Vintage Guitar Scene: The Ghosts of the Ninth Fret

1938 Gibson L4 (Serial No. 95318)

One Sunday morning in Perth in the summer of 1984 I was scanning the musical instruments section in the Sunday Times classifieds – as was my usual practice in those days – when I came across a listing for a Gibson L4. I wasn’t really looking for an archtop guitar at that time, but I thought a Gibson for only $450 was worth checking out. The guitar looked structurally sound, but the fingerboard had come unstuck and the bridge saddle was falling apart. In addition the original pickguard and the fingerboard inlays had been replaced. A luthier’s label inside the body indicated that the guitar had been repaired in 1950 by M. William Pougault of Mont Hawthorn, Australie Occidentale. I didn’t know a lot about archtop guitars, but this one looked old and interesting. I paid the asking price, took it home and did nothing with it for a while. Eventually I took it to a supposedly reputable luthier at a shop in North Perth. I think he was looking for extra work, because he said that the body was structurally unsound, and he would need to take the top off repair it. He also said I should loosen the strings immediately as the top was in serious danger of collapse! As there was no obvious evidence of imminent implosion, I decided to seek a second opinion. I showed the L4 to Walter (not his real name) a renowned Perth guitarist who did some guitar repairs on the side. Walter agreed with my assessment that the guitar didn’t need structural repairs, and said that he could fix up the bridge and fingerboard.

Walter was a fairly enthusiastic herbalist, so I wasn’t expecting a quick turnaround on the job. However I was confident that the guitar would eventually come back, and I was in no hurry. Some months later I got a call to say that my guitar was ready, and we arranged for Walter to bring it over one evening.

After the usual pleasantries Walter took out the guitar and proudly displayed his handiwork. He’d fashioned a very elegant replacement bridge saddle from a fine-grained timber which he said was West Australian Dogwood. The fingerboard had been re-attached and fitted with new frets and edge binding, complete with very nice dot markers made from a stick of ebony. The guitar looked great, and it played and sounded just like it should – that vintage Gibson arch-top character.

After noodling away on the guitar for a few minutes I noticed something odd, and I said to Walter “do you always put double dot markers on the ninth rather than the twelfth fret?” Awkward silence. After coming to the realisation that the double dots in the edge binding were indeed in the wrong spot, Walter explained that he must have made this mistake because he was used to working on solid body electric guitars, which have the twelfth fret further away from the body. I thought this was quite a reasonable defence under the circumstances.

Walter took the guitar back to fix the dot markers, and in due course he brought it back with an almost invisible repair.

I fitted the guitar with a Gibson BJB pickup that I bought from Fremantle luthier Scott Wise. This floating style pickup attaches to the pickguard, complete with its pre-wired volume and tone pots and output jack. With the pickup the L4 became a serviceable gigging unit with great tone, and in the ensuing years it’s done a lot of work in Perth and later in Melbourne. The original high-geared machine heads are a bit tricky, but stay in tune mostly, although a slight knock can cause one of them to let go.

I haven’t seen Walter since the eighties, but the L4 is still going strong. The top shows no signs of collapsing, and the ghosts of double dots above the ninth fret bear mute witness to an entertaining chapter in the history of this lovely old guitar.

About Ben Rogers 19 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.