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MYSTERY GUITAR

Robert Johnson-singer and guitarist
, the King of the Delta Blues, was influenced by many, but remained a musician unique in his own right and an influence for other artists to follow. Many years after his death in 1938 at the age of 26, he was honored with a Grammy Award for his 1936-37 output, packaged Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, and he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. This box set was also reissued, under the same title with improved sound from newly discovered sources and 20-bit mastering.

Upon my listening to this higher quality reissue, his voice, lyrics and guitar sound hits you even more than before. A lot has been written about this talented artist, but because Robert Johnson is such a legend, another insight is always of interest to all of us in the Blues world. Nobody knows for sure what instrument he played on those historic recordings, but what guitars is he pictured with in his two known photographs? In the studio portrait that adorns the cover of his CD set, Johnson is obviously holding a 1928 Gibson L-1. But what about the guitar in that dime store photo where he has a cigarette in his mouth? Only one letter to Guitar Player in 1990 has ever mentioned what that guitar might be, an early Gibson or Kalamazoo. I personally think itís a mid 30ís Kalamazoo. My bet would be that it is a Kalamazoo model number KG-14. The body shape and style is basically the same as the Gibson L-1, L-O and L-OO of the early 30ís. Because the dime store picture was shot in a photo booth and the guitar is closer to the lens than Robert it appears a bit distorted in shape. Regardless, one can still get a general view of the details of the instrument.

Kalamazoo guitars, which were made by Gibson and named after the city in Michigan in which they were manu- factured, were a cheaper line of instrument made to help get the company through the Depression. The first clue that Johnson is holding a Kalamazoo is that it does not have a single circular pearloid dot on the 15th fret, as do all the other acoustic flat tops of this period that Iíve seen. It has these markers though on the 5th and 7th frets with double dots on the 12th fret. While some Kalamazoos had 3rd fret markers most, like the one Robert holds in the picture, did not. This guitar is like a classic Gibson with a rosewood fret board minus the usual 3rd and 15th fret dots. Just at the edge of the full frame dime store photo, which is cropped in the CD booklets, is a nut made of black ebony. Gibson used black ebony nuts on some of their Gibson brand guitars, but they were used primarily on their Kalamazoo brand during this time. The large size of the sound hole and the single purfling around it is also consistent with Gibsonís and Kalamazooís. The purfling on Gibsonís sound holes has an inner ring of wood then a white ring of plastic that joined the top. Kalamazoo guitars of this time frame only used an inner ring of white plastic, like the guitar in the Johnson photo. The upper body bout is somewhat rounded, also like Gibson made guitars. The guitar that Robert is holding appears to have only white binding on the top edge. The less expensive Kalamazooís had only top binding unlike most of the more expensive Gibsonís that had top and back white binding. The color of the top of Robertís guitar, from what I can gather from a black and white photo, looks consistent with the Kalamazoo KG-14 which has a spruce top, mahogany sides and back, and a mahogany neck. Robert and other Blues musicians of the Depression years probably had little coin to spend on expensive guitars and Kalamazooís were quality instruments with a great sound at a cheap price. Other prewar Blues artists were photographed with Kalamazoo guitars such as Funny Paper Smith, the original Howliní Wolf, with a model KG-11. The Kalamazoo KG-14 flat top was probably the top of the line issued under this brand name. It has an angled bone saddle, a pegged rosewood bridge, a celluloid stripped tortoise pick guard, a tapered body that meets the neck at the 14th fret, a tapered headstock with three-on-a-plate open gear tuners and black knobs, and a Kalamazoo silk-screened logo. Only Robert Johnson knows for sure what kind of guitar he used for his recordings or is holding in this dime store photo, and he ainít talkiní. I, for one, now believe the pictured guitar is a Kalamazoo KG-14.  Eddy B


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