Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Gibson L-1 Flat Top - Robert Johnson's Guitar

Robert Johnson was the consummate bluesman. His songs and lifestyle influenced countless blues players. Even today, guitar players/singers attempt to copy his method of singing and playing.

Johnson is the blues player that claimed he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being the greatest blues player.

Legend has it that as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was "instructed" to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight.

There a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it met him. The "Devil" played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. The site of the meeting is the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale Mississippi.

Decades ago, Highway 61 was re-routed, so these roads no longer cross in the same place as Johnson claimed the meeting took place. Whether or not this actually happened, I’ll leave up to you. However, Robert Johnson skill as a guitar player, singer, and blues man advanced very quickly.

Johnson choice of guitar had a lot to do with price and availability. His friend and companion, Johnny Shines, claimed that Johnson favored a 14-fret Kalamazoo flat top and sometimes played a Stella. Both were selling for around $12 new at the time.

In his most recognized photo, his left hand is positioned to play an A7th barre chord on a Gibson L-1. Johnson is wearing his nephew’s suit.

Was he the owner of the Gibson guitar? We do not know for sure, but this guitar has been forever associated with Robert Johnson

The Gibson L-1 that Johnson is photographed with was offered for sale in 2006. The asking price was 6 million dollars.

Gibson introduced the flat top L-1 in 1926. Before that, they had made an arched top version of the L-1 with a round soundhole, as early as 1918. The most unusual feature of the L-1 is it’s elongated lower bout.

The 13 ½ inch body was singly bound both on the top and bottom sides with ivoroid binding. The top, made of 2-piece quarter-sawn red spruce, placed on a 2-piece quarter-sawn maple back and maple sides came with a very distinctive narrow waist. The top came with an amber stain. The back and sides had a tobacco brown stain applied.  The back was arched.

The C-shaped, mahogany neck was fat, by today’s standards. However, this may have been due to the guitar lacking a truss rod.

The unbound fingerboard and bridge plate were made of solid ebony and had pearl dots on the 5th, 7th, and 9th positions.

The thin bracing was an unusual variation of A bracing, known as H bracing. The 3-on-a-side tuners came capped with plastic tip buttons. The neck joined the body at the 12th fret.

The sound of this instrument emphasized its treble and midrange.

This was perfect for blues or finger-style playing. The L-1 has the distinction of being Gibson’s first flat top instrument.

Gibson reintroduced the guitar recently, but made a few changes. The new L-1’s top is made of solid AA grade Sitka Spruce. The back and sides are Honduran mahogany. The neck is maple with an ebony fretboard that is marked the same as the original. The headstock on the new model comes with a mother-of-pearl Gibson logo, whereas the original model had a painted logo.


walkingblues said...

aah, a wonderful blog entry. And to my suprise, at the bottom a video of my guitar recently acquired!

Marc said...

Walking Blues, you sure bought a nice guitar.

best wishes,

~Marc O'Hara

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