In 1972, Gibson introduced the L-5S as a smaller, thinner solidbody version of its L-5 hollowbody. Most mistook it for a Les Paul with a wider body. Though not Gibson’s most popular model, it did catch the attention of a number of high-profile guitarists, including Rolling Stone Ron Wood.
Like the L-5, the L-5S was dressed in multiple binding on its neck, headstock, and single-cut body, and an ebony fingerboard with block inlays. The first headstock had a flowerpot inlay similar to the L-5, and most mounted the L-5 trapeze tailpiece. In addition, there were two low-impedance pickups similar to those on several Les Pauls of the period (Gibson switched to regular humbuckers in ’74). The original L-5S was available in Ebony, Cherry Sunburst, and Natural, and was Gibson’s flagship solidbody, costing more than the highest-end Les Paul Custom.
In the 1980s, Wood ordered a custom single-pickup version that he used frequently and loaned to Keith Richards for his 1988 X-Pensive Winos tour. Although other artists like Pat Martino and Paul Simon also played the L-5S, production ceased in 1983 with a brief Custom Shop run in 2004 and ’05.
When Gibson contacted Wood about reissuing the guitar, he had 40 years of experience with it – and specific modifications in mind. First, he was OK with any color – as long as it was black. Wood also wanted the headstock reduced to Les Paul size, and he chose Burstbucker 1 and 2 pickups and suggested a simper two-knob – one each for Tone and Volume.
As the Stone rolls into his seventh decade, weight also needed to be addressed. The joke among some collectors is that it’s easier to find a pristine 1970s L-5S than its case, which has long since lost its handle due to the burden of carrying the guitar. So instead of a solid block of wood, the new L-5S has a seven-piece all-maple body: two plies for the top and the back with a center of three carved blocks. The guitar comes in at a little over eight pounds.
The 22-fret, slim-profile neck comprises five plies of maple and walnut that are just 0.9″ thick at the 12th fret. It is topped with a 111/16″ nut, Grover tuners, and the inlaid split-diamond logo. The ebony fretboard has block inlays, a very Gibson 12″ radius, and an uncharacteristic 25.5″ scale.
The pickups are machine-wound Burstbuckers with Alnico II polepieces. The neck pickup has 5,000 winds on the screw side and the bridge has 5,300, making for relatively low-output. Wood wasn’t looking for overdrive as much as that Stones grind.
Hardware includes a zinc die-cast ABR-1 bridge ending in a zinc stopbar tailpiece. All the hardware is gold, there’s no pickguard, and even the truss rod cover is blank.
Acoustically the L-5S has ridiculous amounts of chime and sustain. Plug it in, dial in the amp to mild overdrive, flip the three-way switch to the bridge position, bang out any major chord, and it’s immediately apparent why this guitar appeals to Wood. It’s the rhythm sound of nearly every Rolling Stones song you’ve ever heard.
Tone-wise, the L-5S is about as far from a Les Paul as one could expect from a solidbody with two humbuckers. The longer scale and maple body make for a much crisper and brighter overall sound. At the same time, the body’s weight-relieved pockets give rhythm chords an acoustic zing. It’s easy to get a traditional Les Paul lead tone out of the bridge pickup by dialing down the Tone knob. Treble is like money – it’s a lot easier to get less than more. The low-output pickups require just a touch on the Volume knob, conveniently located just below the bridge pickup, to go from dirty to clean. The neck pickup is considerably brighter than a Les Paul’s, which gives barre chords a more-open sound and makes each note more distinct. It can be warm, but it cuts through the mix with ease.
This L-5S is a lovely guitar with beautiful, clear tones – and it can be played without making an advance appointment with a chiropractor.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.