Mellow and Full Bodied
life histories for Gibsons jazz guitars
Gibson's Jazz guitars, poked about by Paul Colbert
Quite apart from having plenty of interior space to store your sandwiches, there is a diabolical fascination exerted by big-bodied jazz guitars — especially Gibsons. Why are they so wide? Why are they so fashionable? And, frankly, why are they so much??
Flicking through the classifieds the other week you might have spotted what passes (in jazz guitar terms) as a 'sale'. "Byrdland approximate current list £3939, sale price £1895. Johnny Smith Double, £4055 to £1975; Super 400 CES £4043 to £1995." A long way down the list, among the mere semi-acoustics, the price finally tumbled below a grand.
And these are just the brand new ones, not even the vintage collector's items.
What, wondered the office, when it had put its socks back on having needed the toes to count past ten, can the fuss and fascination be about. For those who think a Johnny Smith Double is a generous measure of scotch, a few short life histories...
At first peruse, a strange place to start. It's not an electric and certainly not one of Gibson's first acoustics, but it did mark an essential turn in fortunes, approach and style for Gibson. Regarded by some as the summit of their acoustic endeavours, it heralded a move away from sombre flat tops with round soundholes to punchier, f-holed arch tops fit for 'modern' orchestras.
One of master craftsman Lloyd Loar's creations, its clean, simple elegance established a template of style to be followed by many of the full-bodied jazz guitars. It featured all steel strings when many contemporaries were still half steel/half gut, had a fingerboard and finger rest suspended above the waisted, non-cutaway body which was attached to the 24¾in scale neck (with adjustable truss rod) at the 14th fret. (The first American guitar to provide these extra two frets of access.)
Distinctive was the 'backwards' facing headstock — narrower at the top than at the bottom. Early models had silver hardware, dot markers and the minimum of binding, but as with many Gibsons, these specs changed over the years to take in gold fittings and block inlays. The timber also changed since the first
L-5s boasted birch backs later changing to spruce to match the top and sides. Grover machines were also fitted by the '30s, replacing the original 'Waverleys'. The L-5 was first unleashed on the world in 1923, which was probably about 10 years before the world was ready for it.
The L series went up and down in code-numbers in the decade rearguarding the 5's release, but the latter stayed the supreme model until the introduction of the Super 400 in 1935. Gibson lavished the finest of their materials on this status symbol — solid spruce top, flame maple back and sides, new mother-of-pearl block inlays with diagonal splits, and a large tailpiece with a Y shaped centre piece.
As the model progressed the tailpiece became more curved, and extra binding was added, but the main transformation came with the addition of that wicked temptress, electronics. 1951 saw the CES bearing two Alnico V pickups made peculiar by their oblong, adjustable pole pieces. (V was an extra-powered development of the original II and IV alloys, but popular opinion pronounced it limited in tone. The pickups were changed in '57 to P60 humbuckers.)
By 51 the acoustic Super 400 had gained a rounded cutaway and the Super 400CES followed suit, swapping, for fashion sake, to the sharper florentine cutaway in the 60s, then back to the rounded format, where it stays today.
After several years of L-5 and 400 coexistence, many players informed Gibson that the best of all worlds would be the body of the former married with the neck of the latter. It was tried, and resulted in the Super 5 BJB.
When two pickups were passé, Gibson went for three on the Switchmaster 'the supreme electronic version of the L-5'. Comparison with the L-5 doesn't bear close scrutiny, there was a maple top instead of the 5's spruce, for a start. Originally the Switchmaster hosted three, black, Alnico V pickups, a volume control for each, and an overall tone on the upper bout, plus a fixed, rosewood saddle. That was in '49 when the guitar was launched. Later the bridge was replaced by a Tune-O-Matic (with individually adjustable metal saddles, another Gibson revolution), and a tone for each pickup. The three-way switch by the rounded cutaway was replaced by a (fiercely ugly) four-way toggle on which the fourth option was all the Alnico Vs at once.
Switchmaster owners barely caught sight of any maple between those three pickups. They were crowded together with the purpose of making this Gibson a very electric guitar. The acousticness was deliberately played down giving a harder, less gentle tone.
Between 1950 and '65, the President of Gibson was one Ted McCarty, a natural behind-the-scene mover who never lent his name to a guitar, but encouraged his company to take its advice (and christenings) from guitarists in the public eye. Hank Garland and Billy Byrd were two such characters behind the Byrdland — unusual for its thinner body and narrower, shorter scale neck (23½in). 'Providing an instrument easier and less tiring to hold, permitting the use of unusual chords beyond previous reach', ran the Gibson sales pitch.
When unveiled in '55 it had twin, oblong pole-pieced Alnico Vs (exchanged for PAFs in '57), trudged through the familiar rounded/florentine/rounded route, and flounced a carved spruce top, curly maple back and rims, ebony fingerboard, and a distinctive headstock inlay featuring a flowering vine rising from a vase. It's offered today with changes such as new, gold-plated humbuckers and Gibsons' 'Crank' machine heads (an arm folds out from each peg to make for faster winding). It still boasts two elderly, individual characteristics. The scale stays at 23½in and the delicate tailpiece comprises three long loops of gold plate wire.
"The artist's conception offers a great combination of acoustic response and electronic amplification, achieved through a new version of the 'Humbucking' pickup", ran the Gibson verbiage. The artist was the said Johnny Smith and the new technique involved suspending the pickups (one originally, now an option of two), and controls from the enlarged, finger-rest scratchplate. Only the ebony bridge was attached to the carved spruce top so it suffered the minimum restriction when asked to perform acoustically. Today the five-piece maple/mahogany neck still features the odd 25in scale length. Johnny Smith's first designs were based on his own D'Angelico New Yorker guitar. Gibson made him a smaller humbucker to fit in with the suspension scheme and they also linked the neck itself to the interior strutting searching for extra sustain in the upper octaves.
All this marked the Johnny Smith down as an out and out jazz guitar — sweet, pure sound. When the second pickup was added as an option, diehard jazzers were horrified... a bridge humbucker, sacrilege. But as post war jazz began to shake off the conservatism of Charlie Christian, a touch of extra brightness came in handy.
If ever there was a "people's" jazz guitar, this was it. A sensible compromise in components (eg: press-formed maple top rather than carved) helped to bring the price down and experienced Gibson design made the 175 a fine all rounder. Though launched in '49, it probably came to a peak of exposure in the rock business during the late '60s, early '70s when it was championed by Steve Howe.
One of the few big-bodied Gibson's to keep its florentine cutway from the '60s, it started life in '49 with one pickup, gained another in '53 and a decorative tailpiece in '57 comprising a central T with tubular rods bending back and forth either side. A Tune-O-Matic bridge replaced the rosewood saddle in the mid-seventies. The laminated maple top is supported by rosewood back-and-sides and fixed to a 20 fret, 24¾in scale three-piece maple neck.
The secret of the ES-175D success in the thoughtful end of the rock business is strangely a by-product of the more economical construction. A laminated top will vibrate less freely than a solid version. Certain of the natural resonances are dampened. This may diminish the acoustic response, but it does make the 175 less susceptible to feedback — essential when rock amplification makes jazz sound like a whisper in a monastery. (At the opposite of the scale is the solid topped Johnny Smith where the vibrations are not even restricted by the presence of pickups. Not a guitar destined to love the watts.)
Finally, what do all the letters mean? Gibson were nothing if not logical and never threw around an initial if it didn't mean something. ES stands for Electric Spanish, C for Cutaway.
Feature by Paul Colbert
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