1937 Gibson EST-150

Gibson was neither the first nor the most innovative builder of electric instruments in the 1930s, but they did create the most iconic electric guitar of the pre-War period. Other builders, such as Epiphone and Vega, incorporated design elements that enhanced their guitars’ electric sound at the expense of acoustic tone. Laminated bodies and sound posts helped control feedback, and the result was a step away from the acoustic archtop toward a modern electric hollowbody. Gibson maintained a more traditional approach: solid woods all around, with carved tops on even the budget-minded models. This set the precedent for the modern jazz guitar: add a cutaway and mount the pickup to the neck or pickguard, and you’ve got an instrument that is widely used by jazz players today.

The Gibson ES-150 is, without question, the most sought-after electric guitar of the 1930s. Its popularity comes not just from its sound and high quality of construction but from an association with the most influential guitarist of the time. Charlie Christian is one of the most influential guitarists that jazz has produced, and the cover of his most famous compilation (“The Genius of the Electric Guitar”) shows him holding an ES-150. While Christian did not stick to the instrument exclusively – he was also photographed playing a Vega and later an ES-250 – the instrument has become so closely identified with him that its pickup is now commonly referred to as the “Charlie Christian” pickup.

In the late 1930s, however, guitars were not yet firmly ensconced as the most popular stringed instrument. They were rapidly gaining ground as acoustic and electric archtops got louder and louder, but tenor and plectrum banjos were still heard in most bands. The tenor banjo was originally developed as a vehicle for mandolinists to cross over to the banjo, and guitar manufacturers had developed the tenor guitar as a further way of converting other string players. It was no surprise, then, that electric tenor guitars were introduced by a number of brands to capture as wide an audience as possible.

The ES-150 was first produced in 1936, and a year later the tenor version had its first mention in the Gibson catalog. Like most Gibson tenor guitars, there was no major difference between the EST-150 and its 6-string cousin except the number of strings. The tailpiece and bridge were adapted for four strings and a 23”-scale tenor neck was merged with the same body, and the rest of the guitar’s specifications remained the same. The carved spruce top was complemented by maple sides and back, with single-ply binding on the body, neck, pickguard and around the pickup. The guitar was in the middle of the Gibson line, as demonstrated by the relatively plain ornamentation, but the only obvious sacrifice to economy was the flat back. As was common practice at Gibson, the model number indicated its price: $150 with a matching amplifier, or $77.50 by itself with a 15-foot cable.

My EST-150 is one of the first built and has a few rare features as a result. The banjo tuners were quickly replaced by more conventional guitar-style tuners on a strip. The single polepiece was divided into multiple blades around 1938 in an attempt to even out the volume between strings. The pickup would be changed entirely to a metal-covered P13 pickup around 1940, and then to a P-90 when production resumed after World War II (at which point the model name had become the ETG-150). My guitar also features an output jack cleverly concealed in the tailpiece; later versions have a more conventional jack in the top of the guitar. All versions of the model have an adjustable truss rod, which in my case has kept the neck in fine playing condition.

Not surprisingly, this guitar has a similar tone to the 6-string ES-150. (To hear a nearly identical tenor in action, check out clips of Tiny Grimes). It’s warm and bassy, with strong output and a fair amount of noise picked up by the single unshielded coil. The guitar has pretty good volume when unplugged; it makes for an excellent acoustic practice instrument, though it lacks the bass and projection necessary to play an acoustic show. The only issue with the electric sound is the balance across the strings: the bass strings come through much louder than the treble. It’s possible to overcome this with careful pick control and a bit of tweaking to the amp’s controls, but I definitely understand why Gibson revised the pickup’s design shortly after this guitar was built.

The popularity of the tenor guitar and tenor banjo was on the wane by the time this model was introduced. Only 93 were built between 1937 and 1940 compared with 1319 six-string ES-150s built during the same period. This is one of 37 tenors built in the first year of production, and the number declined sharply in subsequent years. While Gibson did keep producing the ETG-150 until 1971, it would always be an anachronism in the company’s catalog. This particular guitar, now with over three quarters of a century behind it, remains a superb player and a reminder of the days when banjos ruled the bandstand.