Ca. 1959 Gibson TG-50


The popularity of the tenor guitar was rapidly fading by the time World War II disrupted American manufacturing of musical instruments. It was originally developed as a crossover instrument that allowed banjo players to double on guitar, but by the 1940s the tenor banjo boom had been over for more than a decade. While a number of brands kept a few tenor models in their catalogues, production numbers were relatively low and high-end tenors were all custom orders. Some of those custom orders were spectacular instruments, though. Gibson made a few L-7 tenors, at least one with a cutaway. (The TG-7 was actually listed in the 1934 catalog, but it quickly disappeared). I am lucky enough to own a ca. 1970 L-4C tenor with a natural finish and 4-pole McCarty pickguard/pickup assembly. Pre-war L-4 tenors were built, but until I saw the guitar pictured above, I believed that the electric was the only post-War example in existence.

Actually, despite having a standard L-4C body, this guitar is labeled as a TG-50. The standard TG-50 model (and its 6-string equivalent, the L-50) had the same 16” body as the L-4 but was not offered with a cutaway. It also sported single-ply binding, a step down from the 3-ply celluloid found on the L-4. Both models started out with a solid back pressed into an arch but acquired a laminated back sometime in the 1950s. The TG-50 featured a fretboard glued to the top of the body, while the L-4’s fretboard extension was elevated (at least in part) to allow the soundboard to vibrate more freely. The L-4 also had a more ornate peghead with pearl inlays instead of a silkscreened logo.

Yet, despite the TG-50 stamp inside the body, this tenor has many of the upgrades allotted to the L-4: cutaway, elevated fretboard, and multi-ply binding. The dot fret markers and simple peghead are from the standard TG-50, but the body was clearly built to the L-4C template. The neck would have been a totally custom creation, since the elevated extension on a tenor neck did not correspond to any catalogued model at the time. The deep Cremona brown finish on the back is taken from the TG-50; the L-4 had a sunburst on the back as well as the top. The guitar has no label which might give additional information about its origins. There is no serial and no factory order number, so the guitar’s exact age remains a mystery. However, it can be narrowed down: the style of the Kluson tuners was introduced in late 1958, and the manner in which Gibson bound the cutaway was changed sometime in 1959 or 1960, giving tight upper and lower bounds.

If most of the guitar can be traced to a standard model, the pickguard defies explanation. At first glance it appears to be an obvious replacement, since its silhouette has no precedent in any other Gibson instrument. However, it is made of the correct material for a mid-50s Gibson archtop and is edged with the correct bevel. It is also heavily warped, suggesting considerable age. Regardless of who made it, it was clearly custom-designed for this guitar. The rest of the mounting hardware is period correct.

So was this a custom order, a factory prototype, or the result of forbidden love between an archtop guitar and a tenor banjo on a cold Kalamazoo night? My best guess is a prototype; if a customer were willing to pay for a custom tenor with a cutaway, they’d probably just order a tenor L-4C. Even if a customer did order a hybrid instrument, I find it strange that Gibson would stamp the pricier body with the cheaper model designation. Instead, I surmise that Gibson built this as a proposed update to the old TG-50 model that never got past the prototype stage.