Gibson L5 seen at Jazz Concert honoring Martin Luther King

I attended a concert at Duke University this past weekend. The concert, “Sounds of Justice & Inclusion: Honoring Rev. Martin L. King, Jr.” featured the Durham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maestro William Henry Curry, with Abraham Lincoln’s words spoken by  Keith Snipes. Jazz was provided by John Brown’s Little Big Band and vocalist Rene Marie. The program and the purpose behind the program were important and excellent. But of course, my major interest was the jazz and the L5 played by the guitarist.

Twice during the program, mention was made of Dr. King’s relationship to music and jazz. Dr. King once gave an speech at the opening of a Berlin jazz festival and his remarks on music, jazz and the black experience were repeated for us at this concert. Since this blog is mostly about guitars, I also will include some thoughts about the guitarist in the band and the guitar he was playing.

The focus of the jazz vocals for the evening were songs from Natalie Cole’s album “Unforgettable.” Natalie Cole passed away December 31st, 2015. “Unforgettable… With Love” was released in 1991 as a tribute to her father, Nat King Cole.

I had never heard John Brown’s Little Big Band before the concert and had only just discovered Rene Marie, a fantastic vocalist. John Brown is a bassist and the director of the Jazz program at Duke University. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a big band live and the band was great.

So, about the guitar. Guitarist Kevin van Sant appeared to be playing a single pickup Gibson L5. I could not pick out his playing from the rest of the band. That was a bit disappointing but it also probably indicates he was doing it ‘right’. That is, the guitar was part of the rhythm section and the guitarist was comping behind the singer and band. His presence should be felt more than heard.


Watching Kevin van Sant play his L5 got me thinking about jazz guitars again. Could I ever be happy with an L5 or similar 17 inch jazz box? If you’ve read my many posts on the subject you know I am a fan of smaller sized guitars, so it seems unlikely that I’d be happy with an L5 in spite of the iconic nature and quality of the instrument. I once owned a 17 inch jazz guitar which I eventually sold because it was uncomfortable to play, although would have otherwise been a great instrument if it had ‘fit’ me better.

I can’t be sure of the exact L5 model being played but it is similar to the Wes Montgomery model: a single humbucking pickup, 3 inch body depth and Venetian (rounded) cutaway. It is a beautiful guitar. However, Gibson has other models of L5 with slight variations. There is the L5 CES, which is the basic two pickup model. There is an L5 double cut model. There are also the artist models such as the Wes Montgomery and Lee Ritenour models 1.

The model I might be most interested in if I ever had an interest would be the L5-CT. The CT stands for cutaway, thin. The body thickness is 2.5 inches instead of 3 inches. This is essentially the George Gobel’s model with dual humbucking pickups. George Gobel, if you’ve never heard of him, was a comedian who had his own TV show in the early days of television. He used his guitar playing as a backdrop to his humor but was a competent strummer. He had a custom thinner Gibson L5 model made for him — all acoustic.

A thinner L5 as an acoustic instrument is going to lose a lot of the advantage of having a large body and solid carved top. But as soon as you put two surface mounted pickups on the guitar, you’ve lost a lot of that acoustic advantage anyway. Playing electric, I would guess the advantage of the L5-CT is comfort because of the thinner body. But this is all conjecture. I’ve never played one.

If you’re interested in an L5, I’ve read many user reviews and forum opinions regarding the quality of new Gibson instruments these days. The recommendation is you’ll be better off purchasing an older, used but good quality L5 or even buying new instrument from any of several excellent Luthiers who will build you a custom guitar to your specifications the same or less than the cost of a new L5.


The Epiphone model closest to an L5 is the Broadway. The Broadway is under $1000 (currently about $700 without a case) while a new L5 is in the $10,000 price range. But the Broadway doesn’t have a solid carved spruce top. It is in no way in the same league as an L5. Yet many user reviews indicate it is a great guitar for the working professional musician. Reading these same reviews I’ve also noticed complaints regarding the weight that apply to the L5 as well.

Eastman also has a large selection of 17 inch jazz guitars which have the added advantage of a wider 1.75 inch nut width if that appeals to you — it does to me.

However, after the concert I spent some time playing my newest guitar (Epiphone 335 Pro) and my current jazz guitar (Eastman AR371ce). My conclusion is I love my Eastman. It is perfect for my needs. The 335 Pro isn’t really a jazz guitar. I bought it for blues, rock, etc. but knowing it could do jazz if I needed it. Still, side-by-side, the size and weight of the AR371ce is just what I want, the sound is the sound I am looking for and for jazz, the Epiphone just doesn’t compare.

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Footnotes

  1. Other models based on the L5 include the ES-5 Switchmaster and the Tal Farlow which started with L5 dimensions but made modifications to appointments.

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