Robert Johnson (guitars)

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Legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson has been called the "King of the Delta Blues Singers", the "Grandfather of Rock and Roll" and "the most important blues singer that ever lived". The guitars he played, recorded and was photographed with have always been a curiosity to blues researchers and musicologists, and this interest eventually led to the production of guitars dedicated to his memory.

Kalamazoo KG 31 from 1930's

Guitars Johnson played[edit]

1928 Gibson L-1
Kalamazoo KG-14

Robert Johnson played various guitars, produced in the 1920s and 1930s. The guitar he is holding in the studio portrait, where he's dressed in a suit, is a Gibson Guitar Corporation model L-1 flat top, which was a small body acoustic produced between 1926 and 1937. There is no evidence, however, that this was actually his guitar other than this photo. The guitar could have been a studio prop, or belonged to someone Johnson knew in Memphis where the photo was taken (Hook's Brothers photography shop on Beale Street). People who knew Johnson (like musicians Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, Calvin Fazier, William Moore) said he played Stella and Kalamazoo guitars, and perhaps a wood-bodied resonator early in his career (thought to be a Stella instrument). He was also reported to have used a National Resonator with an additional first string near the time of his death in 1938. No mention is ever made of him playing a Gibson L-1 (which would have been a relatively expensive instrument for him to afford). The L-1 had originally been produced as an arch top between 1902 and 1926. The guitar he is holding in the photo where he has a cigarette in his mouth is believed to be a Kalamazoo model KG-14, and some believe that he used a KG-14 in his legendary recording sessions in 1936 and 1937. Kalamazoo guitars was a budget brand offered by Gibson during the depression era. The KG-14 originally sold for $12.50.[1] For the San Antonio sessions, Johnson used a guitar on November 23 that was subsequently lost or broken during an arrest, and when he returned on November 26, the studio obtained a guitar for him to use on the remaining recordings. Steven LaVere, in the liner notes to The Complete Recordings (The Centennial Collection), states that it sounds like Johnson used an archtop for the Dallas sessions and a flattop for the San Antonio sessions. In an interview in the 1990s, Johnson's travelling partner, Johnny Shines, stated that both he and Johnson used Kalamazoo archtops.[2] The Kalamazoo archtops of the time were models KG-21 and KG-31.

Valley Arts Limited Edition Commemorative Guitar[edit]

Steve LaVere, blues historian and one-time agent for the estate of Robert Johnson (his agency ended when Claud Johnson of Crystal Springs, Mississippi was officially declared by the courts to be the illegitimate son of Robert Johnson) had a dream of helping to orchestrate the creation of a guitar dedicated to the memory of Robert Johnson. He approached Gibson with the idea, but they were slow to take action. While attending the 14th annual KLON Long Beach Blues Festival, he got into a conversation with John Maher, Valley Arts Guitar Director of Marketing, and told him about this dream. Soon after, a deal was made to create the ultimate acoustic guitar, dedicated to the memory of Robert Johnson and sanctioned by his estate.

After a series of prototypes and tests which enlisted the help of musician Keb Mo (Kevin Moore), the Robert Johnson Limited Edition Commemorative guitar was introduced the next year at the 15th annual KLON Long Beach Blues Festival in September 1994.

An ad for this guitar appeared in guitar magazines around this time which included sections on the "Inspiration", "Philosophy", "Process" and "Motivation" behind this project, and mentions that it was decided to preserve a vintage look while incorporating more modern construction. The resulting guitar is very reminiscent of the Gibson L-1 flat top which Johnson holds in the studio portrait, but the ad makes no mention of this. A few differences are in the shapes of the head and the bridge wing pyramids, and the end of the fingerboard is curved rather than cut off straight. It was produced with two finish options: Natural (RJ1935N) and Black Burst (RJ1935B). Features include: Solid spruce top, rosewood back and sides, ebony fingerboard and bridge, pearl inlays, silver jumbo frets, deluxe Kluson tuners, headstock plate engraved with Johnson's signature, 14K gold plated headpiece logo decal and inside label with studio portrait and serial number. The nut, bridge saddle, string pins and binding are plastic. The neck material is unspecified.

Each guitar came with a serial number certificate signed by Maher and LaVere, and another signed by the woodcrafter, painter, assembler, quality controller and manager. Samick, a Korean instrument manufacturer, bought half of Valley Arts in 1992. Assembly and finishing of these guitars was done in Southern California, but manufacture of the raw parts (body, neck, fingerboards, bridges) may have been done in Korea. The Samick label says "Made in U.S.A.", a claim which can only be made if at least 50% of the manufacture work was actually done in the U.S.A. A properly constructed acoustic guitar has the bridge glued to the top before the glossy finish is applied, so there is a strong wood to wood bond. Workers at Samick finished the tops and then glued on the bridges resulting in a weak bond. These new instruments were shipped to distributors where bridges started to pull up or pop off. Orders were canceled, and the project died. The few guitars that were produced can be repaired by removing the bridge, scraping away the finish where the bridge is located, then re-gluing the bridge in a correct wood to wood bond.

The production total of this Valley Arts model has been speculated to be less than 120 to 150 units. When Steve LaVere was asked about this in 2010, has said it was less than 100. It was Steve who provided the details above regarding how the project was "botched" and subsequently died. The MSRP was about $750. The certificate for Serial Number 052 indicates that it was manufactured on 3/8/95 and sold on 1/29/97. A certificate seen on a Japanese website indicates a Serial Number of B031 and a manufacture date of 8/1/95.[3]

Gibson Acoustic Robert Johnson L-1[edit]

Gibson Robert Johnson L-1
transitional model?

Gibson acquired the "Valley Arts" name in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and also introduced a reissue of their L-1 flat top acoustic in a signature Robert Johnson series. Where the original commemorative series ends and the reissue series begins, and if the reissue was affected by or borrowed anything from the commemorative series is another area of uncertainty. A photo seen on the same Japanese website cited above shows a commemorative with "Gibson" on the head rather than "The Robert Johnson" and with plastic tuner knobs rather than metal, which are details seen in the reissue. The blogger who uploaded these images refers to it as an "L-1 by Valley Arts". This instrument appears to be a transitional model between the commemoratives and the reissues but the truth of this is a subject requiring further research.

This Gibson reissue is offered only with a Vintage Sunburst finish. Features include: 25" scale length, small body, solid Sitka spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard and bridge, pearl inlays, nickel Gotoh white button tuners, and a Robert Johnson signature inlay at the end of the fingerboard.[4]

Gibson Keb' Mo' Bluesmaster[edit]

Keb' Mo' onstage in 2006

Kevin Moore, the bluesman who portrayed Robert Johnson in the docu-drama Can't You Hear the Wind Howl, was involved in the development of the Valley Arts Robert Johnson commemorative guitar, and himself has had a limited edition L series style flat top acoustic guitar that was produced and offered by Gibson in his honor. It is similar to the Johnson L-1, but has some upgrades and electronic pickup. This is the most contemporary and versatile of the small bodied acoustics discussed here which came before, and without which would not have led to its development. [5]

See also[edit]