By Alan di Perna
“Mother” Maybelle Carter first came to prominence as a member of the Carter Family trio, which also included her brother-in-law A.P. Carter and cousin Sara Carter. The group formed in 1927, and Maybelle used earnings from its earliest recordings to purchase this 1928 Gibson L-5 archtop new in or around 1928. She played this L-5 throughout her legendary career, and today it resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where it is one of the collection’s crown jewels.
“She paid $275, which was a huge amount of money back then,” says CMHoF curatorial director Mick Buck. “It was more than a farmer made in an entire year at the time. The L-5 was Gibson’s top-of-the-line guitar in 1928, and it was the perfect instrument for Maybelle Carter.
“At the time she acquired it, the banjo and fiddle were both more popular than the guitar in country music. The banjo is very loud, which probably accounted in some measure for its popularity back then. But Lloyd Loar at Gibson engineered the L-5 to be as loud as a banjo. That was what Maybelle needed, because, at the time, the Carter Family was performing in small rural school houses and other places that had no amplification.”
It is thought that Carter ordered the instrument’s personalized truss-rod cover, engraved with the legend Mae Belle Carter, at the time that she purchased the instrument. “They spelled her name wrong,” Buck says. “It’s interesting that, although she sent the instrument back to Gibson for repairs on a few occasions, she never had them change the truss-rod cover.”
It was on this guitar that Carter developed and popularized the iconic fingerpicking technique known as the Carter Scratch, which inspired the styles of later country pickers such as Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. This L-5 was her main guitar right up until her death, in 1978. The tuning machines, tailpiece, and pickguard were all replaced during modifications that Carter allegedly requested herself. Repairs were also made to some minor surface cracks on the top.
“It still has a beautiful tone,” Buck says. “And plenty of mojo.”