The Winding Stream - The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music

Elvis’ guitarist, the rockin’ Scotty Moore played one.  So did the inventive jazz great Wes Montgomery.  Hot Club de France legend Django Reinhardt was known to work his magic on one. More recently electric versions have been played by pop and rock icons like Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards, just to name a few.

Mother Maybelle's Gibson L-5

The instrument? The Gibson L-5.

And while we can probably all agree that not one of the aforementioned musicians is a slouch, there is one music great who made this particular guitar her own and influenced generations to come by pushing the boundaries of guitar playing on it.

Who is this important L-5 guitarist?

Well, Maybelle Carter, of course.

The woman I understand Maybelle to be was someone deeply committed to music.  Someone who approached playing the guitar with a sense of exploration and innovation – often driven by the necessity to “fill out” the Carter Family sound.  Maybelle used the L-5 on most of the Carter recordings, often picking the melody with her thumb on the lower strings and strumming chords on the higher strings.  This became known as the “Carter Scratch” and the technique was adopted by generations of guitarists, becoming a fundamental of folk guitar playing.  And in a more general sense, Maybelle’s playing served to popularize the guitar, moving it from its “supporting role” in roots music to a lead instrument.

Of course, Maybelle did not always own an L-5. This was a top shelf guitar even then and Maybelle hardly came from money.  But her husband Ezra splurged and purchased it for his young wife in 1928 for $275 (which was more than two weeks’ median salary in those days) when it became clear that the Carters’ first recordings were selling well.  A wise investment on Ezra’s part.

Of course, there are some people who believe that Maybelle’s original guitar, the one before the L-5 – a small-bodied “ladder-braced” Stella  – might have produced, if not a superior sound, then certainly an evocative one. Dan Margolies of the online music site, The Herald, wonders, “Were cheaply made guitars the key to that elusive sound of the golden era old-time string bands as recorded in the 1920s and 1930s?”  He goes on to note that, “From the 1890s into at least the 1930s, black and white Southern rural musicians all tended to play the same type of guitars—inexpensive, ladder-braced guitars by a variety of makers, many of which are now forgotten.”

Gibson L-5

Margolies continues: “Swing a cat and you will hit an old-time master playing a ladder-braced guitar. Swing a bit wider and very commonly you will find the masters who played these same cheap guitars until they could afford to trade up—giants like Jimmie Rodgers, Seven Foot Dilly, Zeke Morris, and Mother Maybelle Carter, to name a few.”

Yes, she did trade up from her Stella and pretty much never looked back.  But whether it was on the Stella or on the Gibson, it’s safe to say Maybelle Carter made both great music and history

And fortunately for music history buffs and Carter fans, in 2004 her Gibson L-5 guitar was purchased on behalf of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for $575,000. It is on display there to this day. A meteorite from the Big Bang of Country Music.