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Stradivarius, “The Rawlins”
| from the collection of the National Music Museum, the University of South Dakota, Vermillion |
Made in 1700
The most celebrated violin maker of all time, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona, Italy, made at least four guitars. Unlike the violin, which reached its pinnacle of design in Stradivari’s hands, the guitar was only midway through its evolutionary journey in 1700, when this Stradivarius guitar was built.
The Rawlins, named for the benefactors who acquired it for the National Music Museum, has an ancestral relation to the lute that is apparent in this instrument’s courses of paired strings—a configuration that would prevail on the modern mandolin but would disappear on the guitar around 1800. However, the hourglass body shape, with a waist delineating upper and lower bouts, distinguished even the earliest guitars of the mid 1500s from the pear-shaped lute.
Like virtually all Stradivarius violins, this guitar has been modified. The embedded ebony frets are highly suspect in an era when guitars typically had tied-on gut frets, and these frets are not in the correct positions. The scale length of more than 29 inches is so long that gut strings would break before they could be tuned up to standard pitch.
The prominent name and date on the back of the headstock, the too-long scale, and the misplaced frets suggest that this instrument may have been made to showcase Stradivari’s artisanship rather than to be played.
| From the collection of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum |
Made circa 1941 and played by Les Paul
By the 1940s, Les Paul was one of the most famous acoustic guitarists in America, but with this homemade guitar, nicknamed the Log, he became one of the earliest—and best-known—proponents of the solidbody electric guitar.
An inveterate tinkerer and experimenter, Paul knew that a thicker guitar top would sustain string vibrations longer and provide a more brilliant tone—two qualities that perfectly suited his lightning-fast playing style. In 1941, he took the concept to the extreme and built this guitar around a 4-inch-by-4-inch slab of pine wood.
The Log looks like a standard hollowbody archtop, and the body wings did in fact come from an Epiphone guitar. The neck has the inlay pattern of the Chicago-based Larson Brothers, with a later headstock overlay from a Gibson. The vibrato and the wood-covered pickups were handmade by Paul.
Paul would start a performance with the sides attached to the center block. Once the audience had accepted the sound of the instrument, he removed the wings to reveal the solid center. Although it was a gimmick, this guitar gave Paul an unforgettable association with the solidbody electric guitar that led to his lucrative endorsement deal with Gibson.
Gibson ES-355 “Lucille”
| From The Collection of Hard Rock International |
Made in 1962 and played by B.B. King
Throughout the 1950s, B.B. King’s Lucille—the name he gave all of his guitars— was a hollowbody Gibson, but at the turn of the decade he switched to Gibson’s innovative new semi-hollowbody designs. He eventually embraced the ES-355 exclusively.
Gibson’s ES-335, ES-345, and ES-355 had identical construction, with a solid block running down the center of the body to minimize feedback. It appears King’s choice of the ES-355 was based entirely on the expensive look of its large pearl block inlays and multi-ply binding. He didn’t use the ES-355’s stereo capability (as indicated by “Stereo” on the truss-rod cover). He turned the “chicken-head” knob of the Vari-Tone control, which provided a progressive filter of midrange tones, to its minimum setting; when he got his own Gibson signature model, he added a “0” position so the control could be bypassed. He removed the original vibrato entirely—the plugged screw holes are still visible in the top—and added a stop-bar tailpiece, which provided more sustain.
The weathered finish and the worn gold plating on the pickup covers and bridge of this, King’s first ES-355, attest to its constant use. King retired this “Lucille” in 1967 and gave it to Chicago bluesman Elvin Bishop, but he has continued to play Gibson ES-355s for the rest of his career.