1970 Gibson L-4CNT

The tenor guitar was a clear anachronism by the 1960s, yet somehow it survived in the catalog pages of a couple of prominent guitar manufacturers. Gibson catalogued no less than three tenor guitar models through 1966 and continued to build them until 1971, while Martin continued to offer a single tenor model into the 1980s. Demand must have been quite low, judging by the number of surviving tenors from this period, but apparently it remained above zero.

Gibson’s standard tenor models in the 1960s included two flat-tops and an electric archtop, the ETG-150. Acoustic archtop tenors were built from 1934 to 1957 in the form of the TG-50, a mid-grade model that was accompanied in the late 1930s by the more expensive TG-7. Gibson was always willing to accept custom orders for tenor versions of other models – there’s even a few tenor solidbodies from the 1960s out there – but, naturally, they represent a very small proportion of the Gibson tenors built.

This guitar is therefore particularly unusual, not only as a custom order but also for its age. Gibson built the L-4C from 1949 to 1971, continuing to offer the cutaway version long after the non-cutaway L-4 was discontinued in 1956. It was the company’s most expensive 16” acoustic archtop, more ornate than the L-50 and L-48 but smaller than the 17”-wide L-7, L-12 and L-5. A natural finish was offered from the beginning on the L-4C, though it cost more than a sunburst. Like all of Gibson’s mid-grade archtops, the L-4C was produced in diminishing numbers throughout the 1960s as players turned more and more to electric instruments.

Starting in 1948, Gibson offered an integral pickguard with floating pickup. This could be fitted to archtop models at the factory (sometimes as a standard feature, as on the L-7E) or sold separately to electrify an existing acoustic guitar. Described in catalogs as simply a “guardplate-pickup”, it has since become associated with the man who designed it: Gibson president Ted McCarty. The “McCarty” pickguard was offered with every combination of nickel and gold hardware, single or double pickups, and shaped for a cutaway or non-cutaway guitar. It contained integral tone and volume controls as well. The entire unit was suspended above the guitar’s top, leaving the acoustic tone more or less unchanged, though the magnetic pickups did require the use of nickel or similarly magnetic strings. Several other manufacturers built floating pickups – particularly DeArmond – and several built similar pickguards with integrated floating pickups – such as Epiphone – but the “McCarty” unit remains one of the best known and appreciated.

This guitar has a number of features that must have been custom-ordered, not least of which is the tenor neck. The existence of a 4-pole “McCarty” pickup doesn’t surprise me, but it’s rare enough that I cannot find a single picture of another one. The tailpiece is quite different from that found on a standard L-4C: it uses a simpler trapeze (probably taken from an ETG-150) but incorporates a rosewood and pearloid badge modified from the Trini Lopez and Barney Kessel models. There is also the engraved truss rod cover; I’m not sure who Sister Kate is, but I like to think the instrument was christened after an old jazz standard. The guitar appears to be entirely original and in very clean condition, with just minor signs of play wear.