The Gibson L-5 is the Holy Grail of archtops, the kind of guitar that has it all: looks, tone, playability and the patina of a history extending back to 1922 and through the hands of an amazing array of players that speaks to its versatility. John Mayer, Eric Clapton, Mother Maybelle Carter, Wes Montgomery, Keith Richards, Django Reinhardt, Paul Simon, Pat Martino, Tuck Andress and Scotty Moore are among the musical royalty who have used an L-5 in the studio or on stage.

Before we get into a closer look at some great L-5 recordings, let’s revisit the guitar’s history. The L-5 was created at Gibson’s original factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, under the direction of the legendary luthier and sonic genius Lloyd Loar, whose archtop guitar designs and mandolin constructions are arguably the finest ever. Of course, the first L-5s were acoustic instruments, but with a big body and ability to project, which made them the perfect six-strings for the big band era. The model was also the first guitar with f-holes, and originally had a 16-inch body that was increased by an inch in diameter in 1934 as the need to be heard among horns and other loud instruments increased.

In 1949, the first electric spin-off of the L-5 was manufactured by Gibson. The new guitar was dubbed the ES-5 and sported three P-90 pickups, which was radical for its time. It also used four discreet volume knobs, one for each pickup plus a master, to better sculpt tones. Eventually the ES-5 evolved into the ES-5 Switchmaster, which incorporated volume and tone pots for each pickup. Gibson discontinued the Switchmaster in 1962, but it returned to the Custom Shop’s catalog in 1995. Original models are highly prized, and Steve Cropper used a vintage Switchmaster on his new solo album Dedicated.

Early single-note solo innovator Eddie Lang and country music’s first guitar hero Mother Maybelle Carter, of the Carter Family, also used acoustic L-5s. Carter’s instrument is on display at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as part of the institution’s “Precious Jewels” exhibit featuring axes that are among the fabric of country music history. It’s said that as soon as the Carter Family began making a significant income playing music, Maybelle went out and purchased her L-5, seeking an instrument without limitations. And while jazz legend Wes Montgomery may be the best-known exponent of the L-5 in its electric incarnations, the gypsy jazz innovator Django Reinhardt also played an electrified L-5 during his stint with Duke Ellington’s band in 1946, albeit one outfitted with a D’Armond pickup.

The rock world woke to the charms of the L-5 early on, when Scotty Moore played one on Elvis Presley’s mid-’50s hits. By then, the model was being manufactured in an electric version with P-90s, but in 1958 humbuckers became standard issue on the L-5, which took on the new designation L-5CES. The ES-5 and L-5CES, were significantly different mostly, in that the ES-5 body was made of plywood and the L-5CES adhered to the original blueprint for the L-5, with a carved spruce top and solid maple rims and back. Today, the same carving machines that were used by the Gibson plant in Kalamazoo in the 1950s are still in service in Gibson’s current Nashville home base, albeit adapted from their original steam power to electricity.

There’s another important variation on the L-5 in the guitar’s history. In 1970, Gibson made the L-5S, a solidbody variation of the arch top model. Although not as tonally simpatico as the L-5CES, the guitar has the ability to run at high volumes on rock stages without feedback – a plus for performers like Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards. A single-pickup version was custom-made for Wood, who loaned it to Richards for the first X-Pensive Winos tour.

Oh, and there’s one more variation worth noting: the “Lonesome” George Goebel signature model. The pop and country star commissioned an L-5 archtop with a smaller neck scale and body depth, more attuned to his own dimensions. Only a few dozen were produced in the late 1950s and early ’60s, which makes these the most valuable members of the electric L-5 family.

Want to hear the L-5 in action? Check out these tracks:

• Wes Montgomery: The history of the L-5 and jazz meet here, with the Indianapolis legend Wes Montgomery – giant of the octave chord. Montgomery built his own vocabulary with an elegant way of thumb picking, modal playing and superbly constructed solos that shifted from singles notes to chords with breathtaking passion. Check out “D-Natural Blues” on The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery to dig on his taste and tone. Today, the Wes Montgomery L-5 CES remains one of the most popular variations on the model.

 

• Eric Clapton: E.C. – big daddy of the Les Paul Sunburst with the Bluesbreakers, king of the screaming SG with Cream – continued the Gibson renaissance he began with 1994’s From the Cradle, when he plied an ES-335 in the studio and on tour, with 2001’s Reptile, where his main axe was an L-5, put to especially slinky use on Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby.” You can see him at work with his L-5 on his shoulders in the live One More Car, One More Rider DVD, which followed Reptile. And he typically uses an L-5 for his renditions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

 

• Tuck & Patti: The guitar and vocal duo of Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart are a perfect symmetry of voices, thanks to Andress’ elegant and expressive work on his L-5. They have many recordings that display their stellar mesh of talents, but hearing them perform their medley of Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” and “Little Wing” live is a spiritual experience for any guitar head.

 

• John Mayer: Mayer is proof that the L-5 has a place in modern pop. He pulls the silvery tones of “Slow Dancing on Mulholland Drive” from his Where the Light Is DVD out of a gorgeous natural finish L-5.

 

• Mother Maybelle Carter: Let’s revisit history one more time. Carter not only played the L-5 but developed a style of picking based on thumb work and frailing called “Carter Picking.” It’s a full, beautiful and gentle approach, and can be heard in graceful realization on the Carter Family classic “Wildwood Flower,” part of country music’s foundation.

 

• Lee Ritenour: On more than 3,000 sessions, jazz and pop technician Ritenour has used either his ES-335 or the 1949 L-5 he acquired in the 1970s. Today, the latter guitar – perhaps best heard on Ritenour’s tune “Wes Bound” – is immortalized by the Gibson Custom Shop with a signature model.

 

• Keith Richards: Borrowing Ron Woods’ custom L-5S, Keith Richards cut his solo album Talk is Cheap in 1988 and then took the instrument on tour with his X-Pensive Winos band.

 

• Pat Martino: This cerebral jazz giant was an exponent of the L-5 for much of his career, and for a time Gibson manufactured a Pat Martino signature model – now another rare bird in the L-5 family.