New Gibson flat top discovered: Meet the Trojan

Archivist's note: Lynn Wheelwright contributed this month's column. I gave Lynn the inaugural Honorary Gibson Historian award back in the April 1997 column for his work with Alvino Rey. I mentioned him again in passing in the Dec. 1997 column, when he was going through Gibson's prewar ledgers, looking for more info on Alvino's instruments and on early Gibson electrics. Along the way he discovered pieces of a puzzle that eventually came together as a previously unknown Gibson model. In the world of Nashville songwriting, if you're in the room when a song is being written, you can claim co-writer credit, so I'm applying the "in the room" rule and claiming co-discoverer credit for this new Gibson. But in truth, all the tedious work and the piecing together of this puzzle was done entirely by Lynn.

"Discovered" may not be the right word. "Explained." Maybe that's a better choice. What we have this month is a name attached to a Gibson instrument that is as unique as the guitar itself: Trojan.

Whoever named the Trojan was probably focused on getting Gibson out of the drab world of "name means price" (the L-30 cost $30, the ES-150 guitar and amp set cost $150, etc.), because Trojan turned out to be a most inappropriate name. The word "trojan" means one who shows qualities such as pluck, endurance or determined energy. Ironically, Gibson's Trojan only endured for less then two months in late 1936.

About a year ago I had the opportunity to visit Walter Carter at the Gibson offices. I was doing research on Alvino Rey, the great steel guitarist and a personal friend. I had planned a three-day visit in conjunction with the Nashville vintage guitar show for this purpose., but I became so engrossed and confused by these documents that I stayed for a week. And to Walter's amusement (or maybe not) I came back for three more days. As I was looking, reading, and taking notes I was constantly amazed at what I saw, and I got a grasp of what it takes to ferret out information on anything in this ledger mess.

During this archive excavation I ran across entries for an instrument called a Trojan. I turned to Walter, who was trying to do his job as historian, catalog writer, and all around answer man, and showed him the entry. "Any idea what these are?" I asked. He shrugged, "No, don't recall seeing those before."

The first Trojan I found was shipped Oct. 27, 1936, to E.K. Hawkins with #514 and #118 cases, which just confused the issue. The 1936 or maybe early '37 catalog (this discovery makes me question the accepted date of 1936 for the blue-covered catalog) shows the case sizes available. Case #514 is listed for the L-50, L-75, L-4, and ES-150 (the 16"-wide archtops); case #118 size fits the Jumbo and Jumbo 35 flat tops (also 16" wide). It's apparent that the Trojan is 16" wide, but is it an archtop or a flat top?

We wondered if it was something built for the National folks. They had introduced a Trojan resonator guitar in 1934 with a laminated flat-topped maple body built by Harmony. Gibson would supply bodies to National in the post-World War II years, so maybe the practice goes back to 1936. I soon found another Trojan and another. From the first on Oct 27, 1936, to the last on Dec. 17, 1936, I found a total of 39 instruments in 51 days. Then nothing, notta, zippo. Order filled? The #118 case and #418 cases were the most common, although many had no case listed. With nothing more to go on, and pressed for time, I noted the dates for each and moved on.

It seems to have been the habit of whoever was filling out the shipping ledgers, or possibly Gibson policy, not to include the serial numbers of most flattop instruments. To this point only the Nick Lucas model seems to have been held in high enough regard to be officially registered. Yet the lowest of the low in the archtop line had its ID forever enshrined, even the Kalamazoo KG-21. Then "Eureka!" Nov. 21,1936 shipped to Ritter Music Co., 1-Trojan 960-12. A serial number, or in this case FON (factory order number). Talk about your needle in a haystack.

So I returned home to Salt Lake City with a squad of 39 Trojans, one serial number, and #118 and #418 cases -- not much to go on. I read something once: "Luck is when preparedness meets opportunity." Well, meet opportunity in the form of Ken Grosslight, a collector of the cool and unusual flat top box. While doing some research on the SJ-200 I had run across something I thought Ken should know. He has a very special SJ-200 in the form of a 12-fret SP L-5 (Special L-5, which some early J-200s were designated). While we communicated via email, I expressed to him that I was looking for collectors and others who had instruments by Gibson from the `30s and early `40s, who were willing to send me photos and serial numbers so I can try to unravel some nagging questions brought to light by my foray through the ledgers. Questions like what is a Trojan? And how many L-5s and Super 400s are in a batch? But I digress.

Ken sent along an amazing set of photos -- front and back -- with serial numbers and notes written on the back. Congrats, Mr. Grosslight, you are the proud father, and the name of your baby is Trojan. On the back of Ken's photo of a magnificent sunburst, mahogany guitar, were the words "Jumbo body, French heel, SN. 960 B-7." At the time I did not pay much attention except to note that I have a friend who sent me a picture of one just like it a few months earlier. A strange mix of a Jumbo body with an unbound back and J-35 neck. Along with the photo, my buddy Glenn sent the information I had requested. Serial number too faint to make out. Body: sunburst. Single-bound spruce top, 33/4" sound hole diameter, white-black-white rosette, fire-striped pickguard, straight sided Brazilian rosewood bridge, with bridge bolts. It measures 16" wide, 201/4" long, 41/4" deep at the neck, 41/4" deep at the end block, scalloped X-braced with three tone bars, mahogany sides and back. So far it's a Jumbo. We press on. No back binding, and finished a red-brown color. That's different. As Ken's photos of his Jumbo show, the Jumbo has a bound back and a dark brown sunburst back finish. Slightly V'd mahogany neck capped with a 19 fret, unbound Brazilian rosewood fingerboard with pearl dot inlay, black peghead facing, stenciled Gibson logo, French heel and adjustable truss rod. Says J-35 to me. Parts guitar? Something from the scrap heap? Maybe once but now twice. Twin mutants? Or just what they're supposed to becatalog perfect specimens of guitar evolution.

Okay, lets turn to our Catalog X. On page 26 is New-JUMBO "35". Oddly, the quote marks around 35 seem to be part of the official model name; the first J-35 in the ledger book is also listed as Jumbo "35." The catalog says, "This new model has the extra wide and extra deep Jumbo size." Note the features, check out the photo, compare it to Grosslight's -- particularly the unbound back. With the exception of the bridge bolts, we have a winner. This is what I meant at the beginning when I said "explained"; this photo and text have been right there in the catalog for over 60 years. All we had to do was look at it. In the defense of everyone who overlooked it, we all might have paid more attention if Gibson had paid more attention to keeping catalogs up to date. In the following catalog, Catalog Y, the word "New" is deleted, but the text is still the same -- including the reference to the Jumbo and lack of any reference to a bound back. The photograph, however, now shows a bound back. It's impossible to tell from the photos whether the bodies have the uniform depth of the Jumbo or the graduated depth of the J-35. Finally in Catalog Z of 1938, the back binding is added to the description, although the text still notes the extra wide and "extra deep body size." This laxness on the part of Gibson might explain why nobody realized that the mug shot with the changed name was actually a step on the evolutionary ladder.

Ledgers show the sales force gave the Trojan a shot. On Nov. 6, 1936, L. Neal (Lankey to his friends) took on the road a set of samples, among which were the new Advanced Jumbo and the Trojan. So why the change in body size from the Trojan to the J-35? Maybe to come more into line with the new Advanced Jumbo that had arrived a few months earlier. Maybe the Trojan with the Jumbo body was just too unadorned. It had been stripped of everything: neck binding, back binding, cool sunburst back and sides, metal button tuners and that sexy pearl Gibson inlay. Kinda looked like a Jumbo version of an L-0, an old version at that. So they spruced it up a little, gave it a sleeker look, assigned it a number (couldn't use the name because National already had it) and shipped it to a waiting public.

We can't be sure how many of these warriors were shipped or remain. The entries end abruptly on Dec. 17, 1936, just seven days after the first official J-"35" is listed. Notice they even put the quotation marks in the ledger like the catalog shows. It would be pretty safe to assume that some of the first official J-35s are going to be Trojans. So with the 40 or so that are logged in there has to be a few others out there in the hands of folks who literally didn't know what they have. I would like to get an idea of how many were in a batch to help better calculate their numbers. So if you have one of these, an early J-35, (I would like to know when the body thinned and the back gained binding,) or any 1935-1943 Gibson built instrument and would be willing to share a photo, serial number, or a story, I want to hear about it. Remember the words of Ed "You may already be a winner!" McMahon. You may have the next missing link.

Contact Lynn Wheelwright at gmtgtrs@msn.com .