Gibson’s Earliest Dreadnought?

Gibson’s Earliest Dreadnought
Ca. 1929 Gibson HG-24. Photo: Kelsey Vaughn, courtesy George Gruhn.
Gibson was a late entry into the flat-top guitar market, offering its first model in 1926, but Gibson was a pioneer in developing a dreadnought-sized flat-top, as illustrated by this unusual round-shouldered guitar with a 1929 serial number.

It was made during a period when Gibson’s flat-tops were evolving at a frantic pace as Gibson tried to catch up with Martin, the company that had been making the definitive American flat-top guitar since the 1840s. Gibson’s first offerings (not counting a cheap model made for military personnel at the end of World War I) were the inexpensive L-1 and L-0, which would be all but forgotten today if not for a 1930s photo of blues legend Robert Johnson playing an L-1. The bodies were small at 131/2″ wide, the ornamentation was plain with fingerboard dots at only three frets, the top bracing was simple lateral or H-pattern, and initially the company didn’t think these two models were of high enough quality to be worthy of Gibson’s new, patented adjustable truss rod.

Within two years, however, Gibson introduced a higher-quality flat-top (still with the small body) endorsed by singing star Nick Lucas, and all three models evolved quickly, gaining a larger 14¾” body, a 13-fret neck, then a 14-fret neck. Bridges also changed several times.

As music changed and bands grew from a single trumpet, trombone, and clarinet to full sections of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, guitarists needed louder instruments, and the only effective way to accomplish that acoustically was to make guitars bigger. In the flat-top guitar market, the culmination of that quest for greater volume was the dreadnought, which had not only a wider body, but a boxier body shape with a considerably wider waist than conventional shapes. This history of the dreadnought has been well-documented. Martin made the first on a custom-order basis in 1916 for the Ditson company. Then, in 1931, Martin began producing dreadnoughts under the Martin brand, starting with the D-1 and D-2, which became the D-18 and D-28, respectively. In 1934, Gibson followed suit with its first dreadnought, called the Jumbo. The Gibson dreadnought body had upper bouts that were more rounded than Martin’s, giving rise to the distinguishing terms that are still used today: “round-shouldered” or “slope-shouldered” for Gibsons and “square-shouldered” for Martins.

That’s the dreadnought story as it is usually told, but it’s not the whole story. Gibson did not wait until 1934 to introduce a dreadnought. Five years earlier, in 1929, the company introduced not just one but three models with the wide-waisted body shape. They were conceived as Hawaiian guitars – with the HG model designation – but virtually all that have survived were set up for Spanish-style play. Two of the models, the HG-20 and HG-22, were 14¾” wide, but the top model, the HG-24, was 16″ wide. They were easily identified by their four f-holes in the top (in addition to the standard round hole) and an inner “baffle” that ran parallel to the rims. To call them the first Gibson dreadnoughts warrants some qualification. Yes, they were Gibson’s first dreadnought-shaped guitars, but with their inner baffle and the extra f-holes, they were not conventional flat-tops. The Jumbo of 1934 was Gibson’s first conventional dreadnought – until this guitar appeared.

The HG-24 has a round-shouldered dreadnought body with maple back and sides, which would seem to make it unique among Gibson dreadnoughts until the post-World War II era (the Jumbo and J-35 were mahogany, the Advanced Jumbo was rosewood). However, even though the HG-24 was catalogued with rosewood back and sides, some were, in fact, maple, so the body of this guitar is consistent in that regard with the “HG-24” on the label.

The rest of the guitar is not so easily explained. The most obvious inconsistency with a 1929 Gibson is the pickguard. The earliest pickguards on Gibson flat-tops, on the Nick Lucas and L-2, were elevated like those on Gibson’s archtops, and the transition to a glued-down pickguard didn’t begin until 1932. The soundhole is also inconsistent with that of an HG-24; the HG-24 had a smaller hole, and the soundhole on this guitar is the same size as that of the Jumbo model, which wasn’t introduced until 1934. On the underside of the top, the similarity to the Jumbo continues in the bracing pattern. There are no glue lines, footprints, or any other evidence that the top had ever been fitted with the baffle that was standard on HG models. And, of course, the top of this guitar does not have the four additional f-holes that an HG model should have.

A further inconsistency – and the greatest one in terms of time – is the presence of pearl dot inlays in the bridge at either end of the line of bridge pins. These cover bridge bolts that Gibson did not begin using until 1936.

Then there is the fingerboard inlay pattern. It is unlike anything seen on a Gibson before or since, but is similar to the inlay found on some models Gibson made for distributors in the 1930s. In the world of Gibson, an oddball inlay pattern shouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

Based on the bridge bolts, this could be a 1929 HG-24 that was re-topped by Gibson no earlier than 1936. If the bridge bolts came later than the top, then the top could be concurrent with the Jumbo of 1934 or, at the earliest, with the advent of the glued-down pickguard in 1932. The only problem with all of those scenarios is that this guitar does not appear to have been re-topped. The body was severely damaged and the guitar was in pieces. Restoration expert Dave Lautner did extensive repair and restoration work and had ample opportunity to inspect the inside of the body. He remains firmly of the opinion that this guitar was not re-topped.

The scenario of a 1929 guitar body– with a label but without a top – sitting around the Gibson factory for three or four years before being fitted with a top seems a little farfetched, but not totally out of the realm of possibilities. After all, there are plenty of examples of post-World War II instruments with pre-war elements. Although 1929-’32 was not a wartime period, it was the Great Depression, and Gibson was diverting its production focus from guitars to wooden toys in an effort to survive. The production changeover in the early ’30s was not nearly as extensive as it would be during World War II for military products, but the similarities of the situations can’t be ignored. In addition, this was a period when Gibson flat-tops were going through a flurry of changes before the dust finally settled circa 1934 with clearly drawn models and consistent specs. In those contexts, the unexplainable is almost to be expected from Gibson.

Re-topped or not, this guitar still may well be the first Gibson conventional flat-top with a dreadnought body, and it is certainly one of the most interesting mystery Gibsons of the early flat-top period.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s September 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.