L-5 to Super 400

The Story of Gibson’s Big Archtops
L-5 to Super 400
1935 Gibson L-5 Special / Super 400 prototype, with serial number 91700. Photos: William Ritter. Instrument courtesy of George Gruhn.

The archtop guitar is a uniquely American instrument which can be traced directly to the creative genius of one person – Orville Gibson.

In the mid 1890s, the man who later formed the company started building guitars and mandolins with carved tops and backs, and though his creations were quite different from a modern jazz guitar, there’s no question his instruments were the inspiration for the archtops that followed.

Upon first inspection, this 1935 Gibson appears to be an L-5 neck on a Super 400 body. Labeled an L-5 Special, it most likely is the earliest 18″-wide archtop f-hole model made by any builder. It is also very likely a prototype of the Super 400, as it precedes the introduction of that model by several months.

Though it appears to be the earliest f-hole guitar with this body size and shape, Gibson would have had forms for it dating back to oval-soundhole instruments built by Orville. Gibson’s first f-hole archtop guitar was the 16″ L-5, and one known example (made in 1923) was signed by Lloyd Loar, an acoustic engineer at Gibson (more Loar-signed models were made through December of ’24).

The L-5 remained the only archtop f-hole model in Gibson’s line until the introduction of the L-10 in 1929 (though it was not shown their catalog until ’31) and the L-12 in 1930, both with 16″ bodies.

Gibson did not produce any archtop f-hole guitars larger than 16″ until 1935 (same year as this prototype L-5 Special), when it introduced the 17″ “Advanced” L-5, L-7, L-10, and L-12 models, then followed with the introduction of the 18″ Super 400 (the original version used the body form designed by Orville with a 121/2″ upper bout, and, early in the history of the company, a few were made with 18″ lower bout and 243/4″ scale). In early 1937, the Super 400’s body was given an enlarged upper bout (135/8″) and the scale was lengthened to 251/2″. The Advanced models not only had a larger body, but fancier Art Deco ornamentation with flashy inlays and bold bindings. Prior to 1930, the L-5 had narrow script “The Gibson” and “flowerpot” peghead inlays with simple dot fingerboard inlays. By 1930, the L-5 had block inlays starting at the third fret, but overall the ornamentation of the 16″ guitars was understated compared to the Advanced model 17″ guitars of ’35 onward.

In 1931, Epiphone entered the market aggressively by introducing a full line of archtop f-hole acoustics, ranging from small-body student models on up to the 163/8″ Deluxe. Gibson was caught by surprise, but responded in ’32 with the competing L-50, L-75, and L-7 models; Epiphone made many of its earliest f-hole archtops with slightly wider bodies than their Gibson counterparts, and continued the trend even after Gibson introduced the Advanced models. In an effort to surpass Gibson’s 18″ Super 400, the Epiphone Emperor had an 181/2″ body when it was introduced in ’35, while the Epiphone Triumph, Broadway, and Deluxe were enlarged to 173/8″ to trump Gibson’s 17″ Advanced models. Not to be outdone, circa ’36, D’Angelico started producing the 18″ New Yorker and 17″ Excel models, followed shortly by Stromberg’s 19″ Master 400 and Master 300.

The L-5 Special featured here has a Super 400-style/18″ body, spruce top with f holes, figured maple back and sides with sunburst finish, multiple body bindings, maple L-5-style neck with walnut backstripe, ebony fingerboard with pearl block inlays, and pearl peghead inlays. Gibson records indicate it was shipped to Coy Davison on September 6, 1935. According to research by Joe Spann (Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941), Davison was employed at Gibson as a string tester from 1937 to ’39. According to his family, he played music professionally in the ’30s and onward, and presumably was a player of some merit.

At Gibson, this guitar was listed as “Spl L-5” both times it was returned for repair – in August of ’36 and again in December of ’42. Though it’s clear the guitar has been modified, Gibson records don’t provide much insight about the work that was completed. However, photos provided by the Davison family not only show the original appearance of this guitar, but help create a time line for the modification in the late ’30s and early ’40s. In the earliest photos (mid/late ’30s,) the guitar has a Super-400-style tailpiece (without the model name engraving) and pickguard, engraved/pen-back Grover tuners, a bell-shaped truss-rod cover, and sunburst top finish with bound f-holes. In later photos, it has an L-5-style pickguard, Grover Imperial tuners, and a natural-finish top with unbound f-holes (natural finish was not standard until ’38, though it was available as a custom option). With the exception of the truss cover, which had clearly been changed in the 1938 photo, all modifications appear to have taken place at the Gibson factory from 1940 to ’42.

Though this instrument has been modified significantly from its original specs, the changes were made at Gibson not long after the instrument was produced. Prototypes were viewed as experimental, and as a result were frequently modified in the course of testing. It’s interesting to see that remarkably detailed records have been preserved for this and numerous other Gibsons. Quite a few salesman samples – and a surprising number of instruments – were shipped and returned several times, some were even reconditioned prior to being re-sold. This instrument represents the final stage of a model’s evolution, and as such is an important piece of Gibson history.

Special thanks to Andre Duchossoir and Lynn Wheelwright.

This article originally appeared in VG January 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.