Gibson L-5 Arch Top Acoustic Guitar (1931)

Gibson  L-5 Arch Top Acoustic Guitar  (1931)
$26,000.00 + shipping
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Item # 10230
Prices subject to change without notice.
Gibson L-5 Model Arch Top Acoustic Guitar (1931), made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, serial # 87080, Cremona Brown Sunburst finish, maple back and sides, spruce top; maple neck with ebony fingerboard, original black hard shell case.

This 1931 L-5 is a great player's example of the pre-eminent professional guitar of its era -- the original f-hole archtop guitar -- and an extremely fine-sounding instrument by any standard. Debuting in 1923-4, the L-5 was the first modern archtop, combing the violin style f-holes, a 14th fret neck joint and the elevated fingerboard for the first time. At the time this one in was built in early/mid 1931 it was the top of Gibson's line and had no serious competition yet, universally considered the finest orchestra guitar made. Other makers were just beginning to explore this avenue, and the L-5 was the inspiration for all and a template for most other f-hole guitars that followed including an entire line of Epiphones launched this same year.

Orchestra and jazz band banjoists were by this time almost universally converting to guitar; the $275.00 L-5 along with Epiphone's competing Deluxe -- which debuted in mid-1931 -- became the choice of nearly all top professional guitar players. Eddie Lang, the era's most influential guitarist, went from a Gibson L-4 to a dot-neck (probably 1927-8) L-5, then to an early block neck L-5 around 1931 setting the trend for all to follow. In mid-1931, when this one was shipped, the L-5 ruled the roost for orchestra guitars giving Gibson a market dominance that they never lost.

That said, these 1920s and early 1930s L-5s are fairly rare guitars today. Retailing at $275.00 (plus case!), the L-5 was extremely expensive (a top-of-the-line Martin pearl-trimmed Style 0M-45 retailed exactly $100.00 less). In 1931-2 at the height of the Depression only top professional users with steady salaries could afford the indulgence of such an instrument.

This guitar shows typical features for a 1931 L-5; the transition between variants is inexact and the serial numbers are not in strict order with the progression of features. This example carries the original The 3-piece curly maple neck has a comfortable and rather shallow "C" profile, quite unlike the much deeper necks of a year or so earlier. This combination of features, a three-piece neck with a more modern feeling neck are combined on only a few L-5's of the period. The pearl dot inlayed, bound, 20 fret fingerboard ending in a curled point is a modern replacement, with frets slightly larger than the original specification, recently dressed for optimum playability.

The pearl inlaid flowerpot in the triple-bound headstock and straight across "The Gibson" logo are the hallmarks of the 1931 L-5, as are the engraved, gold plated and mother-of-pearl buttoned Waverly tuners. The tuners are recent, a custom made set produced by the modern Waverly company to the correct specifications of the six individual gold plated originals, with the exception of pearl buttons in place of the original 'butterbean' buttons.. The back of the headstock features an ebony overlay, a feature of the earliest L-5's.

The body on this particular guitar is, like many early L-5s, just a hair over 16 inches wide, triple-bound back and front. The spruce top and fantastic flame maple back and sides carry a beautifully blended dark Cremona Brown sunburst finish. The pick guard and mounting hardware are very accurate modern replacements. The tailpiece and white plastic endpin are original Gibson parts made a few years after this particular guitar; It would have originally had a wrapover tailpiece and an ebony endpin. The tailpiece has the newer (non-wrapover) cross bar and is stamped "Patented July 19, 1910." The bridge is a also modern ebony reproduction.

The braces on this instrument are the original solid carved design, not the "kerfed" bracing (partially cut through to make it quicker and easier to fit) that began to appear on L-5s around this time. This is generally held to be a sonic plus -- certainly this guitar has a powerful and very versatile sound typical of the best early L-5s; simultaneously warm and incisive with plenty of depth. It plays extremely well and is exceptionally responsive for an archtop even sounds lovely fingerstyle! This is a well-played but wonderful example of one of our all-time favorite instruments, both historically important and a true delight to play.

Most early 16" L-5s were used extensively for many years, some owners continuing to prefer them to any later guitars. They are still often seen in the hands of recording studio players well into the 1960s. As working guitars, these instruments have often been heavily modified, refitted, or refinished. This one is has a some general wear and many repairs, but is still both structurally and cosmetically better preserved than many retaining its original character.
Overall length is 40 1/2 in. (102.9 cm.), 16 1/16 in. (40.8 cm.) wide at lower bout, and 3 3/8 in. (8.6 cm.) in depth, measured at side of rim. Scale length is 24 3/4 in. (629 mm.). Width of nut is 1 3/4 in. (44 mm.).

This L-5 shows a decent amount of cosmetic wear overall as well as some careful repair but still remains cleaner and more original than many. It is structurally very well-preserved and in excellent playing condition. The original thin lacquer finish shows general wear throughout. The fingerboard has been replaced, rebound in solid white single ply, unlike the white-black-white side binding the original board would have and it has been refretted with wire slightly larger than the original. The nut is a bone replacement for the mother of pearl original.

There are a number well done repairs. At the junction of the headstock and the neck on the bass side there is a neatly repaired smiley-faced crack running from the outer edge by the nut to the center seam. The entire back of the neck and headstock have been oversprayed. The original finish under the overspray has mostly worn away from decades of play. A strap button hole has been filled and touched up on the treble side of the heel.

The top has eight cracks; one runs from the bass side waist to the adjacent f-hole, four more are on the bass side of the top at the apex of the lower bout, along with two long scratches and a press mark. There is a center seam crack under the tailpiece, another crack from the treble side edge of the lower bout to the adjacent f-hole and finally a crack between the treble side waist and the adjacent f-hole. All of these were solidly sealed with little or no additional touch up, leaving the top in fine structural condition and with lots of character.

There are four back cracks as well, one at the center seam near the tailblock, two touched up grain cracks extending from the edge of the bass side lower bout and a 1" crack extending from the edge of the lower bout on the treble side. Finally, there is a bass side rim crack, three inches long, at the apex of the bass side rim.

The finish overall shows scratches, dings and rubbed away spots in numerous areas of the top particularly around the cracks mentioned above and on the edges. Under the crossbar of the tailpiece the top is dinged from decades of errant string ends. The back of the neck was worn down to the original clear undercoat and then oversprayed for most of its length. That said the instrument is still very attractive with a subtle patina not unlike the old violins it was meant to evoke.

As noted the bridge and bridge top, tailpiece, pickguard and tuners are reproductions. The guitar has been refretted and the current wire has virtually no wear. While bearing some scars from a long active life this L-5 remains an exceptional player's tool with another century of music in it, at least. It plays beautifully and the sound is truly sublime, one of the most delightful arch top guitars it has been our pleasure to handle. The original case is still with it, somewhat worn but fully functional. Overall Very Good + Condition.