Vintage Guitar Scene: 1947 Gibson L-7

Everyone remembers their first time. This was mine. Attending an auction to bid for a guitar.

The occasion was the auction of The John Hurlston Collection, an extensive array of old and vintage stringed instruments and associated curios. John Hurlston (26/4/1944—26/3/2014) was a pharmacist by profession, but also a guitarist, and had been a passionate collector of vintage guitars and all sorts of curios since the late 1960s. He established arguably Australia’s finest collection of museum quality guitars and other fretted instruments, and his collection was being presented at the Leonard Joel auction rooms in Melbourne.

There was a pre-auction viewing where it was possible guitar-hungry musicians of Melbourne to play the instruments on display. I was enticed by several archtops, including a couple of tenor guitars. After playing a number of the instruments, I decided to bid for a particular Gibson L-7, one of several of this model included in the auction catalogue.

The auction catalogue described it as a 1935 model, but the serial number indicated that it was made in 1947. It had apparently been a working-man’s tool, judging by the surface scratches and minor damage to the finish, and other signs of general wear and tear. However it appeared to be structurally sound, and when I played it the tone was quite remarkable – superior to some of the other archtops in the collection. Rather than being put off by the appearance, I thought that the minor damage could work in my favour by making it more affordable than some of the pristine examples in the collection. I was looking for an instrument that I could use on gigs, and as they say, looks aren’t everything! Judging by the lack of fret wear, the guitar had been re-fretted at some stage. The tuners may have been replaced, as apparently the L-7 model was originally fitted with single ring keys rather than the double ring keys it now sports.

Introduced in the mid-1930s, the Gibson L-7 is a carved top model that featured the same scale length, body dimensions and materials as the upmarket L-5, but without some of the ornate binding and other decorative features of the L-5. It was often described as an inexpensive working-man’s archtop. In a 1942 Gibson catalogue, the L-7 model was described as “a rich toned guitar designed with sufficient power to maintain a dominant rhythm when used for orchestral playing.” Who wouldn’t be tempted?

The auction night was quite an event, with a full house of hopeful musicians and “seen-it-all-before” collectors. The room was packed and people were crowded out in the corridors. There were telephone and internet bidders, and with over 300 items, bidding was brisk and exciting. After sitting quietly through 30-odd items that preceded the L-7 in the catalogue, all of a sudden I found myself the successful bidder and proud owner of the coveted L-7. I sat there for a while longer listening to the auction, but I was happy to leave well before the end, having achieved what I had considered highly unlikely.

After taking delivery of the guitar I set about looking for a pickup that would suit my playing style, and that could be attached without drilling any holes in the top. I opted for a Kent Armstrong 2-D Micro Humbucker, which I obtained together with pots and wiring, pickguard and bracket kit, from Joe Vinikow at archtop.com. The pickup was installed by Jonathon Young at Real Guitars in Melbourne. Jonathon fabricated a bracket for the input jack, based on the design of a bracket that was supplied with a Gibson BJB pickup that I have fitted to my treasured 1938 Gibson L-4 (See an
earlier article)

There was an interesting discovery when Jonathon removed the truss rod cover to do a neck adjustment – the underside of the cover was inscribed “Wes”. No idea whether this was the name of a previous owner, or perhaps a previous owner’s dedication to his favourite guitarist… It would be nice to think that the guitar once belonged to a famous guitarist named Wes, but to the best of my knowledge he never owned a non-cutaway L7.

Anyway, it’s a great guitar!

About Ben Rogers 18 Articles
Ben Rogers has played guitar for a long time, and has accumulated an odd assortment of guitars over the years. He plays around Melbourne with Instrumental Asylum – a surf/spy/guitar-noir group, and also with his gypsy-jazz combo The Ben Rogers Trio.

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