Mention Gibson guitars to a layman, and most will think of the Les Paul and SG solidbodies or flatop acoustics such as the J-45 or J-50. Classics these certainly are, but archtop acoustics and semi-acoustics are a key part of Gibson’s history and heritage. The “thinline” semi-acoustics introduced in the 1950s – the ES-335, ES-345 and ES-355 – remain the big sellers, but Gibson’s big-bodied “jazz” archtops also have a remarkable history.
These buxom beauties are some of the most covetable guitars Gibson have ever made, packed with hand-crafted skill and laden with fancy finishes, blinging hardware and plenty of pure tone.
Big-bodied archtops are not for everyone - some players will struggle with the sheer size or their proneness to feedback at high volume. Yet archtops aren’t just about jazz and vintage blues – Frank Zappa and Ted Nugent were just two unlikely fans of Gibson archtops played with amps to the max, respectively the ES-5 Switchmaster and the Byrdland. And, of course, the sound of early rock ‘n’ roll was largely fuelled by Gibson’s so-called “jazz” guitars.
This is no definitive nor chronolgical guide and not meant to be – that’s a whole book in itself. But if you need a quick 101 and some trivia on some of the most beautiful Gibson guitars ever made, read on….
1. Birth of the archtop, Lloyd Loar and the L-5
Orville Gibson himself is widely credited with inventing the “archtop” guitar at the end of the 19th century, based on his mandolin designs, but Gibson design consultant Lloyd Loar advanced the design in the early 1920s. The Gibson L-5 guitar was unveiled in 1923, boasting innovations such as harmonically-tuned carved tops, tuned X-braces and necks with longer playable portions of the fingerboard. More trivia? The L-5 had violin-style f-holes, the first Gibson guitar to feature them.
2. The electric L-5 CES
The L-5 gained its first pickup from 1951, though Django Reinhardt played an L-5 hand-fitted with a DeArmond pickup during a short tour with Duke Ellington in late 1946. The L-5 CES electric was used by Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore on much of the King’s RCA recordings.
3. Wes Montgomery’s L-5 CES
Jazz legend Wes Montgomery was another fan of the electric Gibson L-5 CES guitar. For Montgomery’s classic recordings, it’s pretty much the guitar being played. Montgomery only started playing guitar aged 19, teaching himself by listening to Charlie Christian. Astonishingly, Montgomery was being booked for gigs within a year. Even in his pop-jazz years, Montgomery could even wear an orange suit and still make the L-5CES sound smokin’. Watch…
4. The ES-295
Scotty Moore’s most famous guitar, however, was his Gold Top ES-295. This is the archtop pictured and featured on Elvis’s early cuts. But Moore traded it for his electric L-5 in July 1955 at Houck's guitar shop in Memphis. Jimmy Velvet, a longtime friend of Elvis Presley's and collector of memorabilia had says, “I purchased the guitar many years ago for $6,000 and it was sold in the early 90's for $125,000.” One can only imagine what its value would be now.
5. The Gibson ES-175
Moore’s famed ES-295 was essentially a more fancy ES-175 – the ES-295 came with dual P-90 pickups and an all-gold finish. The original ES-175, launched in 1949, is renowned as a classic “workingman’s jazzbox”. The ES-175 was the first Gibson guitar to feature a “Florentine” cutaway. Now, that’s a geek fact.
6. The ES-175 Remains
And another geeky fact. The ES-175 has been in constant production since. That’s 62 years. It now comes in a very affordable Epiphone version, too.
7. The Gibson L-47
WWII brought hard times for everyone, including guitar makers. With timber at a premium for building war-related supplies, Gibson had to downgrade its spec just to get any guitar built. The L-47 thus remains largely unloved: although well-built, it was a basic non-cutaway “jazz” acoustic. It did come in natural or sunburst finishes and had tortoise-grain binding, but this was – for Gibson - basic fare. The L-47 was produced from 1940 to 1943 only.
8. The Super 400
Prefix a guitar name with “Super” and it better be good. The Super 400 was. Introduced in 1934 as an acoustic model, it boasted all the Gibson finery a player may want. Big 18" wide body, X-braced top, figured maple back and sides, adjustable bridge, pickguard with 5-ply binding and more. Plus, what is known as “Cremona brown” sunburst finish. The Super 400P was the first (rounded) cutaway model in 1939, and the non-cutaway was discontinued in 1955. Why was it named the 400? It originally cost $400.
9. The Super 400 CES
As with other original archtops, the 400 soon morphed into an electric model. Scotty Moore played one in Elvis’s 1968 Comeback Special, and the Super 400 CES remains one of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler’s favorite guitars. He plays it on one of his jazziest songs, “Your Latest Trick” from Dire Straits multi-platinum 1985 album Brothers In Arms.
10. The Gibson Byrdland
Gibson’s Byrdland was the company’s first attempt to slim the depth of its premier “jazz” guitars. Launched in 1955, the Byrdland took flight before the smash success of the ES-335, and with an overall depth of 2¼-inches, is was much thinner than the L-5's (3?" depth.) The Gibson Byrdland’s 23 1/2″ scale is also unusual, being more typical of a student guitar than a pro instrument. Why call it a Byrdland? It was named after jazz guitarists Billy Byrd and Hank Garland, for whom the guitar was originally custom-built by Gibson.
11. Rare Byrds!
During 1976 only, a 12-string version of the Byrdland was offered, but fewer than 20 were manufactured. You will likely never see one in the flesh. Even original six-string Byrdlands are still highly collectable.
12. The Nuge Flips The Byrd
Oddly, the Byrdland’s most-famous user is “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent. “The Nuge” has had as many as six Byrdlands since his Amboy Dukes days in the late 1960s, although three were lost in a fire that destroyed much of the band’s equipment. If you want to hear a Gibson “jazz” guitar do anything but jazz, head straight for Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever”. We’re not sure this was exactly what Billy and Hank had in mind...
13. The Gibson Johnny Smith
Some say that jazz guitarist Johnny Smith was “the Les Paul of the archtop guitar.” Smith worked first with Epiphone, then Guild, to create unique instruments tailored to his tastes. But by the end of the 1950s, he went back to the staff at Gibson in Kalamazoo to create one of the most sought-after archtops of the jazz era: the Gibson Johnny Smith model. It was an atypical Gibson in some ways – the controls were mounted on the pickguard. But the first 1961 Johnny Smith featured a “floating” humbucker and resurrected the X-bracing that Gibson used in the 1930s. It also featured a 25” scale, as Smith wanted maximum access to frets to help his smooth jazz chord voicings.
14. Go, Johnny, Go!
Smith left the public eye in the late 1950s, but dig this: Smith and friend Django Reinhardt once turned up at Les Paul’s New Jersey house unannounced earlier in the 1950s, determined to talk jazz guitar design. Johnny Smith was also the writer of “Walk, Don’t Run”, made famous by The Ventures and still a staple of instrumental guitar twangin’ for six decades. The Doors’ Robbie Krieger is a fan of the Gibson Johnny Smith model, as is Al Di Meola.
15. The Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster
Bling time! The ES-5 Switchmaster took the electric L-5/ES-5 template and cranked it to the max. Three pickups, six rotary controls (three volume, three tone), plus a 4-way pickup selector switch that would offer 1, 2, 3 pickups or all. Gibson’s catalog of 1951 called it “the instrument of a thousand voices.” It remains a rare guitar – only 11 natural-finish ES-5 Switchmasters were made in 1961, for example. Frank Zappa liked his, though, as his ES-5 Switchmaster stars on early Zappa recordings.
16. The Gibson Barney Kessel
The Gibson Barney Kessel signature, available from 1961 to 1974, was unusual as it featured two Florentine cutaways. Kessel was a titan of jazz guitar and did use his signature model, though he also played a 1940s Gibson ES-350, sporting a Charlie Christian pickup, for recording and live dates. The guitar, though magnificent, didn’t enjoy a long run of success. Odd fact? The Who’s Pete Townshend is a huge fan of Barney Kessel, and credits BK records for teaching him new chords and voicings. On his 1983 solo album Scoop, Townshend included an instrumental, "To Barney Kessel."
17. The Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor II
Joe Pass, via his work with Ella Fitzgerald, was another star of ‘50s and ‘60s jazz guitar. Joe Pass often played an ES-175, and his signature Epiphone model was only released just before his death in 1994. The Epiphone Emperor had existed before, but with Pass’s tweaks (different control positions and more) it found new life. A guitar built purely for jazz and blues, it is still produced. Nerd fact – Pass played with his fingers (no pick) but kept his fingernails clipped short. The sound you hear is the pads of Joe Pass’s fingers on wire.
18. The Gibson Trini Lopez Deluxe
Lopez’s signature 335-alike Standard became the basis for Dave Grohl’s signature model, but Latin star Lopez always preferred his Deluxe. It was very similar to the Barney Kessel of a few years before, but added Lopez’s trademark “slash/diamond” f-holes and a six-a-side headstock. Produced from 1964 to 1971 only, the Trini Lopez Deluxe is a rare Gibson archtop – estimates suggest only 335 (irony?) were ever made.
19. The Gibson Tal Farlow
Rarer still than the Trini Lopez Deluxe in original form, only 215 Gibson Tal Farlows were produced between 1962 and ‘69. To many, this is the most gorgeous Gibson “jazz” archtop you can buy, though originals can command $10k-plus in the vintage market. Why? Well, only two were made in 1962 for a start. The Gibson Tal Farlow model was revived in 1993. The mandolin-like scroll on the cutaway was just one of Farlow’s requests on what is essentially an updated, lavish ES-350. Factoid: when Farlow retired from music, he became a sign painter.
Watch him play the prototype of his Gibson Tal Farlow signature below.
20. Archtops vs Thinlines?
Gibson have made so many semi-acoustic models, it can be baffling as to what is generally classified as an “archtop” and what is called a “thinline” – after all, the likes of the ES-335 have archtops themselves. But a (very) basic rule is body depth. The “jazz” archtops have a body 3" to 4.5” thick. The aptly-named “thinlines” are 1.5" to 2" thick.
More Gibson semi-acoustics
Top 10 Gibson ES-335 Heroes: Clapton, Grohl, Berry and More
The Holy Grail of Archtops: The Gibson L-5
26 Essential Facts About The Gibson ES-335