1941 Gibson EH-185

“The monarch of them all!” So proclaimed the Gibson catalog, subtly ignoring the more expensive EH-275 on the neighboring page. If the EH-185 wasn’t quite as ornate as the EH-275, it did feature all the same functional elements. To give it some historical context, though, let’s back up a few years.

Gibson’s first electric instrument (aside from a few archtops with piezoelectric pickups in the early 1930s) was the E-150 lap steel. Like Rickenbacker, National and Vega, Gibson built their first lap steel out of cast aluminum. Like National and Vega, they soon decided that wood was both cheaper, easier to work with, and more stable under hot stage lights. Re-named the EH-150 to differentiate the electric Hawaiian from the electric Spanish model, Gibson’s first wood-bodied remains an icon of 1930s electric instruments and of lap steels in general. The EH-150 was successful enough that it became the centerpiece of a line of lap steels. The EH-100 was a less ornate and less expensive version but functionally identical. The double-necked EH-150D briefly gave players extra flexibility before giving way to the double-necked Console Grande. All these models were offered with various numbers of strings, so the total variety available from Gibson was enormous.

The EH-185 and EH-275 were more expensive single-necked steels that contained a feature that set them apart from all other Gibson steels: a metal core running the length of the body. In fact, the EH-185 could reasonably be described as a mostly-decorative wooden shell under a metal plate. The plate has a reinforcing flange running under the neck and expanded at one end to form the headstock itself, so the instrument is considerably heavier than the all-wood EH-150. The metal plate is composed of hyblum, an aluminum-magnesium-silicon alloy that was painted with a “crinkle” finish to improve its appearance.

The purpose of this plate was to improve sustain by adding mass. Vega and Epiphone had already used massive brass plates to similar effect on their steels, but Gibson went a step further by forming the headstock and plate out of a single casting. The pickup and controls are all mounted on the plate, with only the output jack attached to the wooden body. The wood and metal parts are held together by screws. The first EH-185s had the same “Charlie Christian” pickups as other Gibson steels, and in 1940 they changed to an alnico pickup with adjustable poles at the same time as the EH-150. The Gibson catalog advertised 6-string and 7-string versions, though 8-string and even 10-string variations exist. The EH-275 was functionally identical to the EH-185 but featured highly figured woods, a natural finish and block fret markers.

This specimen dates from 1940 and features the later alnico pickup with adjustable poles. The pickup is slanted to provide bassier tones on the low strings, which required adjusting the plate design and the body routing to accommodate it. The maple body is hollow, like an EH-150, and a trough has been cut through the top to fit the reinforcing flange on the plate. The Gibson logo is hand-cut out of metal sheet and screwed onto the hyblum headstock. The steel is mostly original but has replaced tuners, pots, knobs and tone cap.