It’s a rare occasion when a star performer hooks up with a guitar company to create a classic signature instrument. Gibson’s Les Paul model comes to mind, as does Gretsch’s Chet Atkins 6120.
But the most important of all may well be Gibson’s Nick Lucas model. Granted, Les Paul was the world’s most famous guitarist when he and Gibson teamed up in 1952, and Chet Atkins was already influential by ’54, when his first Gretsch debuted. But Nick Lucas was more than a famous guitarist in 1928. He was a pop music superstar. And while Les and Chet played pivotal roles in popularizing the electric guitar, Lucas played a pivotal role in popularizing the guitar, period. And as this 1936 Gibson Nick Lucas model proves, Lucas’ signature model was every bit as great an instrument as Les’ or Chet’s.
The Lucas was Gibson’s first good flat-top guitar. The earlier GY (Army-Navy) of 1918 was sold only at military post exchanges and was so cheap that Gibson practically disowned it, saying it was not a Gibson. Officially, the first Gibson flat-tops were the L-1 and L-0 of 1926. Both were 131?2″ wide with simple lateral or H-pattern bracing. The very existence of a model that rated a zero as its style number illustrated Gibson’s lowly view of the flat-top guitar. The earliest examples didn’t even rate a truss rod in the neck, making them the only non-wartime Gibsons since the introduction of the adjustable truss rod in 1922 to have been built without one.
Compared to the Martins of 1926, the L-1 and L-0 surely were an embarrassment to Gibson. Until that time, the least expensive Gibson models had been made with the same materials and designs as the most expensive; only the ornamentation was different. Clearly, if Gibson were to maintain its identity as a maker of high quality instruments and to survive in the changing musical instrument market of the late 1920s, it needed a decent flat-top. To undo all of Gibson’s earlier criticisms of flat-top guitars, Gibson did something it had never done before – created an artist signature model.
Lucas (born Dominic Nicholas Anthony Lucanese) would hold an important place in popular music had he never sung a note, thanks to his 1922 solo guitar recordings “Pickin’ the Guitar” and “Teasin’ the Frets,” which were later noted as a major influence by no less than Merle Travis! He also laid the groundwork for the guitar as an accompaniment instrument on a 1922 recording when he put down his tenor banjo in favor of the smoother-sounding, easier-to-record guitar. In ’24, Lucas began recording as a vocalist, and by the time he joined with Gibson in 1928, he was “The Singing Troubadour,” one of the most popular “crooners” of the day.
The first version of the Nick Lucas model (a.k.a. “Gibson Special”) was built with the same body outline as the L-1, but the depth was increased to over 4″. The deeper body made a huge difference in tone, and Gibson maintained it throughout the Lucas model’s many design changes. Why no other Gibson models adopted the deep-body design (except the short-lived Jumbo dreadnought of 1934-’35) is a mystery. Maybe the deep body was Lucas’ idea and was to be exclusive to his model. Whatever the reason, it made the Lucas unique.
The 1928 version had mahogany back and sides and a rosewood fingerboard with the same varied pattern inlay as Gibson’s TB-5 “trap door-style” banjo. The rosewood bridge had a slight belly with an extra bridge pin inserted. The neck had 12 frets clear of the body. Like all subsequent versions, it sported a large round paper label with a picture of The Singing Troubadour playing his signature model.
At a list price of $125, the Lucas was easily the top model in the flat-top line; the L-1 was $50 and the L-0 was only $35. And by the end of 1928, it became a bit more ostentatious in its second version, with a different, larger inlay pattern and a pearl fleur-de-lis on the peghead.
In ’29, Lucas starred in the Warner-Vitaphone film Gold Diggers of Broadway, strumming his Gibson as he crooned “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips.” The recorded version eventually sold over two million copies. Gibson’s timing couldn’t have been better. Although the Depression put the Lucas guitar beyond the reach of most buyers, Gibson’s flat-top line grew and prospered.
For the third version of the Lucas, Gibson abandoned the circular lower bout for a larger (143?4″) body, and the bridge went to a simple rectangular design with no belly. The fourth version had rosewood back and sides, a neck with 13 frets clear of the body, and (possibly as a reflection of the rising popularity of Gibson’s archtops) archtop-style fittings, a height-adjustable bridge, trapeze tailpiece, and elevated pickguard (some had the pickguard glued to the top). The fifth version had rosewood back and sides, 14-fret neck, pin bridge, and glued pickguard.
The sixth and final version was the same, but with maple back and sides. Our featured guitar, with a serial number dating to 1936, is one of those.
Exactly when these changes occurred is impossible to pinpoint. Serial numbers on the labels of the first four versions typically indicate 1929. The numbers are not close enough for all of the labels to have been numbered at the same time, and some seem to deviate from the chronology of the changes. Catalogs only confuse matters more. The ’32 catalog shows a supposedly Brazilian rosewood, 12-fret guitar with “The Gibson” headstock logo and a pin bridge (although it notes that archtop fittings were optional). Curiously, the sides appear to have sunburst-type highlights, and they show no wood grain. The ’34 catalog shows the exact same photo, but with back and sides described as maple.
If we use the more popular Gibson models as a guideline, we’d date the change to the larger body (third version) to 1931 and the change to 14-fret neck (fifth version) to ’32. The logo change from “The Gibson” to “Gibson” occurred on practically all Gibson models by ’32, but the Lucas lagged behind. The typical rosewood-body, 14-fret versions still have “The Gibson.”
By the time this example was made, crooners had been supplanted on the pop charts by big-band singers, Lucas was no longer a star (although he would remain active until his death in 1982), and dreadnoughts had overshadowed small-body guitars. Gibson dropped the Nick Lucas Model from the catalog in ’38, and the last stragglers were shipped in ’41.
The small body width of the Lucas models, along with the archtop setup on most of the rosewood examples, has left them underappreciated by musicians. One noteworthy exception is Bob Dylan, who played a re-topped Lucas in the 1960s. Gibson’s Acoustic division in Montana revived the Lucas in 1993 (with a longer 251?2″ scale) but seemed almost as undecided as Gibson had in the original era as to whether the model should be maple or rosewood. Most players preferred rosewood back and sides to maple (as with the originals), but the rosewood models were only made in limited quantities. Why Gibson insisted on the maple version is inexplicable – unless someone at Gibson played this particular maple-body guitar.
Photo: Kelsey Vaughan. Instrument courtesy George Gruhn.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.