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Though today regarded as the archetypal jazz guitar, the acoustic L-5 was envisaged (along with the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola and the K-5 mandocello) as a member of the mandolin family. Indeed, Lloyd Loar’s Style 5 Master Model line might be viewed as an attempt on the part of Gibson to reignite interest in the mandolin orchestra, which by this point was in a state of terminal decline. Despite the demonstrable superiority of Loar’s creations, they failed to revive the mandolin family’s waning fortunes and the L-5 guitar might have been forgotten were it not for one Salvatore Massaro, better known as the great jazz guitarist, Eddie Lang.
Lang single-handedly pioneered the guitar as a member of the dance band’s rhythm section, in the process displacing the tenor banjo, the rise of which had earlier played a central role in the demise of the mandolin orchestra. He played various guitars including a Gibson L-4 before settling on an L-5 in the late 1920s.
The L-5’s ability to cut through a dance band’s horn section soon established it as the ideal rhythm guitar and following Eddie Lang’s example, other guitarists of the period were quick to adopt the model.
For a time Gibson had the field to itself but in June 1931, Epiphone threw down the gauntlet when it introduced a line of seven f-hole archtops. Priced (like the L-5) at $275, the top of the line ‘Masterbilt’ Deluxe represented a direct challenge to the L-5 - and to add insult to injury, measured a full 16-3/8 inches across its lower bout!
Having already introduced an affordable alternative to the L-5 - the L-10 (initially priced at $175 and later reduced to $150) - Gibson expanded its line of 16-inch f-hole archtops to include the L-12 ($175) and the L-7 ($125) before relaunching all four of its full sized models with a new 17-inch ‘Advanced’ body width in 1935. Needless to say, Epiphone followed suit, increasing the width of the Deluxe to 17-3/8 inches later that year!
This game of one-upmanship continued through the pre-war years as Epiphone countered the launch of the 18-inch wide Gibson Super-400 with its own behemoth, the 18-1/2 inch Emperor.
Presented with an L-5 for the first time, a guitarist in the mid 1920s would have struck by its violin style f-holes, 14-fret neck and elegant Cremona Brown finish. Having given the instrument a strum they might have commented on its volume, projection and lack of overtones. Like Leo Fender’s Telecaster some 30 years later, there is little about Lloyd Loar’s creation that exists solely for cosmetic reasons (for more on Lloyd Loar see the Lloyd Loar Page). The ebony fingerboard is inlaid with simple pearl dots and apart from the pearl ‘flowerpot’ headstock motif the L-5 is notable for its lack of decoration. Compared with later archtops, the first L-5s are positively plain!
Though earlier Gibsons had been built with a carved top and back, the L-5 was the first archtop guitar to feature components that were 'tap-tuned' to a specific pitch. The soundboard, backboard, longitudinal tone bars and f-holes were individually adjusted so that each part worked in unison to deliver a balanced tone with maximum volume and projection.
As a result, no two Loar L-5s are identical, the size of the f-holes and the thickness of the tone bars and shaping of the top and back vary from one example to the next.
Other elements of the L-5's design intended to improve the instrument’s functionality include the 14-fret neck to body junction. Besides facilitating access to the upper frets, this moves the bridge closer to the centre of the soundboard, a position that improves transfer of energy from the vibrating string to the guitar's top.
Before the completed guitar was shipped, Lloyd Loar signed the label, confirming that ‘The top, back, tone-bars and air-chamber of this instrument were tested, tuned and the assembled instrument tried and approved' (followed by the date and Loar’s signature).
A photograph from 1920 taken in the engineering department of the Gibson factory. Could that be Plant Manager, Thaddeus ‘Ted’ McHugh in the background? Image courtesy of Paul Fox (fox-guitars.com)