Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gibson Super 400

1938 Gibson Super 400
I watched an old episode of Antiques Road Show last night. One of the featured articles was a pristine Stromberg Master 400. It was a beautiful instrument with a natural finish.

Stromberg Master 400

The lady that inherited the guitar had it appraised at a music store and they valued it at $1500 to $2000. It was actually worth around $25,000.

The Strombergs of Boston and John D’Angelico of New York City based their guitar designs on the Gibson L5, which was not only one of the finest guitars ever produced but also one of the most historically significant guitars.

D'Angelico Excel
Each luthier attempted to build a better instrument than a Gibson. Not to diminish Gibson guitars in anyway, but both succeeded.

Paul Yandell's Super 400
Stromberg’s idea was bigger is better, so their Master 400 was an inch larger than the Gibson Super 400.

 D’Angelico's Excel was much more elaborate.

1929 L-5
This guitar was introduced in 1923 as the Gibson L5, during an era when guitarists in big bands were looking for a guitar that could cut through the horn section.

By 1934 the guitar was renamed the Gibson Super 400. Its grand auditorium body shape is not unlike Orville Gibson’s 1902 Style O model. The L5 was part of what Gibson called the Master Series. This included the legendary F-5 mandolin, H-5 mandola and K-5 mando-cello and of course the L5 guitar. All were created in an era when Mandolin orchestras were popular.

New Super 400CES
As with many Gibson guitars, the numerical designation depicts the instruments original price tag. Four-hundred dollars was quite a price in 1930’s America.

(The current suggested retail price for a brand-new Super 400 CES is $14,099. A new Gibson L5 acoustic will set you back $6,774. At present Gibson does not offer a Super 400 acoustic model.

The Super 400 is perhaps the finest Gibson that was ever produced. It was also the largest guitar that the Gibson Guitar Corporation had produced. The original models came with a hand-engraved tailpiece and finger rest support. The early models had engraved truss rod covers that still stated this was an L-5 Super.

By 1939 the model the truss cover were changed and the designation Super 400 was official. Changes were made to the design. The upper bout was enlarged and there was no hand engraving on the tailpiece. The f-holes were enlarged on this instrument. A cutaway model was also offered. This was designated the Super 400P or premiere. Later on Gibson changed the cutaway designation to C.

1956 Super 400CES
It was not until the 1950’s that Gibson electrified this instrument and designated it the Super 400 CES for Cutaway Electric Spanish. This model came with twin P-90 pickups with black plastic covers and individual volume and tone controls for each pickup and a three way toggle switch. On mid-1950 models the pickups were changed to Alnico V pickups. By 1957 twin humbuckers were standard. On the CES, the top was slightly thickened to eliminate feedback.

Pre-war Gibson Super 400 heel cap
The Super 400 had an 18” wide body, an adjustable bridge and manufactured with a carved spruce top, figured maple, back and sides. The tailpiece was a gold-plated Y shaped model.

The f-holes had triple binding. The pick guard was a brown pearloid model. The beautiful bound ebony fretboard came with split block inlays.

'55 Gibson Super 400 L-5 Deluxe
The peg head had diamond inlays and open-backed Grover tuners. All of the hardware was gold plated and the heel cap was engraved with the model name. The original models were produced in brown (tobacco) sunburst. The first batches with Super L5 engraved on the truss rod cover are very rare and most coveted by collectors. These are also known as the Super L5 Deluxe.

By 1939 the guitar was offered with a single Venetian cutaway and known as the Super 400P. Other changes occurred to this model including the switch to Kluson tuners with amber tulip shaped buttons and a natural finish became an option.

Production at the Gibson factory was halted in 1941 due to the war effort.

Super 400PN

Guitar operations resumed in 1948, after the war ended. The Super 400P was re-christened the Super 400C.

With P-90's
It was in 1951 that Gibson released an electric version of the Super 400 called the Super 400 CES for cutaway-electric-Spanish.

This guitar had a slightly thicker top, to eliminate feedback. It originally came with twin P-90 pickups, each with its own volume and tone control and a three-way toggle switch to control them. The P-90's were updated to Alnico V pickups and in 1957 Gibson used twin humbuckers.

'56 Gibson Super 400 CESN
By 1952 a natural finish version of the 400 CES was available and named the 400 CESN (N for natural)

It was in 1955 when Gibson decided to discontinue the Super 400 and Super 400N guitars from their product line up. By 1982, slumping sales of the Super 400 CESN brought an end to this model and in 1987 the Super 400 CES was no longer being manufactured.

One rather rare model I have come across is a Gibson Super 400 CES with a Florentine cutaway manufactured in 1966.

There have been some reissues in the 1990’s on a limited run basis. In 2000 Gibson had a very limited run of Super 400 CES models with the Charlie Christian pickup.

The Super 400 CES is currently being offered on Gibson’s home page.

The only other current models that would be similar are the one pickup Wes Montgomery L5 CES and Lee Ritenour L5 CES models and the twin pickup Custom L5 CES model.

There are some very notable players of the Super 400 CES other than Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Ritenour. Scotty Moore played one on Elvis’ 1968 live concert.

Merle with Super 400
Merle Travis favored this guitar. His instrument was highly stylized. His son Thom Bresh plays a similar instrument.. Both men added Bigsby tailpieces with extended bars.

Eddie and Alonzo Pennington
photo by Michael J. Stewart
Well known Kentucky thumbpicker Eddie Pennington plays a 1956 model of the Gibson Super 400 CES.

If you watch the following videos, pay attention to how massive a guitar this is.

Before Merle Travis passed away, the Gibson Guitar Company asked him to donate his guitar to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In turn, Gibson built an exact replica of his special modified Super 400 CES. It is interesting to note that Merle's new guitar had a wooden center block similar to what is found on ES-335 models.


Young Vic said...

Guitar players, in particular, have a lot of places to turn for video, audio, and graphical teaching tools.

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M.C. MacDonald said...

Nice review. You overlooked one design change detail. The early 1934-38 Super 400 guitars had X-bracing. This was switched to parallel bracing in the 1939 and later models. The Tennessee Thumb-picker's guitar in the photograph is identified as being from 1956 and should have P-90 pickups - I guess he upgraded it to humbuckers, which weren't available in '56. Either that or it is a later model. Florentine cutaways were offered as an option and may not be as rare as you suggest. I have a 1964 Super 400CES with Florentine Cutaway. Kenny Burrell's 1972 Super 400 also has a Florentine cutaway.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to estimate how many Super 400s have been made since production of them started in 1934. Tom Van Hooses book on the Super 400 showed factory records showing amounts produced each year and it would appear that there might have been as few as 3000 Super 400's made which would be a lot less than the number of L5 guitars made