Monday, November 21, 2011

On the Trail of the Gibson L-1

It’s the Monday Morning Blues here on Robert Frost’s Banjo—in case you can’t hardly find your Monday morning shoes.

If you’re a regular follower of this series, you know that once a month we check in on one of the renowned guitar models that have helped shape the blues sound we know; & today’s model is a truly beautiful guitar that was played by a number of blues musicians—including one who has attained such a stature that if he’d been the only guitarist to play this instrument, it would still deserve to be included in the series.  That one musician is Robert Johnson, & that guitar is the Gibson L-1. 
See pic below for famous studio portrait with the guitar in question, & pic above for a beautiful if well used 1928 L-1.

I should point out that Johnson was joined in using the Gibson L-1 by other well known blues players, including Scrapper Blackwell & Big Joe Williams, tho in those cases they are much more associated with other guitars (a National Triolian & various deformed Harmonys respectively).  & some less well-known blues players used this—like Johnson—as their main instrument; these include John Henry Barbee, Bill Williams & Clifford Gibson (see second video below.)

As I understand it, Johnson played other guitars as well.  His sometime playing & traveling partner Johnny Shines claimed he played a Kalamazoo, which guitar aficionados will know was a less expensive Gibson subsidiary—however, I had the pleasure of playing an old Kalamazoo in a guitar shop here in Portland, & I can tell you they are beautiful playing & sounding guitars!  There apparently also is a rumor that he played a 7-string brass-bodied National—the high E string was reputedly doubled to increase volume! By the way, the site at that last link has been a major source in this whole series. I should also point out that
—as far as I knowthere's no definite proof Johnson used the guitar from the studio portrait when he made his recordings.  But the consensus seems to be that the L-1 was his main instrument.

Depending on the condition, a Gibson L-1 from the series manufactured between 1926 & 1937 would cost you anywhere from $4,000 to $4,500 & up on the vintage guitar market.  Those figures are based on 2009 estimates, by the way, & th guitars appreciate at about 5% per year!  While I can’t readily find an original list price for the L-1, I can tell you that the very similar, if somewhat less fancy L-00 retailed for $25.00 around 1930.  If we round that up to $30 for its somewhat more ornate sibling the L-1, we find that such a guitar would have cost the equivalent of $387.95 in 2010 dollars.  Now, this is the price of a decent student model guitar these days: you can find some Recording King & Blueridge models in this price range, as well as several other very serviceable brands.  Meanwhile, a new Gibson L-1 (Gibson reintroduced the line in ) retails for $2,100 & up—the actual list price is closer to $2,800.

Robert Johnson recorded 29 songs in his short lifetime, so of course there are 29 great choices for a video to illustrate here!  I chose “Malted Milk,” which features some characteristic riffs but isn’t one of his better known pieces—I love it myself!  & I’ve included Clifford Gibson & his L-1 telling us about “Blues Without a Dime” (recorded for Victor in 1929.)




  1. Ahhhhhhh! Starting the day off with Robert Johnson is always a good thing!

  2. Hi Roy: I knew you'd like this one! Thanks.


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