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The information below originally appeared on the website Mandolin Café (mandolincafe.com) and was written by Gibson expert, Joe Spann.
"Like so many of Gibson's now world-famous innovations, the 'Cremona Brown' sunburst finish used on the Master-Model instruments from 1922 forwards was the invention of an obscure employee. Turns out that Master Lloyd Loar had nothing to do with it.
"Here's a short article from the January 1921 issue of Gibson's ‘Sounding Board Salesman’ magazine, which identifies the man."
GIBSON CREMONA BROWN
Not so very long ago Fred Miller, Foreman of the Gibson Finishing Department, brought into the sales manager's office, a Gibson mandolin that looked not a cent less than a million dollars. Fred had been taking liberties with the catalog finish specifications and while the F-4 was an F-4 in every other respect, the finish was about "F-100%", according to our estimation. Practically every girl in the office said she adored it and even the janitor raved over it. In fact, everybody was so enthusiastic about Fred's work that we forthwith commissioned him to put through a special lot of Gibsons in this new finish, which he calls Cremona Brown. Very soon we expect to have available a few F-4 mandolins, H-4 mandolas and K-4 mando-cellos in this new Cremona Brown finish, which for the time being we will bill at $5.00 additional to the regular wholesale price. If you don't think the finish is about as beautiful an effect as you have ever seen on a mandolin or violin, just ship back the instrument and we will send it to somebody who likes it.
Joe Spann adds: “According to my serial number list, the earliest Gibson instrument yet seen with a true ‘Cremona Brown’ sunburst finish is H-4 #65241. According to my revised serial number chronology this instrument would have shipped in August 1921.
"Frederick Martin Miller, the creator of the "Cremona Brown" sunburst was born in Mecklenburg, Germany on 25 February 1885, emigrated to the United States in 1891 and was working at Gibson by 1909. By 1920 he was the Foreman of the Finishing Department and evidently left Gibson at or about the same time as Master Lloyd Loar, Sales Manager Lewis A. Williams and General Manager Harry Ferris, late in 1924.
"By 1926 Fred was working around Kalamazoo as a housepainter, and in 1930 had started his own auto-body repair shop with his eldest son. The Great Depression killed his business and he was forced to seek employment as a painter at the Checker Cab Company factory. He died in Kalamazoo on 11 February 1944 at the very young age of 58 and is buried there. Ironically, a lifetime of breathing in varnish and lacquer fumes is what likely led to his early death."
Frederick Martin Miller, created the Cremona Brown finish. The combination of Burst pattern and wood grain makes every L-5 as unique as a fingerprint!
These examples of finish are from the following serial number guitars
Top row, (left to right) Second row Third row Fourth row
76707, 77405, 81707, 84677 85437, 85558, 85758, 86842 88290, 88786, 89354, 90303 90315, 91100, 91522, 91930
The L-5s pictured below span a period of approximately ten years. It’s interesting
to see how the burst pattern developed over that time.
The Virzi Tone Producer
Brothers Joseph and John Virzi moved to the United States at the beginning of the 20th Century, settling in Manhattan where they established a sales office at 503 Fifth Avenue in New York City.
By the late 1920s, they were offering a range of six violins, the most expensive of which cost $250 - the same price as Gibson’s F5 mandolin. In addition to violins, the company offered a full line of accessories as well as the installation of its patented ‘Tone Producer’.
Giuseppe Virzi Senior (Joseph and John’s father) had applied for a U.S. patent on the ‘Tone Producer’ in 1920 and this was granted on 11th April 1922.
Intended to enhance the overtone series, the item comprised of a thin spruce disc or ‘tone plate’ that was suspended within the body, its feet positioned slightly behind the centre-line of the bridge. Depending on the type of instrument, it attached to the soundboard via two or three feet.
Lloyd Loar’s personal viola was fitted with a Virzi Tone Producer and the Virzi catalogue included a letter in which Loar describes the viola’s improved tone: “In my opinion,” he says, “you have contributed one of the most noteworthy improvements applicable to the construction of all string instruments of which there is any record in the last two hundred years.”
The Virzi Tone Producers intended for violins were oblong in shape with two ‘feet’, while those fitted to mandolins and guitars were oval with three locating points.
Some Tone Producers were installed in Gibson L-5s and the plates of these were teardrop shaped.
Archtop maestro John Monteleone has been vocal in his dislike of the Virzi Tone Producer: “I would have loved to have overheard the convincing sales pitch that Mr Virzi sold to Mr Loar,” he comments. This statement would appear unfair to Loar, who as a former staff member of the Virzi Brothers New York office, would have been more than familiar with the product. Monteleone is not alone in his dislike of the Virzi however and many Tone Producers have been removed – particularly in Loar-signed F-5 mandolins - in an effort to achieve more volume. One thing is certain, Loar himself would not have approved of this act, as the air chambers of Gibson’s Master Models were tap-tuned with the Virzi Tone Producer in situ.
For more on the Virzi Tone Producer see http://siminoff.net/virzi-tone-background/
Virzi photo courtesy Roger H. Siminoff, reproduction rights reserved
With the exception of the two L-5s that were custom built for Karl Kress (serial number 89849, shipped in 1933 and serial number 91615, shipped in 1935) and serial number 91930 (shipped in 1935) all 16-inch L-5s that we have encountered have a narrow neck heel.
Some early 17-inch Advanced L-5s also have a narrow neck heel - examples 92230 and 92284, both of which were shipped in 1935.
The earliest Advanced L-5 with a wide neck heel is serial number 92824, which was shipped in 1935. All later Advanced L-5s and L-5 Premiers on the site have a wide neck heel.
Clockwise; 16-inch L-5 with narrow neck heel (serial number 87993), 16-inch L-5 with wide neck heel custom built for Carl Kress (serial number 89849), 16-inch L-5 with wide neck heel (serial number 91930), 17-inch L-5 with wide neck heel (serial number 93281), early 17-inch L-5 with narrow neck heel (serial number 92230).
16-inch small f-holes
All Loar signed L-5s and Type Two L-5s have small, unbound f-holes.
All Type Three L-5s on our site have small, unbound f-holes with the exception of serial number 92033 (shipped in 1935), which has larger unbound f-holes.
17-inch small unbound f-holes
Several 17-inch Advanced L-5s have small, unbound f-holes, the earliest on our site being serial number 92230 (shipped 1935) and the latest serial number 94139 (shipped 1937).
17-inch large unbound f-holes
Some examples from the late 30s have large, unbound f-holes – these include serial numbers 95011 (shipped 1937) and 95602 (shipped 1938)
17-inch large, bound f-holes
Most Advanced L-5s on the site from 1938 on have large bound f-holes, the earliest being serial number 95122, which was shipped in 1938.
From left: small unbound f-hole from 16-inch L-5; large unbound f-hole from 16-inch L-5 (serial number 92033); small unbound f-hole from 17-inch Advanced L-5; large unbound f-hole from 17-inch Advanced L-5; large bound f-hole from 17-inch Advanced L-5
All Loar signed L-5s and Type Two L-5s have small, unbound f-holes as do most Type Three L-5s.The majority of 17-inch Advanced L-5s shipped before 1938 have small bound f-holes while those shipped from 1938 on have large, bound f-holes
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From 1939 the L-5 was offered - as the L-5 Premier – with a single rounded ‘Venetian’ style cutaway (the model was renamed the L-5C c. 1948).
In most respects, the L-5 Premier was identical to the non-cutaway L-5 of the period though the earliest L-5Ps had a fingerboard that was glued flush to the top of the guitar rather than elevated, as on the non-cutaway L-5.
In 1940 the neck angle was altered so that the fingerboard was elevated once again.
All L-5 Premiers had parallel top bracing.
The L-5 above was shipped in 1939. You can see that its fingerboard is set flush with the top. The example on the right was shipped in 1940, by which point the neck angle had been altered and the fingerboard was elevated once again - as on non-cutaway L-5s, which never had the flush fingerboard.
Gibson used its highest quality woods for the construction of the L-5; holly for the headstock overlay, spruce for the top and internal top braces, ebony for the fingerboard and maple for the neck (the company described the neck as having a ‘three-piece’ construction - two sections of maple separated by a centre lamination of a dark coloured wood that may have been mahogany). All Loar signed L-5s had maple rims and a birch back with the exception of serial numbers 76478 and 77410, which had maple back and rims. L-5s built after Lloyd Loar’s departure from Gibson in December 1924 have figured maple back and rims.
16-inch L-5s were fitted with an ebony bridge, whereas the 17-inch Advanced model (introduced in 1935) had a bridge made from Brazilian rosewood.
All 16-inch L-5s employed a parallel bracing pattern and most Loar-signed examples (and a few later L-5s) were fitted with a Virzi Tone Producer - a small spruce disc suspended within the body that was intended to enhance the guitar's overall tonal characteristics. The first Advanced L-5s incorporated an X-braced (as opposed to parallel braced) top. From 1939 the model was offered - as the L-5 Premier – with a single rounded ‘Venetian’ style cutaway and around this time, Gibson reverted to parallel top bracing.
Gibson began spraying fast-drying nitrocellulose lacquer in 1923. The finish became thicker in the late 1930s with a tendency to yellow with age
Metal parts – the tuners, the tailpiece, the pickguard support and the screws - were initially silver-plated. L-5s built after Lloyd Loar’s departure from the company in December 1924 have gold-plated hardware. Apart from a brief period from 1929 to 1931, Gibson subcontracted out its electroplating needs.
Gibson used nitrocellulose based plastic for its bindings, pickguards and – in the case of some block neck L-5s – its fingerboard inlays. Unfortunately this material has a tendency to deteriorate with age and the corrosive outgas emitted as the material breaks down can damage the guitar’s finish and metal parts. Confusingly the plastic binding and pickguards found on some pre-war guitars remain unaffected while relatively new instruments can exhibit signs of decay!
For more on Gibson’s suppliers and practises see Spann’s Guide To Gibson 1902 – 1941 published by Centerstream. Highly recommended!
Left: Birch backed Loar-signed L-5 Serial No. 76480 shipped 1924.
Right: Maple backed L-5 Serial No. 91774 shipped 1935
Pickguard rot on a 1930s Gibson L-10. Note the extensive corrosion to the frets and pickguard bracket.
Picture courtesy of Joe Vinikow (archtop.com)
Labels And Markings
L-5s built prior to December 1924 had both Gibson 'Master Model' and Lloyd Loar signature labels (the latter signed and dated by Loar himself) . Lloyd Loar left Gibson in December 1924 and the last Loar-signed label appeared in that month. 1927 was the last year for the ‘Master Model’ label.
White oval label, c. 1908 to 1932
'Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co.', 1898 and 1906 patent notices (unlike earlier labels, this has no photo of Orville Gibson). Both the serial number and the model name were hand inked or pencilled (from 1917 the model name was ink-stamped on some examples).
The image (right) is from L-5 86842 shipped in 1931.
'Master Model' label, 1922 to 1927
The model designation and serial number were written by hand.
The image (right) shows Master Model label from L-5 Serial No. 76710 signed by Lloyd Loar in 1924.
Lloyd Loar Signature label, June 1st 1922 to December 21st 1924
In addition to the 'Master Model' label, a label signed and dated by Lloyd Loar was fitted. It reads: ‘The top, back, tone bars and air chamber of this instrument were tested, tuned and the assembled instrument tried and approved – date - Lloyd Loar’s signature - Acoustical Engineer.’ (Loar’s signature and the date were written by hand).
The image (right) shows Loar-signed label and Virzi Number from L-5 Serial No. 76710 signed by Lloyd Loar in 1924.
Image (left) shows Virzi stamp on the same guitar's interior
Late 1920s to the 1950s
MADE IN USA impressed into the back of headstock of examples intended for export.
From the start Gibson used a factory order numbers (FONs) to track production costs and control inventory. All pre-war Gibson instruments were assigned an FON, though this doesn’t always appear on the instrument. The FON is the best indicator of when the instrument was manufactured while the serial number relates to its shipping date. In the case of L-5s and other high-end archtops, the FON is visible through the treble side f-hole. Note that in the case of Loar signed L-5s no FON is visible. The FON may have been written on the guitar’s interior back and later covered by the label bearing Loar’s signature, as was the case with the Master Model mandolin family instruments.
Image (top, right) from L-5 Serial No. 90140 shipped 1934. (bottom right) Serial NO. 95122 shipped 1938.
Instruments shipped from 1933 have a white oval label with ‘Gibson Inc.’, in typeset lettering (no Mandolin-Guitar Co.). The serial number and model name were now hand inked stamped.
Custom Truss Rod Covers
During the pre-war period, an L-5 (or other Gibson instrument) could be ordered with a truss rod cover personalised with the owner’s name. From 1928 to 1931, William C. Schrier, an etcher and engraver employed by the Henderson-Ames Company (which designed and made uniform regalia) did additional work for Gibson from the basement of his home in Kalamazoo. Besides engraving truss rod covers, Schrier may well have been responsible for etching Gibson’s Florentine, Bella Voce and All American banjo fingerboards.
Images above, top:
Left Serial No. 84471, shipped 1929
Middle Serial No. 86811 shipped 1931
Right Serial No. 91100 shipped 1934
Images above, bottom
Left: Serial No. 91879 shipped 1935
Right: Serial No. 95122 shipped: 1938
All Type One and most Type Two L-5s appear to have a truss rod cover that is positioned comparatively high on the headstock face. By the early 1930s examples begin to appear with the truss rod cover positioned noticeably closer to the nut. This isn’t consistent however and L-5s shipped as late as 1935 can be found with truss rod cover in the higher position. The earliest example on our site with the low position truss rod cover is serial number 85568, a Type Three L-5s that was shipped in 1930.
16-Inch L-5 Truss Rod Position
Left to right: Serial No 76699 shipped in 1924; Serial No 91774 shipped in 1935; Serial No 93121 shipped in 1936
The position of the trussrod pocket and cover had everything to do with how deep the channel was cut for the rod itself,” says luthier Paul Hostetter. “Earlier Gibson necks were quite large, and the rod needed to be set deeper, which resulted in the then-typical position of the pocket and cover, below and away from the nut. When Gibson began using slimmer necks, the rod channel wasn't (indeed couldn’t be) cut so deep, so the pocket ended up closer to the nut. Slimmer necks are also much easier to adjust! Some of those huge Gibson necks were so thick and rigid that the trussrod did virtually nothing!”
Personalised Metal Truss Rod Covers
The personalised metal truss rod covers pictured here were supplied by the ‘Mono-Plak’ company and were available for guitar, banjo, mandolin and ukulele. 14-carat gold plated or nickel silver plated versions were priced at $3.00 (later increased to $5.00) while the sterling silver option cost $8.00. The price included free engraving of “eight letters per line” with a limit of two lines. Additional letters were 15c each. The item was gift boxed in a Lucite case.
Two examples appear on our website, both fitted to guitars that were shipped in 1931 (serial numbers 86949 and 87092, which are engraved with the names of ‘Bob Bain’ and ‘Bob Gibbons’ respectively.) Bear in mind that they could have been fitted several years - or even decades - after the guitar left the factory. Indeed, most other examples that we have encountered have been on guitars dating from the 1950s.
Above (right): blank Mono-Plak metal truss rod cover showing where the customer could have their name added
Above (left): regular Gibson truss rod cover
'Bob Gibbons' personalised metal truss rod cover, seen here fitted to L-5 Serial Number 87092 shipped in 1931
'Bob Bain' personalised metal truss rod cover, seen here fitted to L-5 Serial Number: 86949 shipped in 1931
Image courtesy of Tom Wittrock
Image courtesy of Tom Wittrock
“I believe that Gibson initially intended the L-5 guitar and F-5 mandolin to have an abalone truss rod cover,” says vintage instrument authority Darryl Wolfe. Examples include the earliest known F-5 mandolin as well as the L-5 guitar pictured in Gibson’s Catalog O (1924) and the F-5 mandolin in seen in catalogue N (c. 1923).
Abalone Truss Rod covers
The L-5 initially had solid braces that were carved to fit the inside arch of the top. At some point Gibson substituted kerfed braces that incorporated a series of slits thus allowing the braces to be ‘bent’ to fit the inside arch. Kerfed braces are usually associated with block neck 16-inch L-5s but – as with all things Gibson – it’s not as simple as this and some block necks do have the earlier solid braces. In addition, guitars with kerfed braces do NOT necessarily sound bad – indeed many sound pretty good! Use your ears and judge accordingly.
Advanced and Premier 17-inch L-5s
As far as we know, all Advanced and Premier 17-inch L-5s have solid carved top braces. If you own or have come across a prewar 17-inch L-5 with kerfed top bracing please contact us here!