L-5 Guitars

1939 Gibson L-5

Color: Sunburst, Rating: 8.50, Sold (ID# 00996)
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Al Viola, Frank Sinatra, and the Greatest Acoustic Guitar in Recording and Film Score History.


1939 Gibson Advanced L-5.

Al Viola's 1939 Gibson L-5 - Arguably the most famous L-5 in the world. Al played this guitar for over forty years including all of his time with the legendary Frank Sinatra. This is the "My Way" guitar. This majestic guitar weighs just 6.50 lbs. and has a nut width of just over 1 11/16 inches and a scale length of 25 1/2 inches. Carved spruce top with two-piece book-matched curly maple back and curly maple sides, two-piece book-matched curly maple neck with center mahogany strip, and multi-bound ebony fretboard with a small, graceful point at the end of the fretboard, Twenty jumbo frets, and inlaid pearl block position markers. Five-ply binding on the top of the guitar, three-ply binding on the back, and single-bound f-holes. Multi-bound headstock with the pre-war "Gibson" thick script pearl logo inlaid across the face of the headstock and with the pearl "L-5" flowerpot inlay. Bound plastic bell-shaped truss-rod cover with two screws. Individual Kluson Sealfast tuners with single-ring tulip-shaped Keystone buttons. Multi-bound pearloid pickguard. Rosewood bridge with pre-set compensating saddle and gold-plated flat plate tailpiece with engraved "L 5" and small hole at the bottom center for the "Varitone" tension adjuster. Inside the bass f-hole is the original oval white Gibson label with the style number "L-5" and the serial number "501XX" stamped in black (last two digits are unreadable). The guitar has been expertly re-fretted at some time and the jumbo frets now show signs of wear but still have plenty of life left in them. There are a few surface marks and some fine finish checking on the body and the varnish on the back of the neck is quite worn from many years of constant use. Overall this historic guitar is in excellent (8.50) condition. Housed in Al's (later) four-latch tan hardshell case with purple plush lining (9.00).

Al's original (heavily worn) gig bag is included with the following unique memorabilia: Al’s (signed) lifetime membership card for Local 47 of the Musician’s Union and two of his business cards; Al’s special, highly limited production peaked cap heralding the Sinatra album project, Duets, gifts from Frank to all who participated; an A-Z copy of Al’s Theatrical and Television Motion Picture Special Payments Fund earnings report noting every single film he worked on (more than seventy) up through June, 1992; a photo of Al and Sinatra on stage together (c. 1970s on tour in Germany), Al playing this guitar, the pic inscribed by Frank “To Big Al Affectionately Frank Sinatra;” another photo of Frank, a very early publicity still inscribed to Al; and one of his favorite picks, a vintage Moshay nylon w/center hole and finally an unused sheet of twenty Frank Sinatra 42 cent postage stamps.

The most important item accompanying this vintage beauty is Glenna Viola’s (Al's widow) signed statement of provenance dated February 6, 2008. "This Gibson L-5, Serial # 501XX, was owned by my husband Al Viola. It was his favorite acoustic guitar. When Al was told by the contractor to bring the acoustic guitar on dates, whether for film scoring, recording dates or live appearances, this is the guitar he would use. I know that he would use it on Sinatra dates and live appearances especially. Frank loved the sound. If memory serves me right, I believe he used it from the early 50's until his death in 2007."

There is a photograph of Al with this guitar in Adrian Ingram's book The Gibson L5. Its History and its Players, p.28.

"Timeless elegance. A jazz icon. The inspirational archtop guitar. These are just a few of the descriptions that fit Gibson’s L-5. Add to those a historical antecedent: the L-5 in various forms has been in constant production since late 1922, longer than any Martin, Gretsch, Epiphone, or National model.

Originally conceived by acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar, the L-5 was the first guitar with design principles incorporated from carved instruments of the cello family. It represented a complete break from existing guitar design. Sporting simple appointments such as dot fingerboard inlays and a dark sunburst finish, the guitar was elegantly finished with a pearl “flower pot” inlaid in the headstock below the Gibson logo, and a karat at the end of the fingerboard. The timing of the L-5’s introduction was nearly perfect since the guitar at that time was growing in popularity, but had yet to graduate from being just an instrument of vocal accompaniment to use in ensemble and orchestra settings. The 16" wide L-5 provided volume lacking in Gibson’s roundhole archtop guitars, and by the early 1930s the instrument had grown in popularity and sales enough to cause rivals Epiphone and Gretsch to introduce their own carved top/back instruments. In ’34, Gibson upped the ante by introducing 'advanced' versions of the L-5, which increased the width of both the upper and lower bouts.

While the advanced version was a little fancier, with larger fingerboard inlays and more binding, there was still an elegance to the details that made the instrument stand out. Certainly by the early ’40s the L-5 was a staple in jazz band and orchestral settings. At 17" across the lower bout, it was a perfectly sized instrument. Loud enough for orchestral use, but not so large and difficult to handle as Gibson’s Super 400 or the Epiphone Emperor, the L-5 was extremely popular among musicians in jazz, country and western, and large orchestras. Demand for the guitar was such that after World War II it was one of the first models rushed back into production, even though some materials were in short supply.

There were other detail changes along the way; a natural-finish option, a cutaway option, fancier tailpiece, and better tuners, but the instrument was otherwise unchanged until the original non-cutaway model was discontinued in 1958...The cutaway model soldiered on until ’82 when it was supplanted by the L-5CES...Today, the L-5 is one of the most collectible guitars from Gibson’s pre-war period. It is sought not only for its historical importance, but also for sound and playability, for its elegant design, and for its influence on the music of yesterday and today" (Eric C. Shoaf, "Gibson L-5: Loyd Loar's Timeless Masterpiece," at

Al Viola, Frank Sinatra, and the Greatest Acoustic Guitar
in Recording and Film Score History

“One of the world’s great guitarists…I think he plays beautifully. As a matter of fact, if you weren’t looking at him, you’d swear he was an octopus.”
-Frank Sinatra, Paris 1962

At the close of World War II, Al Viola, a guitarist from Brooklyn, NY, moved to Los Angeles and with his Army buddy, pianist Page Cavanaugh and another pal, established a trio that caught the attention of Frank Sinatra.

That introduction to Al Viola’s feel, tone and virtuosity would lead to a musical partnership that would span nearly twenty-five years, through every album recorded and nearly every live performance – Vegas, concert tours, TV - of Sinatra’s from 1956 through 1980. And a partnership with a guitar that would rival those of B.B King and “Lucille,” and Clapton and “Blackie” but exceed them in terms of the broad range, scope and depth of styles, artists, and gigs spanning Al Viola’s remarkable sixty year career. This was the go-to guitar for the go-to guitarist of his era.

“It was his favorite acoustic guitar,” Al’s widow, Glenna, said of this 1939 Gibson Advanced L-5 after his death in 2007. “When Al was told by the contractor to bring the acoustic on dates, whether for film scoring, recording dates or live appearances, this is the guitar that he would use. I know that he would use it on Sinatra dates and live appearances especially.

“Frank loved the sound.”

Sinatra’s My Way? Al Viola played it his way on this guitar on the original record and in performance with Sinatra, one of many highlights to a career that was a brilliant musical chandelier.

Viola can be heard playing this Advanced L-5 in the scores to seventy movies (including West Side Story and The Godfather) and over 500 recording dates beyond his work with Sinatra.

Later in life, Al Viola regularly backed up jazz vocalist Judy Chamberlain; the two became very close friends over the course of their ten-year musical association which sadly came to a close with his death in 2007 at age 87; he played to the very end.

“Al mostly played rhythm guitar in the Sinatra band because that was the sound that Sinatra liked,” she recalled. “But he could play anything. Melodies, bossa novas, his own version of flamenco; he was a chameleon…Years after playing many of the tracks on the Sinatra/Jobim albums that were credited to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Al was given formal credit for his work.”

This is the Gibson Advanced L-5 that Al Viola played on the Sinatra/Jobim collaborations.

as Al recalled in an interview posted on the Sinatra Family website:

“I was just out of the service in 1945 and with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. We were playing a chic nightclub on Sunset Boulevard called the Beau Cage where the top talent such as the Nat Cole trio, Peggy Lee and Mel Torme would play. Sinatra would come in to see what was going on. He heard the trio and took us to New York City in 1946. This is when his public was still the bobbysoxers. He wore the floppy ties, and his voice was a higher pitch not the strong baritone or swing style. In those days ballads were the thing with all the singers. We worked in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria in the Wedgewood Room and in Atlantic City at Steel Pier with comedian Jack E. Leonard. Working with him in the 40's was a great experience because I lucked out and got to see hear the teenagers screaming like they show in the newsreels. In 1949 I left the trio and Sinatra got very busy making movies. I didn't see Sinatra again until the middle 50's.

“When I was working for Bobby Troup,” Al later remembered, “one of Sinatra’s buddies heard me and told me that Frank needed a guitar player.”

An auspicious reunion for Ol’ Blue Eyes and the Fretmaster.

Al saw a lot of Frank over the next few decades.

“On and off for the thirty years I was with him...As far as working with Sinatra, the years I had with him were priceless. Did I know that he was gonna be famous? When I was at the Sands, did I know that the ‘Rat Pack’ would be talked about now? I had no idea then.”

That’s Al on All the Way, New York New York, and – well, call any Sinatra tune and Al’s probably playing on it. The guitar line on Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of I Get A Kick Out Of You? Pure Al Viola.

“I'm playing an instrument here that is ideal for what I have to do for Sinatra. First of all, I have to have an instrument that plays like Freddie Green all the time; because he wants that thing—the straight four. Then, when he's singing a ballad, what I do has to be very loose—easy—flowing, like a harp. Now, when he does ‘A Foggy Day’ with guitar only, the strings that I use are a light gauge, and it works with the instrument; then I'm playing it like a classical guitar, playing classical–style. The advantage there is: if you use the pick, and he's holding the note, you can't tremolo it; it won't come off. Classical–style, you've got something like a harp—you can sustain by an even arpeggio while he's holding the note. It is said that Sinatra's demanding—well, the material he's doing is demanding. I would have to carry a rhythm guitar [this L-5!], an electric guitar and a gut–string guitar.”

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