The Gibson company has been manufacturing guitars designated L-4 since, it would seem, the dawn of time. Ask most jazz guitarists however to picture an L-4 and their minds will probably focus on the sharp cutaway L4-C manufactured from the 1950s until the early 1970s. Most also would probably categorize that instrument as the "acoustic" version of Gibson's venerable ES-175 electric guitar.
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In 1949 the ES-175 debuted at the very reasonable (for a Gibson) price of $175.00, hence the "175" designation. It featured a smaller than usual body 16 inches across the lower bout and a racy sharp, or "Florentine" cutaway. It also had stylish double parallelogram fretboard inlays. Costs were kept in check by the use of laminated, pressed timbers rather than the more expensive option of carving the guitar out of solid woods. Gibson also did away with much of the frippery of their higher end instruments like the L5 and Super 400 so the ES-175 had simple one piece body binding, no headstock binding at all and a pick-guard made of edge-beveled black plastic laminate instead of the more expensive hand bound mock tortoise. Also metalwork was nickel rather than gold plate and the fretboard was made of rosewood rather than the more expensive ebony option.
The ES-175 went on to be, perhaps, the most popular archtop electric guitar of all time. Despite its humble origins it has been the instrument of choice for jazz players such as Herb Ellis, Pat Metheny, Joe Pass and many others and also rockers like Steve Howe and indie artists like Roddy Frame.
It's acoustic "sister" the L4-C was visually identical (sans electronics) but was in fact made out of carved timbers, far more desirable in an acoustic instrument. It did not enjoy anything like the popularity of the ES-175. Perhaps players preferred the larger variant body styles when choosing an acoustic instrument for more volume and projection? That said many jazz guitarists think on the little L4-C with affection; even if they never actually got to own one.
Throughout its model years Gibson did, in fact, ship a number of custom L4-Cs with a fitted pick-up. The most common variant has the large "blade" style pick-up (AKA the Charlie Christian) but I have also seen pictures of the late Emily Remler playing an L4 with a neck mounted "Johnny Smith" mini-humbucker. I have also heard reports of some units shipping with a soundboard mounted full size humbucking pick-up though I have never actually seen this version either pictured or "in-the-flesh". I'm not sure if these variants were ever officially designated as L4 C (cutaway) ES (Electric Spanish) models.
Again, I'm not entirely sure but I believe the guitar that Gibson now sell as the L4-CES debuted in 1989. The guitar is designated a "Custom Shop" model which usually means a high standard of workmanship and lots of certificates and goodies supplied alongside. On first glance it's easy to mistake the guitar for the, still produced, ES-175D (the "D" stands for "double" pick-up), they are strikingly similar. However there are some visual clues to look out for. The most obvious is that the neck pick up of the guitar is placed right up at the end of the fretboard whereas the pick-up is situated an inch or so away on the ES-175. Also, closer inspection reveals that all the metalwork is gold plated and that the guitar has an elaborate "L5" style deco tailpiece (which, for the curious, shares the outline of the Empire State Building when turned on its end) as well as a multi-bound "tortoise" pick-guard and an inlaid ebony bridge base topped with a gold plated ABR bridge. Still further scrutiny reveals an ebony, rather than rosewood, fingerboard and multiple, rather than single, binding around the front face of the guitar.
What you can't really see but what most differentiates this guitar from the ES-175 is that the L4-CES uses different woods in the manufacture. Earlier examples feature a solid spruce carved top but the same laminated maple sandwich as used on the ES-175 for the sides and back. In more recent years Gibson has taken to making the sides and back out of carved solid mahogany and that is the layout of the 2010 model I'm reviewing here.
Amongst L4-CES aficionados, some prefer the sound of the earlier maple backed models while others, myself included, err towards the mahogany option.
I own another guitar: a 1989 Washburn J10 which was an attempt by the Japanese manufacturer to make a "Hyper" ES-175 with solid woods, gold parts etc. and that has a maple back so is probably very similar to the original L4-CES spruce/maple/maple spec. I've fitted Gibson Classic 57 pick-ups to it so it probably sounds pretty similar too.
Compared to the mahogany backed L4 the sound is a little brighter (no surprise there) and more focused in the mid-range but its lacks some of the mahogany body's rich, bulbous warmth, especially in the lower register.
Through it's twin classic 57 humbucking pick-ups my L4-CES produces a beautiful and lush sound that is hard to quantify. If you are familiar with the sound of a good ES-175 you'll easily recognize it as part of that "family" but it does have an added dimension of depth, a deeper push into bass territory and an upper end sparkle that is distinct from the dry "cack" of the ES model. It also has a similar range of tones from the warm classic neck position sound, to a funky twin pick up combo sound, to a bright "bark" when using the bridge pick-up alone.
You could say that the L4-CES sounds like an ES-175 that has been sprinkled with L5 "fairy dust". But the L5 has a bolder more acoustic sound than this guitar; on which everything melds into a quite intoxicating gooey gloss. If you compared the two guitars with singers, the L5 would be Paul Robeson and the L4: Jonny Mathis.
Equally intoxicating is the, beautifully applied, nitro-cellulose natural lacquer finish. On mine (a sunburst) the edges of the guitar's top are almost black graduating through red-brown to gold. The back and sides, being mahogany (including the neck) have been lightly stained a shade or two darker than the natural wood color with a lighter graduation on the back of the neck. The gloss burgundy-brown against the white of the binding looks stunning. This is one of the few guitars I know where the back almost looks better than the front.
I did change out the dark amber control knobs for a set of Gibson's own gold "capped" knobs. I found that with the dark sunburst, dark mahogany sides and abundance of gold plating the guitar almost looked a bit too "antique" as though it had been carved from an old Chesterfield cabinet. The lighter gold knobs have put a bit of a smile on its face but that's just a personal choice.
The guitar has very few downsides. It is expensive but when you consider what you're getting I think it's priced about right. It won't suit players who go for the more acoustic/electric jazz tone that you get from essentially acoustic guitars with neck mounted pick-ups like the Gibson Johnny Smith and the plethora of similar models available from boutique makers. No this is an instrument for those who prefer their sound on the smooth side. Even though it's a hand-carved guitar it doesn't seem to be particularly susceptible to acoustic feedback, at least no more than a laminate ES-175 which is a pleasant surprise.
The Kluson style machine heads look great but they do feel a little stiff and imprecise in operation. That said, once tuned the guitar seems pretty stable. The nut slots on my guitar are perhaps a little narrow to accommodate the heavier gauges of strings which jazz guitarists typically use. I will have that looked at when I get the guitar professionally set-up after a break in period. I also think the actual fret gauge is a little narrower than I'm used to in my other guitars which has meant raising the action higher than I normally would to get a good and positive playing feel. I would describe the overall playability of this instrument as good to excellent. It's pretty much indistinguishable from the ES-175 despite the presence of an ebony fretboard. It is not however stupendous or effortless like a true high dollar Gibson like the L5-CES.
Because mahogany is quite a dense wood, the guitar feels heavier in the body than you would expect and doesn't balance as evenly on your lap as an ES-175 so I tend to wear a strap even when playing in the seated position. It feels fine when playing standing up.
I wish Gibson would offer a single neck pick-up variant without having to go "special-order". That would be 16 inch jazz guitar heaven for me.
I've wanted an ES-175 for a long while but there's something about the newer models I just don't like. Although they've been very well made since the mid-eighties there's something about the shape which doesn't quite gel for me. They seem quite rounded and bulbous compared to the svelte vintage models from the late 1950s and early 60s (which are priced way above what I'd pay for an essentially "budget" laminated guitar). I'm sure they are perfectly functional instruments but my last foray into ES-175 "land" resulted in the purchase of the Washburn J-10 which I and a few of my playing buddies thought was just a much nicer guitar all round (pity they only made it for one year).
The L4-CES, by contrast, looks a million dollars and that's important as it inspires you to want to pick it up and play it and to revel in the joy of ownership of such a fantastically crafted piece.
Pick a good one, inspect it for alignment (particularly the tailpiece as I've seen some that were badly off which is shameful.........) and you will have a beautiful guitar with the racy looks of the classic ES-175 but with an added tonal depth and quality of appointment.
My guess is it's a guitar you'll want to have stick around for a very, very long time.