It’s not uncommon to find a prewar Gibson L-5 for sale, but it is uncommon for two from the same year to make a simultaneous appearance at the same shop. That’s what makes these two 1934 Gibson L-5s, available at press time through Brooklyn’s Retrofret for $13,500 each, such a special sighting.
Lloyd Loar, a designer and acoustic engineer at Gibson, designed the first L-5 in 1924. Though it wasn’t the first true archtop guitar, with its carved soundboard and f-holes, the Gibson L-5 became the blueprint for all subsequent archtops. It was the instrument of choice for musicians from jazz pioneer Eddie Lang to country luminary Maybelle Carter.
Loar signed the paper labels on around 30 of the earliest L-5s, and while today these are most coveted, the 1934 model is a strong contender on the vintage market.
These two L-5s bear the serial numbers 91100 (left), and 1498-5 (right). Like the earliest examples, these L-5s have 16-inch lower bouts, which increased to 17 inches on the Advanced L-5s made from 1935 onwards. Though Gibson started using easier-to-install kerfed braces on the L-5 around 1929, curiously, #91100 has the earlier-style solid carved braces, a spec that some players find more responsive.
Overall, both of these L-5s are in excellent condition, though #91100 is missing its pickguard and mounting hardware and has received a replacement bridge. According to Retrofret’s Scott Tsai, the necks both have fairly pronounced V shapes that feel quite similar. But to his ear their voices are contrasting: #1498-5 has a punchier and more cutting sound, ideal for ensemble playing, while #91100 has a warmer tone and greater sustain, making it a good choice for unaccompanied work.
For the (well-heeled) archtop enthusiast, either of these examples would make a dreamy and era-transporting companion.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.