From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Greg Olwell
A few archtops were larger and some were glitzier, but all were trying to top the standard set by the stunning Gibson Super 400. Having an 18-inch lower bout and decorated with Gibson’s most premium appointments and hardware, the Super 400 surpassed the L-5 as the company’s top-of-the-line model right from its introduction in 1935. This bear of a guitar was meant to be powerful enough when played unamplified to drive a rhythm section—and appropriately glamorous for the big band era.
This example, serial number EA 5630, is one of 17 natural-finish non-cutaway Super 400s shipped in 1939, the first year that Gibson offered the model in this blonde coloring. The finish (indicated by the N in the model name) required the maker to use spruce and maple free of any visual defects that could be covered by a dark sunburst pattern. This option added $10 to the $400 cost, making it a very expensive guitar for its day. In comparison, Martin’s fancy D-45 sold for $200 in 1939.
Singer-songwriter and guitarist John Prine owned this Super 400 until he traded it back to Gruhn Guitars on December 28, 2019, for the three instruments that he used for a New Year’s Eve show at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. It was to be his final performance before his death from COVID-19-related complications on April 7, 2020.
Prine wrote a letter of authenticity stating that he bought this Super 400 from Gruhn’s former shop on Broadway around 1994, but several promo photos hinted that he had in fact purchased the guitar earlier. The instrument’s case provided an important clue. George Gruhn, the shop’s founder and owner, says, “There was still a piece of masking tape with our old inventory number on it, so we looked it up in our files and saw that Prine actually got the guitar from us in April ’82. He just didn’t remember,” adding wryly, “like a lot of musicians.”
There is a small repaired side crack on the lower bout and some wear, and the pickguard went missing before Prine got the Super 400, but otherwise the guitar is in good condition. The purchase was one of passion for Prine, who in his letter wrote, “Thought it was one of the prettiest guitars I ever saw!”