Monday, September 22, 2008

It Was The Best Of Tone, It Was The Worst Of Tone

I go to Elderly Instruments on occasion, because I can't afford anything and I'm a masochist. And yes, I visit the Tele page and look through Other Electrics hoping to find a nice Tele-style guitar. I am that kind of predictable. But that's not all I do, because I'm also on the lookout for a nice archtop for the jazz playing I'm utterly unqualified to do.

I found this Gibson L-50 from the 1930s.

I found this Godin Fifth Avenue. Brand new.

The Gibson was made in the Golden Age of archtop guitars. I believe Mr. Loar still walked the shop floor in Kalamazoo back then. The Godin was growing in the great Canadian wilderness during my lifetime. The Gibson costs $1850. The Godin costs $600.

I've never played either. The Elderly store Michigan is far enough out of my way that if I was to drive there and try one, I'm gonna be bringing something back with me, and that's just not gonna happen anytime soon. But I'm curious here as I'm often curious: what am I buying when I take that price jump. I know that, if I get a Squier, I might (or might not) get a hunk of wood with frets that's as solid as a Fender, but the electronics will likely be bottom-barrel and well worthy of junking and replacing. No electronics on either of these guys. The Gibson has an 80-year-old spruce top, and the Godin has a cherry top. If (by some entirely unimaginable circumstance at this moment) I get myself one of these archtops, am I really getting a grand worth of tone increase with the Gibson?

source images from Elderly Instruments


Patrick said...

I'll venture a qualified "yes" on this one. First off, spruce is and has been the preferred top wood for centuries now. It's strong, light, and flexible. It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any wood, making it ideal for tonewood and aircraft. Hardwoods, like cherry, generally don't flex enough to make a good top, although there is a lot the luthier can do to work around it.
Second, a wonderful thing happens when wood ages. I know from experience. I have an Oscar Schmidt 12-string with a solid sitka spruce top, and when it was new it sounded okay. I've had it for 15 years now, and it has a lot more sparkle and punch than it did when it rolled off the assembly line, moist and soft. It went from an affordable guitar to a nice guitar, and all I did was hold on to it for a while. Tonewood gets better with age; spruce gets more better because there is more resin to harden.
There is also a certain intangible quality of authenticity that comes with the L-50. I've gone on at length about my Airline; my personal favorite one-liner is "When Rock first crawled out of the primordial soup of Country, Jazz, Blues, and everything else, and into the garages of uppity youth across the country, this is the amplifier it landed on." Anyone who actually worked with tube circuits in those days could tell you that there were dozens of tubes better suited for amplification than the 12AX7, but at the time it was cheap, widely understood, and readily available. There is something to be said for a guitar that has been around long enough to have great-grandchildren, that actually saw jazz being forged in the primal fires. Is that in itself worth the extra money? Maybe not. But I think on purely musical merit it would still outclass the $600 guitar and hold its own against any new $2000 guitar.

Dave Jacoby said...

Of course, you can't tell without picking them up and playing them.

The L50, less than the L5 mentioned a few days ago, gets you close to the "investment grade" level, and it is not wise to have investment grade guitars in the same house as a six-year-old, it seems to me.

The spruce comments make some sense to me, though. I'm 87% happy with my Frontman, but I do long for a real tube amp.

pilgrim said...

Go with the Godin--they're nice guitars.

Dave Jacoby said...

I doubt I'll be able to go that way while I still have children at home, but I have never heard a bad thing about Godin. So, thanks for the recommendation.