Legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson, and the Gibson 1928 L-1 Blues Tribute Guitar

Updated on August 13, 2019
Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

Robert Johnson and what is believed to be a Gibson Kalamazoo KG-14
Robert Johnson and what is believed to be a Gibson Kalamazoo KG-14

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

He came out of rural Mississippi, where he had been known as Robert Spencer, and Little Robert Dusty. He died young. His proper name was Robert Johnson, and he was one of the most influential musicians in the entire world during the twentieth century.

During his short lifetime he was not famous, but he did have a small and influential following. He was never anything remotely close to middle class, he played on street corners and in juke joints. Sometimes, a great artist is nothing until after their death.

Johnson would only ever record on two occasions, both of them in Texas. Once he recorded in San Antonio in 1936, and the second time in Dallas in 1937. As a Texan myself, I have always been pleased by this bit of history, and I've seen the building in downtown Dallas, at 508 Park Avenue, where his most famous material was recorded.

The life and death of Robert Johnson are both shrouded in mystery. He was the grandson of slaves, and this is certain. His date of birth isn't certain, but is suspected to be May the eighth in the year of 1911.

When Robert was young, he would stick close to his mother, who had three different husbands over the years. It is said he'd hit the road looking to find his father, but it isn't known whether or not Robert would ever meet Noah Johnson. What no one disputes is Robert Johnson became the King of the Delta Blues.

This is Robert Johnson and he is definitely holding the Gibson L-1 in this photo.
This is Robert Johnson and he is definitely holding the Gibson L-1 in this photo.

Son House and Robert Johnson

Eddie James 'Son' House Jr. was, behind Charlie Patton, one of the foremost singers and guitarist in the Delta blues idiom. House had been a preacher vehemently against secular music such as the blues. But then House went to prison for a while, and it seemed a life of preaching was out for him.

Son House, Charlie Patton, and Willie Brown were powerhouses of Delta blues, but the Great Depression was on, and nobody was making much money. In the early 1930s Son House noted Robert Johnson as a very competent player of the harmonica, and the Jew's Harp. He also thought of Johnson as a horrible guitarist.

The great story, told by House, was how Johnson followed him and Willie Brown around. He'd wanted to be a guitarist very badly, but was failing miserably at it all. Robert would try to play, and was just making horrible noises, annoying everyone around, and someone approached House to ask would they please go take that thing, the guitar, away from Johnson.

So Robert Johnson would leave town. He'd be gone for six to eight months, and when he came back he found Son House and Willie Brown. He had his guitar and he wanted to play for Son House. House implored Johnson to just give it up, nobody wanted to hear him playing the guitar, but Johnson wanted House to hear what he had learned in the past half a year.

The great Son House, blues guitarist, especially a master of the slide guitar, would answer in the affirmative when asked the source of Johnson's sudden and meteoric rise to prominence as a guitarist. Old Scratch had to have been behind it. A deal had to have been made, and such deals go down late at night at the crossroads.

Faustian Pacts and The Crossroads Legend

It's clear the half year disappearance of Robert Johnson, the fact he had previously been a very bad guitarist, and how he returned after a half year a fantastic one,it all just seemed dubious to superstitious rural folk. It's also clear the commentary of an older and well respected icon of the blues, meaning Son House, and the credibility in all things he brought with him, added to the nefarious legend which took root.

Robert Johnson aided in the legend himself by recording songs such as Crossroads Blues, Hell-hound on My Trail, and Me and the Devil Blues. Were Noam Chomsky asked about Faustian pacts involving musicians, he'd say the idea was older than the hills. He'd be right. Offering of the soul to Satan or a lesser demon for favors in return is quite an old cultural motif, and is not original at all to the Mississippi delta, or to American blues men.

Previous to Johnson, and not too distant into the past at the time, was the fantastic Italian virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini. Paganini was certainly a master, and today there are still not many fiddlers or violinists who can perform his music adequately. The technical mastery of it all requires intense skill, and rigorous dedication. Women would sometimes faint when Paganini performed, and there were even reports of spirits swirling about the auditoriums while he bowed unfathomable passages on the violin.

Paganini was widely claimed to have associations with the devil, and due to some technicalities involving the lack of a priest at the time of his death, he was refused a Catholic burial.

Robert Johnson was known as an extremely nice guy. There were few words said against him, especially in his early years. He had wanted to be a master bluesman, and he clearly needed an edge, as he was just too much a mamma's boy, well mannered, and of generally sound character. No big deal, he was coming into his own, and was ready to take to the road, where he could indulge in the vices of young adulthood.

Did Robert Johnson, and others sell their souls for musical fame?

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Whether or not that is really Robert Johnson on the left is a matter of some controversy and dispute.
Whether or not that is really Robert Johnson on the left is a matter of some controversy and dispute.

Recording and Traveling Virtuoso

The notion of selling one's soul to Satan for musical talent could simply be taken as metaphorical for how Johnson gave up the domestic life in favor of that of a travelling blues musician. Seems more like fate set Johnson on his path, as Johnson's wife and child died in a house fire before he left Robinsonville, Mississippi, for Martinsville, where he, in fact, took guitar lessons from one Isaiah Zimmerman.

Then again, Zimmerman was also rumored to have supernatural ties to his musicianship. No one disputes Johnson returned to the area of his birth with a newfound greatness with the six strings, and his approach and sound was unlike any others. He seemed to play the guitar like one would play the piano.

1932 was the year Johnson would hit the road. He was often in Memphis, and virtually every small town around the Mississippi delta. He'd travel as far north as Chicago, and Canada, and as far west as Texas twice, where he'd record his only two recordings. He'd even visit New York.

Robert Johnson would use many different names, eight different surnames are known of which he used. He was becoming very fond of drinking whiskey, and of seducing women in every town he visited. He'd return to those towns, of course, and who even knows how many children he may have had?

Johnson would enter a new town and begin playing on a street corner. Were he successful there, then he may find his way to performing in a juke joint, but Johnson most often would attempt to be the crowd pleaser, playing current hits, or old classics. He'd work in some of his original work, but Johnson was the sort who could hear a thing, and do a fantastic and unique to his style rendition of it live, seemingly without much effort.

In the end it would be both his love of whiskey and women which would seal his doom. Robert had been after a young woman who already had a husband in the town of Greenwood, Mississippi; and the husband was quite rightly very angry about this. Robert had been admonished by Sonny Boy Williamson to never drink from a bottle he'd not seen opened, but Robert loved whiskey with much fervor, drank some which had been poisoned specifically for him, took ill and died.

This grave says Robert Johnson, but there are two others also purported to be the final resting place of Robert Johnson.
This grave says Robert Johnson, but there are two others also purported to be the final resting place of Robert Johnson.

Robert Johnson's Guitar Playing Style

Easily Robert Johnson was one of the most influential of all guitarist in the history of the instrument. He only recorded twenty nine songs, but there are an additional thirteen alternate cuts to also enjoy. It's clear Johnson could have, were he asked to do so, recorded a vastly larger number of songs, both originals by him, and covers of classics and popular hits.

Johnson used a thumb-pick on his thumb, and then used his fingers as well. The thumb plectrum was used to simulate a bass guitar on the lower register of strings, and Johnson used his fingers, and often a slide, to dampen strings, hit brush chords, slide and pick individual notes. Robert Johnson's Complete Recordings are fantastic, and I listen to them from time to time because the music is so different from almost anything else I own. During Robert's own lifetime, however, he was more respected for his ability to play virtually every style of music, he could perform country music, jazz music, and any other style he desired.

The intensity with which Johnson played was uncommon. He sounds quite ferocious, and you can tell that buddy, your fingers are going to have to get tough to play like that. I can painfully imagine many a ripped fingernail attempting to use my fingers to strike notes as aggressively as did Robert Johnson. Take a look at Johnson's fingers in the photos, those are the types of fingers which guitarists dream of having. His hands were basically made for guitar playing.

Robert's singing matched his guitar playing in every way. Johnson often sounded as though he were in terrific emotional distress, and this served all the better for being a convincing performer. It also advanced the legend quite well.

In the recording studio Robert did something the persons recording him had never seen before. He turned his chair facing a corner, and put the microphone in front of him there, and this created an effect sometimes called corner loading. Sound bounced off the wall, and came back to the microphone from the back, as it was also coming at the microphone from the front. It helped Johnson to sound as though there were two persons playing, instead of one. Clearly, Robert Johnson was quite a clever fellow.

Solid Mahogany and Adirondack Spruce

Now the Gibson L-1 is the guitar most associated with Robert Johnson, and though this guitar doesn't name Johnson, there's no doubt who the most likely blues man this guitar is in tribute to. Gibson has gone all out to make this as good a guitar for today's player as possible, while also honoring as much of the original design as is beneficial to do.

Here in 2019 the Gibson 1928 L-1 Blues Tribute is not in production. This is a used market guitar, and could well become pretty collectible. This is not the first L-1 Gibson has reissued with a nod to the King of the Delta Blues, but it is the most recent one, having been produced in 2016.

Primarily you've got a body of solid high grade mahogany, and solid Adirondack, which is also called red spruce, for the soundboard. Some people believe Adirondack is a superior wood to what is most commonly used today, but in any event, in the early part of the twentieth century Gibson was using Adirondack very frequently, and so its use is an essential ingredient in a guitar calling itself a 1928 Blues Tribute.

Hot Hyde glue is all the rage these days for boutique level acoustic guitar production, and that's what is gluing this one together. In 1928, the Gibson L-1 was the fanciest of the L series guitars. You've got a sunburst finish, intricate body binding, open back turners, and a fancy rosette too. Gibson went further still by using bone for both the nut and the saddle. This guitar is going to be loud for its small size, and the notes should ring clearly, and have plenty of sustain.

Twelve Frets Clear of the Body

Now probably the most important thing to be talked about here concerning this exact guitar is the fact it's only got twelve frets clear of the body. You can try all you want, you're just not going to have much success, if any, fretting notes past the twelfth fret. Do you feel like you're being cheated out of two frets? You shouldn't.

This is a parlor sized guitar, and these were the exact sorts of guitars which were the most commonly used prior to C.F. Martin & Company launching the dreadnought style of guitar. You should take a good look at the positioning of the bridge on this guitar. What you should notice is how much further behind the sound hole the bridge is than on a fourteen frets clear of the body acoustic guitar.

Do you rest your palm on the bridge when you play? You could still do that with a guitar like the Gibson 1928 L-! Blues Tribute, but you probably wouldn't be getting the optimal tone that way.

What difference in tone does having just twelve instead of fourteen frets clear of the body make? There is a very definite difference, and as almost every last person interested in high end acoustic guitars is a certifiable tone hound, it is important to know the twelve fret guitars have a warmer sound. There's less brightness than what you'd have with the standard fourteen. Some folks consider the sound fuller. What's decidedly scientific is such a guitar offers more sustain.

Other Major Specifications

The Gibson 1928 L-1 Blues Tribute is for the modern player. Someone from 1928 wouldn't have a clue what the seemingly alien technology in this thing is about. What am I alluding to? Oh just the L.R. Baggs pickup and pre-amp. No need to strain your vocal chords or injure your fingers, you can plug this puppy in when you play either on a Mississippi delta street corner, or juke joint.

Nitrocellulose lacquer is the most labor intensive, expensive, and elite of lacquers, and while a layman may be able to apply lesser lacquers to a guitar, only a top notch and well experienced worker can do the nitro. This is what Gibson is employing here, and this is yet another thing which not only looks better than lesser methods, but also performs better for being less restrictive on that expensive Adirondack soundboard.

The nut width of 1.77" is slightly wider than is typical for a steel string acoustic guitar these days, but with the V shape neck, it should feel pretty comfortable to you unless your fingers are shorter than normal. Again, check Robert Johnson's fingers. You don't need fingers like that to master this guitar, just standard issue fingers will do you a solid.

This is not a child's guitar, but in 2019, we think of parlor sized guitars sometimes as children sized. Well, if you've got a precocious offspring into the guitar, this fine one will do the job for the kid's entire life. Be certain you tell your young one to never drink whiskey from a bottle he didn't see opened, and to avoid binding contracts with spiritual entities of ill repute at any country crossroads at the turn of the day. Thanks for reading.

Mr. Koch Does a Fantastic Demonstration Here for the Gibson 1928 L-1 Blues Tribute

Gibson 1928 L-1 Blues Tribute Acoustic/Electric Guitar Vintage Sunburst Guitar Features:

  • Body type: L-1 small body
  • Cutaway: Non-cutaway
  • Top wood: Adirondack Red Sitka Spruce
  • Back & sides: Mahogany
  • Bracing pattern: Scalloped
  • Body finish: Nitrocellulose lacquer
  • Orientation: Right handed
  • Neck shape: V
  • Nut width: 1.77" (4.49cm)
  • Fingerboard: Rosewood
  • Neck wood: Mahogany
  • Scale length: 25"
  • Number of frets: 19
  • Neck finish: Nitrocellulose lacquer
  • Pickup/preamp: Yes
  • Brand: L.R. Baggs
  • Configuration: Soundhole mounted preamp
  • Headstock overlay: None
  • Tuning machines: Vintage open back 3-in-line
  • Bridge: Rosewood
  • Saddle & nut: Bone
  • Special features: Finish
  • Case: Hardshell case
  • Accessories: Owner's manual
  • Country of origin: United States

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Wesman Todd Shaw

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      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Thanks Kathy. The best thing about Johnson's music are the thousand little subtleties. He hits notes and mutes them quickly, but you heard it, and his voice quivers across a wide range of tones as well.

        He's just doing a whole lot of stuff at once. You can notice different things just about every time you listen to something of his again.

      • The Stages Of ME profile image

        Kathy Henderson 

        2 months ago from Pa

        Love the Blues and loved the article of a legend before his time. If only my fingers could move on the frets like that. Poetry in playful dance on the neck of a guitar.

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Ha!

        Well Alan, you've just raised my estimation of The Daily Telegraph, at least.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        2 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Haggis is an infernal Scots' invention they eat on Burns Night (25th January - his birthday I think) that only a few Scots even touch with a barge pole. They usually have a piper to accompany the chef when he takes it to the table. You don't want to know what's in it, but in short it's offal even the dogs won't touch. I had a boss by the name of Robert Burns (seriously!) when I worked in the display advertising department at the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street. He told me what was in it and put me off my lunch!

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Ah the Spanish! You've caused me to remember I need to write about some Flamenco people. Something I've been wanting to do, but haven't.

        I've got gigantic writing plans here, but a depressingly low output.

        What do you thing of haggis? That's another thing I've heard of for my entire life, but have never had the opportunity to try. I've a friend in New Jersey who's from Ireland, but has lived in England too, who insists I have to try it. I will try it, just as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        2 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Wes, Bowls is the game Francis Drake played before he set off to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 (although in reality it was a) the foul North Sea weather and b) the lack of knowledge of the Irish Sea and Hebridean islands - and Longitude - that got them). Maybe the Spaniards started the Blues after losing almost a whole fleet of ships to British weather. Think about that.

        True, Yorkshire puds have to be crisp at the edges. In a competition to decide who makes the best Yorkshire puds it was an old Chinese man from Hong Kong who won. He couldn't speak a word of English and he didn't know what or where Yorkshire was. He was just a good chef in a restaurant.

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Alan, I've still no clue what a Bowling Green IS!!! Hah! I guess I could look that one up myself.

        But now I DO know what yorkshire pudding is, and it sounds a bit like biscuits and sausage gravy. Of course when we discuss biscuits in the US, we're not talking about cookies, which, I think, is what the word means in the United Kingdom.

        And gosh darn, isn't the English language fascinating?

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Thanks Mike! There's probably more questions than there are definitive answers when the subject is Robert Johnson.

        I figure I could have gone on and on for a whole lot longer here about the man himself, but instead I decided to attempt to do a solid thing on him, and focus on something I can absolutely speak about with surety, the most recent guitar in tribute to the man.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        2 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Wes, it's called Bowling Green Lane because there was a bowling green there where the park is now. And Yorkshire Pudding is batter pudding, not exactly pancae mix but similar, and they come in all sizes from individual meat pie size to plate size, with meat and gravy filling. Pubs in Yotkshire sell them as a complete meal you can have with a pint of 'wallop' (bitter ale). If you go to Yorkshire the 'Lion Inn' at Blakey, up on the moors near Castleton, has a great variety of options, and live music on Thursday evenings. Make a booking because it's pop ular with Coast to Coast walkers and drivers alike. Open 11 am to 11 pm to non-residents.

        I'm going to send a link to this page to a dear friend.

        Ta-ta Chum

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        2 months ago

        Todd, excellent article! Many things I did not know about this blues legend. Enjoyed reading it.

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Alan, you are WAY TOO KIND! Thanks Sir!

        Oh you know I've got both Love In Vain by The Stones, and Crossroads by Clapton and Cream.

        I don't get out a whole lot, but Eric is one of the only people I've gone to go see more than once. I've seen him twice. I think he's almost required to do Crossroads, and of course, many many people would have never heard of Robert Johnson were it not for persons like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

        I do believe in Old Nick, but I try to keep the relationship on the backburner, as terminating it entirely seems impossible. I'd feel something like bad for that, but they say the Son of God had visits with the booger as well. Heh!

        Bowling Green Lane?? And there I thought Bowling Green was a town in Kentucky. I should have known the name had come across the waters, and it makes perfect sense you're the person to tell me about it.

        Sounds like if I ever get to go across the pond to see the cousins, then Yorkshire is where I should plan to spend the most time. I've heard of their famous pudding, but I confess I'm uncertain as to what exactly that is. LOL!

        Speaking of Texans from places not Texas, I'm not a rodeo guy at all, but the last time I went to one, half the people competing were Australians. I couldn't have possibly known this were they not to have spoken, as the only thing different was the accent.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        2 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Another master stroke Wes. I've got different versions of Robert Johnson numbers in my cd collectíon, recorded by different artistes and bands. Two I can safely rly on, "Love In Vain" from the Stones and I think Eric Clapton did 'Crossroads'. I've read an account of his encounter with Old Nick at the crossroads and I know a lot of musicians believe in it. I'm not so inclined, but it makes for a good legend and the Rock/Blues world is nothing if not strewn with legends as you say. I first 'came across' him when I joined a library local to where I worked in the early 70s in north central London (EC1) near Bowling Green Lane. I joined with a view to borrowing records, namely Blues. I'd heard of Robert Johnson through my own collection of Stones albums. "Love in Vain" on the vinyl album cover was attributed to 'Traditional/Jagger/Richards' and through other Stones' fans I learned of the real author.

        Another story well told.

        Btw. Yorkshire (my neck of the woods) is reckoned to be the 'Texas' of England. Makes us fellow Texans, my man! Yeehaa!!

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Thanks James!

        Man oh man I wish Led Zeppelin had covered Me and the Devil Blues. Then again, Robert Plant probably used those exact lyrics during improvisational parts of things like Dazed and Confused. And they did do Travelling Riverside Blues.

      • James A Watkins profile image

        James A Watkins 

        2 months ago from Chicago

        I enjoyed your very interesting article, especially the details about the 1928 l-1 Gibson guitar.

        One of the chapters in my latest book, 'What Does the Devil Do All Day,' is entitled THE DEVIL IS A HELLUVA SONGWRITER. I talk about Robert Johnson briefly in it:

        "It was said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to Satan at the Crossroads to become the ‘Father of Rock and Roll.’ Even his plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says, “He sold his soul to the Devil.” Johnson explained their relationship in his own song ‘Me and the Devil’: “Early this morning, When you knocked upon my door, And I said hello Satan, I believe it's time to go; Me and the Devil, Was walkin' side by side, And I'm going to beat my woman, 'Til I get satisfied.”

      working

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