So, I find myself in the market for a serious vintage acoustic archtop, and I've been cyberstalking every pre-war Gibson or Epiphone on the internet for weeks. Nothing wrong with my Eastman (quite the contrary, it's been providing a benchmark many of the vintage axes I play fail to meet), but it's time (financially and logistically) to invest in a serious, real-deal vintage guitar.
Now I've been at a loss for what exactly I want in such a guitar, other than it being something truly special sounding. Does that mean 16" or 17"? Parallel- or X-braced? Gibson or Epiphone? I'm not 100% sure. It has to be something really open and resonant - something that speaks to me.
I was focused mostly on a 16" Gibson L-5, because several of the best guitars I've ever played have been 20's L-5's. However, I was also open to something like a 30's Walnut-backed Epiphone Broadway, because those can be really cannons, and even open to something like an Epiphone Deluxe or Emperor. I also didn't want to exclude a 30's advanced 17" Gibsons, because not having played very many, I couldn't really say if it was something I wold dig or not.
I'd been watching everything online very carefully, and was pretty pissed when I saw a great looking 16" L5 get sold in a matter a couple days after listing from a music store in Kansas, and every other 16" L5 was either refinished, renecked, or had a replacement fingerboard, or was a signed Lloyd Loar and this absurdly expensive. Now, while a guitar with major work, or a refin, or whatever could still be awesome sound if done right, but since I couldn't play it first, I was reluctant to drop $8k-$10k even if there was a trial period. I even found a local walnut-backed Broadway, but it would've needed at least a refret, if not a full neck reset. Although it was comparably affordable, I was worried about the guitar being a money pit.
Well, I was watching an ebay listing for a 1935 Gibson L-12, which is a 17" advanced, X-braced guitar. The guitar had fail to sell once because the reserve was not met. On the second go-around, there was little to no attention being paid to the guitar and the price was very low. The thing that struck me the most was the ridiculous playwear on the back of the neck - clearly that guitar had been played a lot, and for decades. I watched the auction during dinner on my phone, and managed to snipe it manually for below what the previous auction had ended at, and a good $500-$1000 under value. I was a little hesitant to buy the guitar without having played it, but there was a 24-hour return period, and at worst, I'd be out the shipping.
Well, it arrived today, and the first thing I noticed was how light the package was. Turns out the play wear was only one of the telltale signs of a great acoustic archtop, this guitar was super light too. Awesome. I was so excited I un-boxed in my mailbox place. I put the bridge on, and slowly brought the strings up to tension, and was immediately pleasantly surprised. I brought it home, futzed with the bridge placement slightly, and was greated by an amazingly open, resonant, singing guitar - every bit what a pre-war, X-braced 17" archtop should be. Check out the back of the neck:
I was taking a webcam video to show a friend, and just decided to a full review and playing demo on it. So check it out.
Since recording the video, I learned that this guitar definitely has a maple neck. I thought mahogany necks were one of the features separating L5's from the lesser L-12 and L-7, but that only turns out to be true of 16", pre-advanced models. However, there are mahogany examples of 17" L7's and L12's, but those are less common.
Also, I threw at set of 13's on the guitar and had it set up. Unfortunately, after a couple of days it was crystal clear that it was just not working with 13's on it. Going back to 12's (of course with a 13/18 pair swapped in on top), and the guitar came back to life. The 13's felt and sounded like they were throttling the guitar, and almost over driving the top, rather than making it sing freely. I still believe in using the heaviest strings you can, but I'd add using the heaviest strings that sound good on your guitar. This was clearly a case where 12's were perfectly sufficient to make the top move.
Since this guitar was only a 3rd of what I'd budgeted for my "investment", I have some options. I could trade this toward something like an L5, or I could keep it, and look for something else, like perhaps the more reasonably priced Epiphone line to have something that contrasts the L-12, or who knows.
I'm just excited to get to play a really open-sounding 80-year-old guitar for right now, and learn as much as I can about the sound of 17" X-braced Gibsons.
UPDATE: Here's what it looks like with a repro-pickguard from www.archtop.com: