Legends are what keeps the guitar alive. Who played what, when and where and on which recording is always a popular conversation piece with many guitarists and journalists. Would Eric Clapton for example have followed a different path if the likes of Robert Johnson had not existed?
We all draw our influences and styles across the musical genres from those who went before and the same can be said of an instrument like the guitar. Legendary names in the guitars historical timeline can be associated with a certain guitar and equally brand names that over the years have produced such guitars for a wide range of artistes. Gibson is a household name in both Electric and Acoustic guitars and the Legend that is Robert Johnson is tagged with playing two of Gibsons now iconic made guitars. The first being a late 1920’s Gibson L1 and the other a Kalamazoo KG – 14 of the same period.
There has been a monumental amount of speculation surrounding the legend of Johnson, the main one being, did he really meet the Devil at the Crossroads and sell his soul? In my opinion, the photograph of him in a swish suit and hat playing a Gibson L1 was probably done in a photo studio and the L1 was a prop owned by the studio as was the suit! It was more than likely that Johnson’s main guitar was the Gibson made Kalamazoo KG – 14 as Gibson labelled guitars were mostly out of the reach of poor bluesmen, in fact, that’s why most of the early Blues players opted for Stella guitars. I have a 1930-s KG – 14 and it is similar to the iconic Gibson L- 00 although it has slightly less bass response.
Both guitars were made on the same benches at the Gibson Kalamazoo Factory, but sold to different outlets, the Kalamazoo brand being sold to non Gibson dealers at a much cheaper price. It fits perfectly into the blues picking and slide genres with a clear, woody and strident tone.
Earlier Gibson creations produced some interesting and unique instruments and none more so than the iconic Gibson U-Harps. They are testament to the finest quality workmanship of the early Gibson Luthier’s skills. The scroll shaped, carved top is visually akin to early Gibson mandolins as is the oval shaped sound-hole.
The design of the headstock is also brilliant bearing in mind it had to hold 10 bass string and 6 normal strings. One stand out feature amongst the many is the external tension rod which runs from the back of the head on the six string neck diagonally to a block situated internally beneath the sound board. This rod is adjusted by a nut situated half way along the rod. Nowadays they are called truss rods and run internally beneath the fretboard. Another visionary first from Orville.
The bass neck has 10 sub bass strings traditionally cromatically tuned from G# to A# (but you can try out your own tuning combinations to suit of course) and a normal six string neck. The double trapeze shaped tailpiece is also extremely well designed being of German silver with ebony string attachments and inlaid pegs. It is affixed to the base of the guitar’s body firmly by four screws. The six string neck plays perfectly as you would expect from Gibsons of this age and is single bound with an ebony fretboard having 19 frets with basic pearl dot markers.
I could write a much longer piece praising all the technicalities of this instrument but by now you gest the gist that this is truly an innovative and beautifully made instrument, unique in its genre.
Individually, the sound of both necks are indeed very strong, clear and tonal. The art in making this whole thing work is combining the two together, There is no doubt that the playing skill required to master the technique of Harp guitar playing is far different from those needed for normal guitar playing. Later and modern Harp guitars are easier to play but still need a different approach to normal playing and plenty of practise. Originally, U – Harps were used in Mandolin and String Orchestras, providing a basic ‘Boom Chic a Boom’ backing to the other more flexible instruments within the Orchestra.
To be honest, the U-Harps are impractical and limited in their usage plus they are heavy beasts of burden to lug about on regular gigs. Gibson ceased making U-Harps in the early 1920s as trends changed and probably because there was a limited demand for them. Having said that, they remained in the Gibson catalogue into the 1930s.