By John Thomas, with Shelley Giordano, Tania Grgurich, and Natalie Pelletier
A few years ago, I uncovered a mystery that led me to write a book, “Kalamazoo Gals,” about the women who built the Gibson Guitar Company’s instruments during WWII. In wartime advertisements and a company history published in 1973 and written by the man who served as personnel director during the war and who hired the Gals, Gibson denied making any instruments from the outset of WWII until “the boys came home” in late 1945. Gibson’s shipping records, however, document the production of nearly 25,000 instruments during that time.
The wartime flattop acoustic guitars bear a small, golden silkscreened “banner” on their headstocks that declares, “Only a Gibson is Good Enough.” That proclamation appeared on the guitars in early 1942, at the very moment those Gals walked through Gibson’s doors in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Glenn Miller’s “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” topped the pop charts, and disappeared when those “boys” returned for their jobs.
Knowing that the presence of that “Banner” verified a woman’s touch in an instrument’s construction, I began to think about a method for comparing the guitars built by women with their predecessors and successors built by men. I’m fortunate to work at Quinnipiac University, which has a medical school, a top-flight diagnostic imaging department, and, best, creative and talented faculty members like professors Shelley Giordano, Tania Grgurich, and Natalie Pelletier, who collaborated with me on this project.
Thus began Project X-ray. Our initial study of war-era Gibsons yielded two scientific articles in which we concluded, “We’ve discovered measurable differences between the Banner guitars and those of the same model designation produced just before and after the Banner era.” The guitars built by women were just a bit more refined, with all surfaces and components being ever-so-slightly thinner/smaller (our equipment let us measure to the one ten thousandth of an inch).
These results not only excited us, but impressed the vintage guitar collecting community, the members of which offered up their prized possessions for random radiation. We’ve now X-rayed (and CT-scanned) some 75 vintage guitars, ranging from mid-1800s Martins, to pre-Gibson company guitars built by Orville himself, to turn of the last century Larsons, to the golden era Gibsons and Martins of the 1930s, to the rarest of the rare harp guitars, and, most recently, a pair of electric guitars supplied by the Fender Corporation.
Grab your leather apron and follow us into the imaging clinic. These are some of our favorite X-ray images, presented roughly in chronological order of the instruments, producing a rudimentary depiction of the evolution of the guitar.
[Editor’s note: Single images provided by author combined into collages by Guitarkadia for this post.]
Christian Frederick Martin’s American Guitar.
CF Martin may have created what we know as the archetype of the American steel string guitar, but his early creations featured gut strings and a visual aesthetic that betrayed the influence of his Austrian mentor, Johann Stauffer.
Orville Gibson’s Vision of a Braceless Future.
Orville Gibson’s 1895 mandolin patent application asserts that his carved, braceless instrument design demonstrated a “degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action” not previously known in the realm of musical instruments. This 1898 guitar, one of Orville’s first six creations, is the lightest guitar I’ve ever encountered.
The Larson Brothers: Early Proponents of the Steel String.
The Larson brothers of Chicago built steel string guitars from about 1900 through the early 1940s. They embraced the volume and twang of steel long before CF Martin. Two design features that the brothers adopted to counteract the added tension of steel strings – highly arched tops and backs and braces of laminated spruce/rosewood/spruce – also leant a characteristic tone to their creations, recognizable by a cutting tone and nearly endless sustain. This circa 1905 example is the only known Larson Brothers guitar to feature all laminated braces, instead of their usual lamination of only the X-braces.
Prairie State 1930
Laminated bracing not sufficient sound reinforcement for you tastes? Worry not. In the 1920s those inventive Larson boys introduced the Prairie State line of guitars, like this 1930 example, which used internal, metal bracing to absorb the vectors of stress impressed on the sides and back by the strings, supposedly leaving the top to vibrate more freely.
Harp guitars originated in Europe in the mid-1700s in response to composers’ longing for a plucked stringed instrument with a range greater than that of the lowly guitar. Enter the fusion of harp and guitar. The instrument reached its auditory and visual zenith with the Larson Brothers interpretation of the early twentieth design of Christopher Knutsen.
Stahl Harp Guitar 1908
This early Larson-built 1908 Stahl Harp guitar is an outlier in the design of the harp guitar and reveals the brothers’ willingness to try anything, at least once. It features a guitar within a guitar and Rube Goldbergesque tuning machines reinforced by a chain with its links joined by welding.
Style 7 Dyer Symphony Harp Guitar
Golden Era Martins
Golden Era Gibsons
While Martin worked at producing understated beauty, the folks at Gibson were hard a work making perfecting the so-tasteless-it’s-tasteful aesthetic. This 1948 SJ (for, of course, Super Jumbo) 200 (announcing the outrageous-in-1938-price) is a stunning example: mustache bridge with pearl ribbons, “crown” mother of pearl inlays, and a sensuous, womanly body shape that contrasted dramatically with Martin’s square shoulder “dreadnought” named for battle ships so large that they, well, dreaded nought.
Leo Fender and the Solid Body Production Electric Guitar
Got a drummer and bassist standing behind you and want to overwhelm your audience with sheer volume, if not talent? Get ye a pickup and turn your amp to 11. What, the guitar is producing a howling feedback? No problem, former machinist Leo Fender has a stunning solution: a guitar made of solid wood.
Keep those Cards, Letters, and, uh, Guitars coming.
If you’ve got a hankerin’ to look though your vintage instrument, you know whom to call. We’re serious about documenting the evolution of the guitar. Uh, and we’d like to play your one-of-a-kind guitar.
John Thomas is a fingerstyle guitar player, law professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law, and field editor & contributor to Fretboard Journal magazine. His most recent book is Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII.”