credit: Akihiko Matsumoto

Gibson guitars are synonymous with so many genres of music. The Gibson SG and Flying V scream rock, the ES thinlines wail and cry blues - but before any of this came to pass, Gibson archtop electrics epitomised the cool of jazz. Wes Montgomery and his L-5CES, Tal Farlow or Barney Kessel with their ES-350s. And their are countless other examples. No other brand can claim to have so much cache with the jazz guitar legends of the 50s and 60s as Gibson - and whilst a lot of VERY skilled boutique makers have been cooking up some very fine instruments today, it surely is the case that Gibson have the first recipe.

Wes Montgomery Gibson L-5 CES - 1965
Gibson Johnny Smith - 1966
Kenny Burrell Gibson Super 400 CES - 1966

A selection of original advertising for Gibson archtop 'Artist Series' guitars from 1965/66. Featuring Wes Montgomery (Gibson L-5 CES), Johnny Smith (Gibson Johnny Smith) and Kenny Burrell (Gibson Super 400 CES). See further vintage Gibson advertisements in this series here

What is so special about a Gibson electric acoustic?

Gibson have been making high end guitars for a long time, and they truly have perfected the art of the electric acoustic. Although Gibson have long offered guitars for students, their best luthiers in the custom order departments have been creating incredibly high quality instruments, with a level of workmanship simply not available in the price ranges of even the finest solid bodies. Gibson have always used great components, and fine timbers - but their best jazz boxes are typically superbly appointed too. Gorgeous inlays, beautiful binding and a wonderful nitrocellulose finish. But to think what was special about a Gibson jazz box was it's looks would be to miss the point entirely! If you haven't played a Super 400, L5, or Johnny Smith, you don't know what a guitar can be! The difference made by the perfect piece of spruce, and the impact of hand carving by a really skilled luthier is immeasurable. Seriously, if you've ever wondered why professional guitarists pay $10000 for a guitar, play two or three notes on a nice old Gibson. It certainly isn't for a gold plated pickup cover!

But that's not to say a hand carved instrument is essential. Far from it. The ES-175 can be considered THE workhorse of jazz guitar, and neither it, nor such legendary guitars as the ES-125, ES-350, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel or Trini Lopez had carved tops. Typically, bodies of these guitars are constructed from laminates of either maple or spruce. One of Gibson's best newer archtops, the ES-275 actually has a maple and poplar laminate top. Less traditional than maple alone, but if you've played the ES-275 you'll know it's a phenomenal guitar.

Gibson, The Workingman's Guitar - Gibson L-5 CES - 1967
Gibson, the workingman's Guitar - Gibson Trini Lopez Deluxe - 1967
Gibson, the workingman's Guitar - Gibson Barney Kessel - 1967

Vintage Gibson advertising circa 1967. Featuring Wes Montgomery (L-5CES), Trini Lopez (Trini Lopez Deluxe), and Barney Kessel (Barney Kessel Regular). See more vintage Gibson advertisements here

Gibson ES-175

The Gibson ES-175 truly is the workhorse of jazz guitar

Some notable Gibson archtops

Gibson produced a lot of archtop models over the years; here is a round up of some of the best known models

Gibson Super 400

First introduced in 1951, this archtop has an 18" wide body with hand carved spruce top and maple back. Maple neck, 25 1/2" scale length, ebony fretboard with split block inlays more

Gibson L-5CES

Also introduced in 1951, the L-5CES has a 17" carved spruce top and maple back, again with a maple neck, 25 1/2" scale, ebony fretboard. Block inlays more

Gibson Johnny Smith

The Johnny Smith has a 17" carved spruce top and maple back like the L-5CES, but had floating pickups, with no routes to impede the vibration of the top more

Gibson Byrdland

1955's Byrdland had the same carved spruce top, with maple back and sides, but a new thin body style and a short 23 1/2" scale for reaching those wide-spread jazz chords more

Gibson ES-350

The 17" wide ES-350 was Gibson's first archtop with body cutaway. Only made 1947-56, this guitar was the favourite of many jazz guitar greats. Full 25 1/2" scale more

Gibson ES-175

The Gibson jazz guitar. Slightly smaller than the guitars listed above, with a 16 1/2" wide body and 24 3/4" scale neck. The 175 had a laminate maple construction with mahogany (sometimes maple) neck and rosewood fretboard more

But look at the price... is a Gibson jazz guitar really worth the money?

There's no denying it, Gibsons are outstanding guitars. They are a brand rich in the musical heritage of the last century, and uniquely steeped in the history of jazz. But you don't have to be Tal Farlow or Barney Kessel to appreciate a Gibson guitar. Legends like these defined genres with their Gibson archtops, but the unfortunate truth is these guitars are very, very expensive. A dream guitar to many, but sadly unobtainable to the majority. Like jazz itself, a Gibson guitar is a symbol of freedom, of America, and of something more permanent that the transient music so widespread in the majority of ears today. One thing you can be sure of, a high end Gibson guitar will ALWAYS be desirable, and will generally keep its resale value. Used Gibsons offer good value, especially ones between fifteen and twenty years old. Much beyond this, they start to enter the 'vintage' category, and prices begin to rise again. In general Gibson archtops are very well cared for, and buying used is not the issue it might be with a less expensive instrument.

Yes, a Gibson is a great investment, at least in the medium to long term. And what other investment is so cool and so much fun to own. There is no questioning Gibson quality - a Gibson jazz guitar is as fine an instrument as you could ever need, and, if looked after, something that will bring pleasure through a lifetime of musicianship. Just owning a really fine guitar inspires you to pick it up and play!

As stated, Gibson guitars are expensive, and there are a lot of exceptionally good guitar makers out there. Buying a Gibson won't make you Wes Montgomery either. But buying a Gibson, just one, might provide you with the guitar you'll never want to put down.

Have a look at some Gibson (and other) archtops for sale here.

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Jazz Books


Hal Leonard Guitar Method - Jazz Guitar: Hal Leonard Guitar Method Stylistic Supplement Bk/online audio. Featuring in-depth lessons and 40 great jazz classics, the Hal Leonard Jazz Guitar Method is your complete guide to learning jazz guitar. Songs include: 'Satin Doll', 'Take the A Train', 'Billie's Bounce', 'Impressions', 'Bluesette' and more.

Jazz Guitar Lessons


Jazz Bebop Blues Guitar helps you to create the authentic sound of jazz guitar, without having to learn numerous scales and modes. Based around the familiar blues progression, this book uses simple chord / scale substitution ideas to create beautiful jazz-blues lines in the style of the great jazz guitarists