JGT contributor and guitarist Marc Silver provides a look at the Gibson L5’s of Wes Montgomery.
I was fortunate to grow up in the original era of LP vinyl records. Why was I so fortunate? Was it because of the warm, analog sound of LPs? No, it was all we had. However, the thing that was so great about vinyl back in the day was the size of the record cover and sleeve. On it, you could write a compelling story about the artists and the recording, with pictures to punctuate and educate. Reading and re-reading those liner notes and looking at the photos of the musicians taught me more about jazz history than music school ever could.
As a lifelong fan and student of Wes Montgomery’s music, I bought everything he recorded, which gave me access to all of the well-written stories and photos that graced the covers and liner notes of his albums.
While a few of his earliest recordings pictured Wes with a Gibson ES-175, for most of his recording and performing career he played various models of the venerable Gibson L5-CES. In the European videos on YouTube of Wes rehearsing, you can hear him talk about how the L5 was a better instrument because it played more in-tune than his earlier guitars.
Here are the L5s Wes played through the years (forgive me if I missed something)…
From earlier to later:
1) Sunburst L5-CES with Venetian (round) cutaway and two black P-90 pickups. He also played a model with Alnico pickups (no photo of that model found).
2) Natural L5-CESN with Venetian cutaway and two humbucking pickups.
3) Sunburst L5-CES with florentine (sharp) cutaway and two humbucking pickups. Many years later this guitar was purchased by George Benson, who later sold it to Pat Metheny.
4) Sunburst L5-CES with Venetian cutaway, one humbucking pickup, and a pearl inlay heart with Wes’ name inscribed on it. The story goes that the inlay was put there to cover up a hole made by Wes’s fingers rubbing against the wood. This was the first time Wes put his name on his L5. This guitar was later damaged in a fire and subsequently restored by Mike McGuire of Gibson’s Custom Shop.
Another shot of the Sunburst L5-CES with Venetian cutaway, one humbucking pickup, and a pearl inlay h
5) Sunburst L5-CES with Venetian cutaway, one pickup, and a big black sticker on the cutaway bout with Wes’ name in white letters. This was his last L5. This is the guitar I mentioned in a Jazz Guitar Today article about Wes from 2018.
Wes’ last two L5s were custom-made for him by Gibson because they didn’t make a stock single-pickup L5-CES. Even though Wes was a major guitar star, Gibson did not make a Wes Montgomery model of the L5 until decades after Wes had passed in 1968.
The guitar below was a special Gibson Custom Shop Wes Montgomery L5 limited run in 1997 (only 25 built!) – as seen below at Norman’s Rare Guitars.
And a little jazz guitar trivia…
Wes’ Gibson L5-CES (double pickup and Florentine cutaway) pictured on the cover of Movin’ Wes was later purchased by George Benson. Several years after that, George sold Wes’ coveted
Marc Silver is a guitarist, composer, and author, best known for writing the classic instruction book Contemporary Guitar Improvisation (Utilizing the Entire Fingerboard), which has been teaching guitar players around the world how to improvise since 1978. Visit online at MarcSilverGuitarImprov.com