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Newsletter #31, May 2008

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Golden Era instruments

When I opened the doors to my shop in January 1970, people did not use the term Golden Era, but we were well aware of the profound difference between the current new instruments and used instruments of certain periods. We considered post-1965 Fenders and Gibsons to be very poor, but we recognized Martins up until 1969 (with Brazilian rosewood) as superior to those from 1970 onward. In fact, it has often been said that the new instruments of the late '60s and early '70s were of such poor quality that they were what created the demand for vintage guitars. Prices were lower then, of course, but in 1970 the most desirable vintage pieces already cost twice as much as new versions of those models.

Thirty-eight years later, little has changed except prices. The vintage market has boomed at times and stagnated at times, and economic, social and musical trends have changed dramatically over the years. Nevertheless, collectors and musicians today are still looking for the same instruments they were looking for in 1970. In other words, there have been no additional Golden Eras for fretted instruments in the last four decades (with the possible exception of Jimmy D'Aquisto's innovative archtop guitars of the late 1980s and early '90s).

To answer the obvious question - why are there no new Golden Eras? - we should first identify the long-established Golden Eras for fretted instruments.

Martin flat tops from the late 1920s through 1939. Martin guitars made from the mid 1920s, when the company first started routinely bracing guitars for steel strings, through mid-1939, when they were still using "high-X" scalloped bracing, are considered by most players and musicians to be the ultimate Martin guitars ever made in the entire history of the company. Certainly, the guitars made prior to that time exhibited beautiful craftsmanship, but they were designed for use with gut rather than steel strings, which limits their appeal to today's players. By mid-1939, the company changed the positioning of the X-brace to the "low-X" design and went to narrower spacing at the nut and bridge saddle. Martins with low-X scalloped braces are still very fine instruments, but in the opinion of most collectors and musicians, no Martins from any other period in the company's 175-year history rival those made from 1929-39. It is my opinion that these guitars richly earned the distinction they have been given, although I personally prefer those made after late 1934, when the steel T-bar was first introduced in the neck and modern-style T-frets were introduced. Consequently, I would narrow Martin's Golden Era to only a five-year span, from 1934-39.

Gibson f-hole archtops, 1922-42. For the first few years of this period, the L-5 was the only f-hole archtop offered by Gibson. It was joined by the various versions of what would officially become the L-10 in 1931. These are greatly sought by collectors and are wonderful sounding instruments, but with their 16-inch body width, large V-shape neck contour, rather plain ornamentation, and of course non-cutaway body, they truly predate the full evolution of the archtop guitar. In late 1934 Gibson introduced the "advanced" 17-inch models as well as the 18-inch Super 400. In 1939 Gibson introduced cutaway versions of the L-5 and the Super 400. Most collectors and players view the more highly ornamented instruments from late 1934 through 1942 as being the true Golden Era for Gibson archtops (although my personal favorite guitar is the early 16-inch L-5). Gibson continued to make fine archtop guitars through the 1960s, and the postwar models are great modern jazz guitars, but I share the opinion of most collectors that the workmanship of the postwar models is not equivalent to the prewar instruments.

Epiphone archtops, 1931 through World War II. The Deluxe and Emperor in particular are widely regarded as being on a par with equivalent Gibson models (the L-5 and Super 400, respectively). The Golden Era is blurred somewhat by the fact that Epiphone did not offer cutaway models until after the war, and jazz musicians typically prefer cutaways over non-cutaways to the point that postwar Epi cutaways may bring more money than the prewar non-cutaways. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the Epiphones of the 1930s have superior tone and volume to the postwar instruments.

D'Angelico archtops, 1932-64, and Stromberg archtops, circa 1940-55. John D'Angelico in New York and Charles and Elmer Stromberg in Boston started making archtop guitars during the early 1930s, and both shops were noted for superb jazz instruments. D'Angelico made marvelous guitars from his very first year of production in 1932 through his death in 1964, so virtually all of his nearly 1100 guitars (plus a few hundred mandolins) are collectible. Stromberg, on the other hand, took a few years to perfect his designs. His early guitars had laminated backs that were pressed rather than carved, and many of the tops on his early guitars featured three segment f-holes and multiple braces. It was not until circa 1940 that Strombergs appeared with well-graduated carving, one-piece f-holes, and one diagonal brace. Consequently Stromberg's Golden Era spans only 15 years. His known serial numbers range only from 300 to the 650s, so the total number of guitars from Stromberg's Golden Era is extremely limited. His Master 400s, Master 300s of 1940 through 1955 are among the most highly sought archtops.

Gibson flat tops, late 1920s to 1942. The instruments made from the very late 1920s through 1942, which feature X-bracing similar to that used in Martin guitars, are the most sought by collectors. The 1930s dreadnoughts, particularly the Advanced Jumbo, are highly sought after and are fine sounding instruments. Even the very inexpensive (when new) L-00 models, which feature mahogany back and sides and relatively little ornamentation, sound great and are sought by collectors as well as musicians. In the 1960s, these vintage Gibsons did not have the notoriety that vintage Martins had already gained; however, collectors and musicians were well aware that 1930s Gibsons were exceptionally fine instruments. In the past decade, Gibsons have achieved far more recognition and are now commanding prices more nearly equivalent to the Martins.

Larson Brothers. Carl and August Larson of Chicago made superb instruments from the turn of the century through the early 1940s. While it was a small two-man operation, they turned out a variety of instruments, ranging from parlour-size guitars to giants as wide as 19 inches across, plus mandolins, and f-hole flat-top guitars. They produced an estimated 2,500 instruments under several brand names, including Stahl, Maurer, Euphonon, Prairie State, Wack, and Dyer, but we've never encountered an instrument with their name inscribed or on a label. The Larsons were among the first to produce flat top guitars designed strictly for steel strings. They had a patented system of laminated bracing and also had a patented design for a metal support bar through the body as well as a metal rod that looped around the heel of the neck and was adjustable at the end to set neck angle. These are superb sounding guitars which are distinctive in their construction and appearance. In my opinion, these are some of the most collectible pre-World War II flat tops other than Martin and Gibson.

National metalbody resonator guitars, late 1920s to late 1930s. National's concept of a resonator guitar was an evolutionary dead end in the quest for a louder guitar, but the metalbody models -single-cone models as well as tri-cones - are still highly sought for blues-oriented music. The woodbody Nationals and the Dobros of the same period (woodbody as well as metalbody) do not have the same Golden Era status as the metal Nationals.

"Pre-CBS" Fender guitars and basses from 1950 to early 1965. Instruments made from 1950, when the Broadcaster (soon to be Telecaster) and Esquire were introduced, until Fender's acquisition by CBS at the beginning of 1965, are viewed as the ultimate Fenders. In the opinion of most players as well as collectors, these early instruments remain to this day unrivaled in tone. Fender basses made from the introduction of the Precision bass in 1951 through the end of the pre-CBS era are considered to be the finest ever made by the company. Fender amps, prior to the late 1940s are historically significant, but Leo Fender did not truly perfect his amp design until the late 1940s.

Rickenbacker electric guitars and basses, 1950s-60s. The Frying Pan and Bakelite-body lap steels of the pre-World War II years are historically important as well as great sounding instruments, but the Golden Era for Rickenbacker guitars began in the 1950s with the Spanish-neck models designed by Roger Rossmeisl. These instruments are considered to be classics. Rickenbackers produced during the 1950s command higher prices than those of the 1960s, yet Ricks remain collectible throughout much of the production of the 1960s. Their electric 12-strings are considered to be among the most collectible electric twelves ever made by any manufacturer.

Gibson electrics, 1936-65. The pre-World War II Gibson lap steels (introduced in 1935) are sought by musicians and collectors, but the most desirable prewar guitars are the ES-150 and ES-250 Spanish-neck models with the "Charlie Christian" pickup. The true Golden Era for Gibson electrics is the postwar period from 1948-65, when Ted McCarty was president of the company. The McCarty era encompassed important developments in electric archtops (the triple-pickup ES-5 and electric cutaway versions of the L-5 and Super 400) and solidbodies (Les Pauls, Korinas and SGs), along with the invention of the humbucking pickup and the semi-hollowbody electric. In the opinion of most musicians and collectors, these are some of the finest sounding electrics as well as the most aesthetically pleasing ever made.

Gibson mandolins, mid 1922 through 1924. This brief Golden Era is, not coincidentally, the period when Lloyd Loar signed F-5 mandolins, starting with the introduction of the model and ending with Loar's departure from Gibson. Most mandolin players consider the Loar-signed F-5 mandolins to be the finest such instruments ever produced by any maker in the entire history of mandolin making. The post-Loar F-5s of the 1920s are also excellent mandolins; the instruments made by Orville Gibson are historically important; and there are excellent oval-hole models made from 1910 through the 1920s. However, the Loar F-5s took mandolin design to a new level, and in the opinion of most players and collectors, that level has never been equaled.

Banjos. Golden Eras for banjo makers vary, depending on the style of banjo music. "Classical" and old-timey players consider the open-back five-strings made in the 1890s by Fairbanks of Boston and S.S. Stewart of Philadelphia to be magnificent pieces of art and craftsmanship. For tenor and plectrum players, the Golden Era encompasses instruments made by Bacon & Day, Vega, Epiphone and Paramount, starting at the tail end of the Jazz Age and extending to the late 1930s. Bluegrass players regard Gibsons with the flathead tone ring, especially those with the heavyweight, high-profile flathead of 1933 through the very early 1940s, as ultimate banjos ever made by any manufacturer.

And more. There are numerous exceptions, additions and footnotes that could be made to this list. For example, Les Paul Specials, Les Paul Juniors, and SGs have gained much of their prestige on the coat-tails of the sunburst Les Paul Standard. Similarly, Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters have "carried along" Jazzmasters and Jaguars, and the pre-CBS Fender era has carried along Fenders from the late 1960s, elevating these CBS-era instruments to a status that, in my opinion, they don't truly deserve. There are some highly collectible instruments (Gretsches in particular) that hold noteworthy places in guitar history, but in terms of quality and innovation simply do not rank with true Golden Era models. And finally, I've limited this list to American makers, so the Golden Eras of Selmer/Macafferi guitars, Marshall amps, Spanish-made classical guitars and others are not included.

What makes a Golden Era instrument? If we look for a unifying theme among these so-called Golden Era instruments, it becomes apparent that they are not only superbly made instruments that sound great and look great, but they are clearly not copies of instruments that came before them. These instruments introduced innovative design concepts so that effectively they were not competing with any used instruments of the day. Moreover, these instruments introduced innovations that brought the design of their respective instrument types to perfection, such that these designs have yet to be improved on. Then they maintained their status by virtue of their quality. In the years since Martin's Golden Era, for example, hundreds of companies and individual luthiers have made guitars modeled on a 1937 D-28, but no copy of a Martin has ever been viewed as being truly on par with the originals of the 1930s. Much the same can be said of all of the Golden Era instruments I have mentioned.

It is also quite remarkable how brief a time span the Golden Era has been for many of these makers, how they apparently did not recognize the perfection of their designs, and how soon they made changes that brought their Golden Eras to an end.

The next Golden Era. While I certainly do not rule out the possibility that a modern maker could come up with a major innovative new design, it is my opinion that it is far more difficult today to come up with a truly revolutionary design than it was from 1900 through 1960. The instruments as we know them appear to have been perfected. With the possible exception of digital technology and a truly great sounding acoustic-electric, there is no obvious void or need to be filled, such as there was for a solidbody electric guitar in Leo Fender's era, or for a sturdier and louder mandolin design in Orville Gibson's day. Virtually all of the significant acoustic guitar designs which are popular today were in place by the mid-1930s, whereas virtually all of electric guitar designs popular now had been introduced by the late 1950s. It is my opinion that there is virtually nothing wrong with the sound or playability of pre-World War II flat top guitars by Martin, Gibson, and the Larson Brothers whereas much the same can be said of electric guitars made by Gibson, Fender, Rickenbacker, and some Gretsch models.

Obviously, what human hands did once, they should be able to do again, but today's makers are having increasing difficulty getting the materials that were available to the Golden Era makers. The Golden Era makers were able to get old growth lumber that was air-dried for at least a decade. Today almost all the wood available is second growth and not well-seasoned, so virtually all manufacturers use kiln-dried wood, which is not nearly as stable, nor does it sound the same as the old style air-dried well-seasoned wood. In addition, few makers today use hide glue, and the lacquer formulas available today are quite different from those of the 1920s through the 1960s. Vintage reissues are coming ever closer to the originals, and in the case of archtops, the level of cosmetic craftsmanship - but not tone - by many of today's makers far exceeds that of D'Angelico and Stromberg. However, the focus on reissues is in itself a sign that makers are not actively pursuing the kind of innovations that could lead to new Golden Era. We may well be in a Golden Era of Reissues or a Golden Era of Limited Editions, but they represent pinnacles of craftsmanship and artistry rather than innovation-based Golden Eras. It's also worth noting that none of the Golden Era models were deliberate limited editions.

The true Golden Era instruments are not only superbly crafted and great sounding, but when they were introduced they were so innovative that they displaced and made obsolete many of their predecessors. These instruments have stood the test of time and have not been knocked off their pedestal by any that have followed. While today there are more skilled guitar and mandolin builders and ever before in the history of these instruments, none of the new guitars, banjos, or mandolins I have encountered sound better than the original Golden Era model, nor have I seen any yet that offer new design concepts that render the old ones obsolete.

I do not believe that human ingenuity has run its full course. I would certainly not make the same mistake that a U.S. patent office official made shortly before 1900 when he claimed that there was not much need to keep the office open in the future, since virtually everything that could be invented was already patented. The fact remains, however, that since I opened the doors to my business, nothing new has entered the realm of Golden Era status, and I seriously wonder if in my lifetime any significant new entries will be made into that hallowed status.


George Gruhn