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  1. #1

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    Hi all,

    I am looking for a vintage Gibson L-4, would love an L-5 but they are out of my price range. It seems that L-4's are still relatively affordable, as vintage Gibsons go.

    I have seen a few examples for sale, both 30's and 50's. My question is what is the difference? Woods, construction, body size (both 16in?), bracing? And how would you describe they differ in sound, I know thats a difficult one as every guitar is different.

    If anyone here has one for sale please let me know. I have a 1962 Martin 0-18 to trade - or sell to raise the funds.


    Gibson L-4 - '30s vs '50s-gibson-l-4-jpg


    The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
  3. #2

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    L7s are much more similar to L5s of the same era than are L4s. So are L12s.

  4. #3

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    If you want a 16" acoustic archtop a comparison between '30's 16" f-hole L-4's vs depression era 16" L-5's would come closer.
    Not discounting wartime and post-war L-4's, there are some good ones.

    Anyway that would be helpful to know.

  5. #4
    Thanks for the replies. Whilst a do like L-5's, the workhorse, no frills look of the L-4 really appeals to me. I would still consider an L-7 or L-12 but kind of have my heart set on an L-4.

    Are the 30's L-4's considered more desirable than the 50's? Are they the same wood and construction?

    I'm not really a jazz player, though I love jazz and play a bit of chord melody type stuff. I mainly play blues, folk, slide and ragtime, that sort of thing. I've always had a thing for archtops and currently have a 30's Gibson L-30 which i love, but would like something with a similar vibe but a slightly larger body - 16in preferably, certainly no bigger.


  6. #5

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    Here's a bunch before I make my second cup of coffee.....hope not too much!

    30's f-hole L-4's have a similar build to the pre-35 16" L-5's.
    Both had two longitudinal (often called "parallel") tone bars on the carved top, and a carved back.
    Almost always the 24.75" scale with a few early 40's L-4's being the exceptions with 25.5"

    Between the 30's and the 50's Gibson made changes along the way to all these models.
    Some for production and manufacturing reasons, others to follow musical trends and competition, WWII happened of course and all the changes (emphasis on production of the electric archtop for one) that began to take place post-war.

    Circa '34-35 the L-4 and the round soundhole L-75 retained the 16" size while the L-5, L-12, L-10 and L-7 became 17" models. The L-50 was enlarged to 16" at that time as well, and is another more economical choice worth considering as well. I've owned and played a '38 Black Special #4 (an economy version of an L-50) and a late 40's L-50 with a carved back that both sounded great (and each with a different character). Of course there's no denying that one will encounter some real duds along the they L-5's or L-50's.
    And most know that by comparing many guitars of the same year and build.

    Back to L-4's..... the 40's one can come across L-4's with either carved backs or laminated backs.
    By the late 40's and 50's (non cutaways) most that I've seen have laminated backs and non elevated fingerboard extensions. (A concern for many that want to install floating pickups)
    I still play a '50 L-4c with a laminated back and its got a very good acoustic sound, so by all means its not necessary to avoid laminated in favor of solid backs. One has to consider each as an individual to some extent.

    I've had a '38 f-hole L-4 and numerous round soundhole L-4's (pre-35) that were great instruments.
    From where you're coming from, a round soundhole L-4 of the early 30's might be something worth a try and by all means try some 16" L-50s too.

    There are myriads of other details and differences so consider this an overview!

    Hope this helps!
    Last edited by zizala; 04-17-2020 at 09:21 PM.

  7. #6
    Hi Zizala, very informative, thanks!

    the L-50 (and mahogany L-48) were the other ones on my radar so will certainly consider those. It's a shame there aren't more around me that I could try. I'm pretty sure I will have to buy online unseen such is the rarity of these guitars in the UK.

    Whilst I would prefer a solid back I will certainly consider laminate too. I know each guitar is different and it's entirely possible to have a better sounding laminate back guitar vs a solid back. I wish I could play a few!

    I must admit the round sound hole versions have always intrigued me and would no doubt suit the music I play well, aesthetically though I just love f-hole guitars!

    Thanks again for the info, much appreciated.

  8. #7

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    While writing some of that I was thinking how difficult it might be to have any of these available to try and compare even in the best of times.

    Hope you find a good one.

  9. #8
    Yes it's a shame but so often the case with the guitars that I like! I've bought most of my vintage guitars unseen and so far have been pretty lucky. They have all been good examples except a Guild X-50 that had a bad neck joint.

    Hopefully I'll get lucky!

  10. #9

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    I notice that Folkway Music in Waterloo, Canada, currently has a vintage L4 and a vintage L7 --- they are a reputable dealer and will ship internationally. But of course it is always better if you can try before you buy.

  11. #10

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    I rarely found any of the many old archtops I've had (or still have) locally.
    It was all Ebay, certain vintage dealers, forum sales listings, local sales listings like Craigslist in the US....and knowing a network of like minded player/collectors.

    So even then, with more opportunities and a more open environment, there were chances taken with no good opportunity to play and instruments that were disappointing.
    But at that time I was all about exploring and had enough income to do I learned a lot about what to look for and what to avoid. But I really enjoyed the historical aspect of it all too.

    All my input on threads like this is from my experiences and accumulated research and knowledge, but often based on relatively small sample sizes. Reading the accounts of others over the years helps fill in the gaps.
    An exception to the "sample size" thing being that I was laughing at myself once or twice for owning four L-7's, but justifying to me and my mystified friends that each one had their own distinct sound.
    And the one that was weak acoustically was the best with a floating pickup....that sort of thing!

    Nowadays times are different and I'm spending more time playing guitar and flute than looking for the next old archtop curio that shows up.
    I don't have so many anymore and still have more than I need now, but no regrets!

  12. #11
    Thanks pcjazz, I'll check folkway music. Wish I had the luxury of owning 4 L-7's zizala!

    I have actually found an 1950 L4 that looks nice and I have it on hold. It has a fair amount of play wear but no cracks and is structurally excellent, so I'm told. And all original. It looks like a nice example to me and I'm not bothered about play wear.

    One thing I have noticed though is the top has a centre seam, does this mean that it is not a solid carved top? i thought all L4's had solid carved tops?

  13. #12

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    No worries....a two piece top with a center seam is normal for a carved top Gibson.

    Some of the wartime instruments have 4 piece tops....but that was making do with whatever was available.

    Hope you love that incoming L-4!

    ...oh yes...lately I've toned down the luxury a bit and and have culled the group down to two L-7's.....

  14. #13

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    I have a 1952 Gibson L-4 and I think it is a wonderful guitar. Carved top and laminated back it has a great woody tone. It came with a DeArmond RC1000 but I almost never have it on the guitar as it has such a nice acoustic tone. One of the guitars I will never sell as long as I can play. You should be very happy with that L-4 guitar.
    Thanks John

  15. #14
    Hi John, that's great to hear! It's exactly that woody tone that I'm after so I'm sure I will love my L-4. Funnily enough I was thinking about adding a DeArmond RC1000 or a monkey on a stick pickup but i'll wait until I've played it for a while first. I want it primarily as an acoustic but just think it would be nice to plug it in whenever I fancy it.

    I asked the seller about the back and he said it's solid, not sure if this is true or not. Whether it's solid or laminated I'm really not fussed, it's the solid carved top that I was looking for

  16. #15

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    Next you get to try out strings to find your favorite. I have used phosphor bronze, red bronze, aluminum bronze and a few others. I have been using the Martin Monel's on my L-4 and my Martin CEO-7. They take a bit to break in and lose some of their brightness but eventually sound great on both guitars. The Monel's are similar to what was available in the 1950's and as a plus they can be used with the deArmond. I don't really play jazz and use my L-4 for old country, roots and old time music. I think every guitar has it's best string so I enjoy the journey!
    Thanks John

  17. #16
    Yes I'm looking forward to experimenting with strings. I'll l give the Monel's a try, I've looked at them a few times but never tried them. On my flat tops I'm liking the John Pearce Phosphor Bronze & Silk 12-53 (610LM). I'm not sure what these would sound like on an archtop but on my flat tops they are very warm and don't have much of that metallic new string sound which I really don't like.

    It sounds like we play similar music, I don't play much jazz either. I play rootsy old time music too - early blues, slide, ragtime and some folk. Really looking forward to getting this L-4

    Do you have any sounds samples or videos of your L-4?

  18. #17

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    I like D’addario nickel bronze strings a lot

  19. #18
    Thanks, I'll put those on the list to try!

  20. #19

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    yeah I find them a bit more slinky than the Martin retros. Similar sort of thing though

  21. #20

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    I once bought and returned a prewar L4 because a DeArmond would not fit (well, they always fit if you mount them closer to the bridge). Ask for measurements before closing the deal if that is a deal breaker.

  22. #21
    Thanks for the message and that's very true, I did think about that due to the fretboard being flush to the body. It isn't a deal breaker for me though, it was just a thought. Also, I would probably be more inclined to have the pickup nearer the bridge anyway. I think for my blues playing it would give that biting electric tone that I like.

    I've actually pulled the trigger today and paid for it! There is a slight issue though. The fretboard is Brazillian rosewood so it needs to be inspected and signed off by CITES before they can ship it, and due to the current situation we're in they have no idea when that might be. Looks like I'm in for a long wait!

  23. #22

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    My 52 L-4 is the non cutaway model. I think it gives the guitar a thinner feel with the board on the face of the guitar but of corse with out the cutaway I do sacrifice ease of fretting up the neck. If I need the higher frets or electric volume I use my L-4CES.
    Thanks John

  24. #23
    Hi John, mine is the non cutaway too. For an all acoustic archtop I think it's the best way to go tone wise and I prefer the look compared to a cutaway archtop. Having said that I've always fancied an ES-175. One day!

    Here's a pic of my incoming L-4 from the original ad:

    Gibson L-4 - '30s vs '50s-ryu65gkqjvjxhnejtyhe-jpg

  25. #24

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    That is a thing of beauty! I bet you can't wait.Gibson L-4 - '30s vs '50s-img_5017-jpg here is a shot of my 1952 L-4
    Thanks John

  26. #25

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    One of the nicest L-4s I've ever seen recently popped up within an hr and 1/2 drive of me, but it's a local sale only.

  27. #26

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    Nice looking L-4's Bluesbreaker and John!

    I've got a '50 L-4c that I set up with a McCarty pickup/pickguard, but lately I haven't been plugging it in too often.
    Its a much better sounding acoustic than I expected when I acquired it a few years ago, and it only seems to get better.
    Last edited by zizala; 04-24-2020 at 04:05 PM.

  28. #27
    Lovely looking L-4 you have there John, really clean, it's a beauty! Is that the original case? Mine is supposed to have the original case but I've no idea what cases these would have come with. It's a nice looking, brown case similar to yours. I've never had the original case with any of my vintage guitars except for my 30's National so I'm hoping it is.

  29. #28

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    The case that came with my L-4 is the orignial Geib case. It has 4 latches and still has the Gibson nameplate by the handle and the Geib nameplate on the inside door.
    I think the clamp on monkey on a stick as their called takes some of the resonance away from the acoustic sound of the guitar. If I wanted the pick up mounted all the time I would go with neck mounting rod or pick guard mount, but that is just me.
    Believe it or not I found my L-4 in a Guitar Center. It had been in the back room for 6-8 months. I made them an offer and they said it was $200.00 more than they had paid for it. The DeArmond RC 1000 came with the guitar but did not have a cord to test and it needed the coaxial wire from the pick up to the control box replaced.
    I hope you enjoy your L-4 as much as I do mine!
    Thanks John

  30. #29
    Sounds like you got a great one there John, and a good deal! The case looks to be in great condition too. I got mine from Chicago Music Exchange, it's the first guitar I've bought from them.

    Good point about the monkey on a stick pickup, I had wondered whether they hamper the acoustic tone, I will take a look at other options too. I haven't even decided 100% on whether to add a pickup at all yet.

    The other option would be to go for a transducer type like a K&K for more of an amplified acoustic tone. I had a K&K on an old Harmony archtop I had and it seemed to work really well. Has anyone got one of these on an L-4?

    Here's a video where the guitarist from Pokey LaFarge talks about the K&K on his L-12 - skip to 14:12 :

  31. #30

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    Pokey and band are lots of fun....

    I've got a '47 Epiphone Spartan like his thats a great acoustic archtop.
    Loud and clear and plenty of cut to beat the band.

    DeArmonds don't have to hamper the acoustic tone if they are mounted so they don't contact the top.
    Can be tricky and needs a neck rod and pickguard tab or some other support rather than the whole monkey stick thing.

    With your L-4 a Dearmond wouldn't have enough clearance to get near the neck and would likely end up anywhere from bridge to middle what I described above would difficult or impossible to do.
    But on the plus side a complete monkey on the stick is easy enough to take on and off should you decide to go acoustic for awhile.
    When amplified dampening the top with some pickup contact isn't such a bad thing.

    Sorry I can't help with the K&K but hope you find your way....

  32. #31

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    Hi all. A good friend of mine, a locally known jazz guitar player passed away two years ago. His wife is selling some of his gear now and I'm assisting as I can. Here's one I don't know how to gauge because of its been professionally and correctly refinished around 20 years ago. I know you guys have a much better feel on these things than I do so I hope you don't mind me asking.

    The guitar is a 1936 Gibson L-4 in excellent condition with no scratches, dents, cracks, etc., with the aforementioned refin from around 20 years ago. Original case and all parts original except one open back Grover tuners which has been replaced with a modern equivalent. It looks, plays and sounds great the way it is.

    How much does this refin devalue the guitar? She's asking $2,000. Is that reasonable?

    Thanks for your help. -- Archtop Eddy

    (I'm sorry the picture's fuzzy but it's all I have at the moment.)
    Attached Images Attached Images Gibson L-4 - '30s vs '50s-36-gibson-l-4-jpg 

  33. #32

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    Refinish or not, try $2500 and hope for $2250.

  34. #33

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    2k is about right imo

  35. #34

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    Thanks jabberwocky and wintermoon for the responses! Any other thoughts still appreciated.

    Just curious... Anyone have any ballpark idea of how much they think a proper refin devalues a guitar in percentage? Like is it worth 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent less, or what? (I'm talking ballpark figures and about relatively available vintage guitars. Not something super rare and valuable like an original Gibson Lloyd Loar or a value-enhancing original finish like Eldon Shamblin's custom gold 1954 Stratocaster.)

  36. #35

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    I have no idea the effect that refinishing has on the value of a guitar like that, but the refin on that is lovely. And usually if the guitar was refinished, the original finish was in pretty tough shape and would probably not be worth any more with that beat up finish.

  37. #36

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    Depending on the model guitar a good refin is generally about 40-50% off, but if it's a really rare guitar w an old factory refin maybe a bit less.
    The L4 in question is probably about a 4K guitar w good orig finish so figure about 1/2 that for a good refin, right about what the seller is asking, orig case as shown a plus.

  38. #37

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    Thanks guys for your inputs. This is exactly the kind of info I was looking for!