Gibson did not put the L-10 on a price list until 1931, but according to the serial number on this example, the company was working on the model as much as six years earlier.
Among Gibson’s high-end archtops, the L-10 has been overshadowed by the more famous and revered L-5 (with its Lloyd Loar pedigree) and the less expensive and consequently more popular L-7. However, this example is noteworthy not only on its own merits but also as the first step toward expanding the L-5 into a full line of Gibson archtops in the ’30s.
This guitar’s serial number, 81807, dates it to 1925, although it may not have left the factory that early. Regardless of the exact date, it was made in a period when archtop guitars were low on Gibson’s list of priorities. After enjoying great success as a leading force in the mandolin movement, Gibson fell on hard times when the tenor banjo became the preferred rhythm instrument for the new jazz music of the ’20s.
In 1922, Gibson acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar tried to rekindle the mandolin market by providing an improved instrument. Although the project failed to revive mandolin sales, it did produce some legendary instruments, including the L-5 guitar, Gibson’s first model with F-holes. Through the mid ’20s, while Gibson was forced to develop competitive banjo designs, popular music became more sophisticated and more varied, and the banjo began losing ground to the more versatile guitar. Gibson saw the trend as early as 1926 and responded with a pair of very inexpensive flat-tops. The existence of this L-10 suggests that the company was thinking of expanding the archtop line, as well.
This guitar is unlike any other known L-10 in that it is essentially an L-5 with a different finish and a less fancy peghead. In construction as well as in sound, there is nothing about it that is in any way less than the quality of an L-5. Among its L-5 features are a point at the end of the fingerboard (like the lower part of a heart) and three-ply binding on the body and neck – features that later L-10s did not have. The fingerboard inlays are pearl dots, starting at the third fret. The inlays on the original L-5 started at the fifth fret; the third-fret dot was added in 1927 or 1928, which suggests that this L-10 was not actually completed until that time.
What was Gibson intending to do with this guitar? If it was simply fated to be a black L-5, there was no need for a new model name. Gibson’s models had always been defined by ornamentation, so there was no reason to name a black L-5 anything other than L-5B or something similar. Gibson had painted itself into a corner with model nomenclature – L-4 and L-3 were already in use, and this new black model belonged between the L-4 and L-5. The price-related system would not come into use until 1934 with the Super 400. The choice of 10 for a style that this slightly less fancy than a 5 seems arbitrary and confusing, but that’s the number on the label of this instrument.
One sign of Gibson’s recognition of the guitar market came in 1928 with the publication of Catalog Q. For the first time, guitars were pictured before mandolins. As shown in that catalog, Gibson had latched onto the growing guitar market with new and evolving flat-top models, including a signature model from popular crooner Nick Lucas, but the company was proceeding with much greater caution in the archtop line. The L-5 was still Gibson’s sole F-hole archtop. Up-and-coming artist Perry Bechtel was pictured with a decidedly old-fashioned, scroll-body Style O Artist (a model Gibson didn’t even offer anymore) and Eddy Lang, who was emerging as the most influential guitar soloist of the late ’20s, was shown with an oval-hole L-4. Apparently, the jury was still out on F-holes.
There are other L-10s with serial numbers from 1929 and ’30, so Gibson was testing the waters by that time, but the company might have sat on the L-10 for several more years had it not been for Epiphone. A leader in the banjo market of the ’20s, the New York-based company introduced not one, but seven f-hole archtop models in June of ’31. To add insult to injury, Epiphone called the new line Masterbilt, a term that played on Gibson’s Master Model designation.
Epiphone’s Masterbilt models ended any indecision at Gibson about the viability of F-hole archtops, and the L-10 officially joined the L-5 on Gibson’s price list by the end of ’31. The one shown in Catalog U (from ’32) was significantly different from example shown here. The black finish remained, but the fingerboard and top had single-ply binding, and the end of the fingerboard was squared off. The dot inlays remained, too, but by this time the L-5 had been upgraded to pearl block inlays.
Gibson’s intent for the model was finally clear; the L-10 was to be a less-expensive alternative to the L-5, and it was priced accordingly at $175 (without case). It was an expensive guitar compared to a flat-top Martin – Martin’s most expensive model, the OM-45, had just been reduced from $180 to $170 – but it was still a full $100 cheaper than the L-5 and only $25 more than the L-4.
As early as 1930, Gibson had a model with sunburst finish in development to be priced between the L-5 and L-10. The L-12 officially joined the line in ’32. No doubt in response to the fancier ornamentation on the Epiphone Masterbilts, the L-12 introduced a fingerboard inlay style featuring rectangular rosewood inserts inlaid with fancy pearl figures, and the L-10 also adopted the new look. Yet another 16″ archtop, the L-7, appeared in 1932, featuring a varied-pattern fingerboard inlay but without the rectangular rosewood inserts.
In an effort to one-up Epiphone, Gibson advanced the body width of all its 16″ archtops to 17″ in 1934, the same year the company introduced its “over-the-top” 18″ Super 400 model. With the increase in size, the L-10 received a complete makeover. The top bracing was changed to an X pattern, the fingerboard inlay changed to a new double-triangle (sometimes called double-bullet) pattern, the top binding was upgraded to a checkered pattern, and the black finish was replaced by a sunburst top with a red mahogany stain on the back and sides.
Four Gibson 17″ archtops proved to be overkill, even in the growing market spurred by the big bands of the ’30s. The L-10 was the first casualty, disappearing in 1939, while the other three models lasted well into the post-World War II era.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.