the mandolin orchestra. He had played various guitars including a Gibson L-4, before settling on an L-5 in the late 1920s.

The L-5’s ability to cut through a dance band’s horn section soon established it as the ideal orchestral rhythm guitar and following Eddie Lang’s example, other guitarists of the period were quick to adopt the model.

For a time Gibson had the field to itself but in June 1931, Epiphone threw down the gauntlet when it introduced a line of seven carved-top f-hole archtops. Priced (like the L-5) at $275, the top of the line ‘Masterbilt’ Deluxe represented a direct challenge to the L-5 – and to add insult to injury, measured a full 16-3/8 inches across its lower bout!

Having already introduced an affordable alternative to the L-5 – the L-10 (initially priced at $175 and later reduced to $150) – Gibson expanded its line of 16-inch f-hole archtops to include the L-12 ($175) and the L-7 ($125) before relaunching all four of its full sized models with a new 17-inch ‘Advanced’ body width in 1935. Needless to say, Epiphone followed suit, increasing the width of the Deluxe to 17-3/8 inches later that year!

This game of one-upmanship continued through the pre-war years as Epiphone countered the launch of the 18-inch wide Gibson Super-400 with its own behemoth, the 18-1/2 inch Emperor.  

Presented with an L-5 for the first time, a guitarist in the mid 1920s would have struck by its violin style f-holes, 14-fret neck and elegant Cremona Brown finish. Having given the instrument a strum they might have commented on its volume, projection and lack of overtones. Like Leo Fender’s Telecaster some 30 years later, there is little about Lloyd Loar’s creation that exists solely for cosmetic reasons (for more on Lloyd Loar see the Lloyd Loar Page link). The ebony fingerboard is inlaid with simple pearl dots and apart from the pearl ‘flowerpot’ headstock motif the L-5 is notable for its lack of decoration. Compared with later archtops, the first L-5s are positively plain!

Though earlier Gibsons had been built with a carved top and back, the L-5 was the first archtop guitar to feature components that were ‘tap-tuned’ to a specific pitch. The soundboard, backboard, longitudinal tone bars and f-holes were individually adjusted so that each part worked in unison to deliver a balanced tone with maximum volume and projection.

As a result, no two Loar L-5s are identical, the size of the f-holes and the thickness of the tone bars and shaping of the top and back varying from one example to the next.

Other elements of the L-5’s design intended to improve the instrument’s functionality include the 14-fret neck to body junction. Besides facilitating access to the upper frets, this moves the bridge closer to the centre of the soundboard, a position that improves transfer of energy from the vibrating string to the guitar’s top.

Before the completed guitar was shipped, Lloyd Loar signed its label, confirming that ‘The top, back, tone-bars and air-chamber of this instrument were tested, tuned and the assembled instrument tried and approved’ (followed by the date and Loar’s signature).

First mention of the Gibson L-5

Though Gibson’s catalogue N of 1923 (below, right) made no mention of the L-5, the model is pictured in an artist endorsement photo. It also appears on a price list dated April 15th, 1923 (left). Note that the price of the L-5 has been left blank.

The 1924 Gibson brochure pictured above, left titled ‘Mastertone Stringed Instruments’ appears to pre-date 1924’s Catalog O and is the first piece of Gibson promotional literature to mention the L-5. Gibson L-5 as it appeared in Gibson’s Catalog O (above, right), issued in either late 1924 or early 1925.

Gibson L-5s Type One (signed and dated by Lloyd Loar).

Below is a list of all the 33 known Loar-signed L-5s. Examples noted in the right hand column are pictured on the 16-Inch Type One Gallery 

* March 1st 1924, according to one source ** Possibly 12/21/2

Notes

Only one known example was shipped in 1923 (signed by Loar on 07/06/23)

Fifteen of the guitars listed above were signed by Loar on 03/31/24, one on 02/13/24

Fourteen on 12/01/24, (one of these possibly on 03/01/24)

One on 12/21/24 and one on 12/31/24 (possibly 12/21/24).

16 of the instruments listed in the left-hand column were shipped after Loar had left Gibson (ten in 1925 and six in 1926).

For a comprehensive list of all Lloyd Loar signed instruments, visit Darryl Wolf’s F-5 Journal.

André Duchossoir’s Revised Shipping Totals

In an article that first appeared in the December 2010 edition of Vintage Guitar magazine, guitar historian André Duchossoir took a fresh look at Gibson’s ledgers for the period 1935 to 1944.

Earlier attempts to quantify shipping totals for a specific model over a given time frame had taken Gibson’s records at face value by simply totalling the list of entries made under that model name.

The key to Duchossoir’s revised list was the realisation that Gibson instruments – particularly high-end models like the L-5 – were often returned to the factory before being shipped a second, third or even fourth time (during the economic downturn of the mid 1930s, many dealers struggled to move high dollar items). This resulted in multiple entries for the same instrument. Indeed, L-5 serial number 92970 appears in Gibson’s ledgers a total of 12 times between 1936 and 1942!

Having painstakingly weeded out multiple entries Duchossoir arrived at the revised shipping totals displayed below:

Revised L-5 Shipping Totals 1935-1944

In order to avoid counting an instrument more than once, only those examples identified by a serial number or FON are includes in Duchossoir’s revised shipping totals.