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“Nick Lucas and His Guitar”
By Paul Fox
In the world of collectable Gibson acoustic guitars, the Nick Lucas Special certainly ranks in the Top 10. While they do not command the often-astronomical sums of the pre-war Super Jumbos, Super 400s or L-5s, they routinely fetch in excess of $20,000.00 in today’s vintage guitar market. The evolution of this legendary Gibson has been the subject of much speculation, clouded by a lack of documented information, and the “tall tales” told by Mr. Nick Lucas himself. Gibson followed the success of the Nick Lucas with many more guitar models named after such players as Carson Robinson, Roy Smeck, Ray Whitley and of course, Les Paul, but the Nick Lucas Special has the distinction of not only being Gibson’s first official “artist” model, but the first ever in American guitar manufacturing history.
Contrary to a lot of the information circulating around, the “Gibson Special” as it was originally called, was introduced in 1928 in Gibson’s Catalog Q, and the first price list, dated March 1928. There have been numerous accounts that say the Nick Lucas Special was available as early as 1926, but there’s no substantial evidence to support this theory. It’s likely that Nick got the first of several “prototypes” before 1928 and was pictured in Gibson brochures with what is presumed to be the first one ever made (pictured left), with a sunburst finish, a straight “pyramid” style bridge, fancy inlays and deeper sides. A lot of confusion persists about properly dating these guitars mainly due to serial numbers that seem to be random and non-sequential. By modern standards, Gibson considered this high-end model a “custom shop” guitar, making one or two at a time, which easily explains large gaps between serial numbers.
Left: The first Nick Lucas Special ever made as it appeared in a c1928 Gibson brochure. Called “The Label Photo” as it would appear on the labels inside every Nick Lucas Special Gibson, Inc. made from 1928-1939. Note the original sunburst finish and c1926-27 “pyramid” style bridge, which could indicate that it was made pre-1928
Stories about the origin of the Nick Lucas Special can be directly tied to several interviews Nick gave later in life about how the whole idea came about. Several times, Nick recalled that, "When I was working at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, I was playing a Galliano guitar” and Frank Campbell, who was general sales manager for Gibson, was trying to persuade me to get rid of [it]”. Nick also stated that, “I started to become very, very popular. So the Gibson instrument company approached me and wanted me to use their guitar.” From several recently uncovered historical news clippings and articles suggests Mr. Lucas had slightly “embellished” on the story over time. Nick was without a doubt an extremely gifted singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and by 1924, a well-known solo performer, as well as a radio and recording star. Nick already had ties to Gibson dating back to 1923 and been featured in Gibson catalogs playing the banjo, a model L-4 arch top guitar, and a rare 1924 Lloyd Loar-era L-5 which he continued to play for many years. This was well before the aforementioned Frank Campbell became Gibson’s Sales and Marketing Manager.
It was in January of 1925, Gibson’s new General Manager, Guy Hart named Frank Campbell as the head of sales and advertising. Campbell was the perfect man for the job having worked for Gibson in field sales, service and had substantial experience in musical merchandizing and retail. His background also included working at the Grinnell Bros. store in Detroit, one of Gibson’s largest distributors, and then returned to Gibson in May 1924. Being promoted to Sales Manager made Frank Campbell the #2 man behind Hart in Gibson’s new management team. He spent much of his time traveling all over the U.S., selling and promoting Gibson instruments, setting up new dealers and attending various trade shows and conventions. This was the beginning of a whole new era in the history of Gibson, as the company’s sagging sales nearly caused a bankruptcy in 1923. Their singular focus was to get more competitive in the exploding banjo market, by improving their banjo designs which paled by comparison to competitors like Bacon & Day, Lange/Paramount, Vega and many more. Campbell’s exceptional sales and advertising skills got things going in a hurry as Gibson reported record sales in 1926 and even a bigger year in 1928. They had developed an entirely new line of banjos that were not only surpassing their competitors, but also stand as some of the best banjos ever made.
Above right: c1925 photo of Frank Campbell, Gibson’s Sales Manager from 1925 to 1931 and the person responsible for bringing the Nick Lucas Special to life.
Campbell also had connections with many prominent players and certainly understood ’star value’ in helping to increase sales. In 1925, radio broadcast star and exclusive Brunswick [record label] artist, Nick Lucas appeared in local stores promoting his hit songs like “My Best Girl” and “Dreamer of Dreams”. In May 1925, an article published in The Music Trade Review stated, “Well-Known Radio and Recording Guitar Artist Big Aid to Retail Dealers Handling This [Gibson] Line”. At that time, Nick was a featured performer with the Oriole Orchestra, and was playing at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, as he stated in his interview. He was very well known for his Brunswick records and being broadcast by radio station WEBH in Chicago. Frank Campbell commented that Gibson “noticed a decided increase in the demand for the Gibson guitar” whenever Nick made an appearance. Then on July 6, 1925, in another article titled “Nick Lucas Visits Plant of Gibson, Inc….in order to see how the [Gibson] instruments are made”, Nick was given the grand tour of Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory by none other than Frank Campbell himself. Nick was quoted as saying to Campbell that, “he attributes much of his success to his wonderful Gibson instrument. This event marked the beginning of the relationship between Campbell and Lucas that would give birth to the Nick Lucas guitar, a very “special” instrument that Gibson designed based on Nick’s own specifications and later marketed as the first Gibson ‘artist’ model.
One thing still remains a mystery. If Lucas and Campbell hatched the idea for “The Gibson Special” around the time of the factory visit, why did it take well over two years from concept to catalog? It’s possible that Nick saw an early prototype of Gibson’s new flat-top models L-1 & L-0 and liked the basic design? Nick had very specific ideas about the kind of guitar he wanted, and said, “I wanted a wider neck, deeper sides, and a smaller body that would be more presentable on stage”. Assuming Nick wanted a body that was smaller than his L4 and L5, then the small 13 5/8” wide “concert size” guitars would work certainly fit the bill.
Left: Although the Nick Lucas Special was introduced in 1928, the first known advertisement outside of Gibson catalogs and brochures is this rare April, 1929 ad that appeared “The Crescendo” magazine.
With Gibson squarely focused on building better banjos, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it took a long time to get this project off the ground. Designing and building a new custom-made guitar would have required a collaborative effort between many of Gibson’s key employees, including Ted McHugh, Gibson’s Chief Engineer, and inventor of the truss rod and adjustable bridge, A.C Stout, production manager and Frank Campbell handling ‘artist relations’ between Lucas and the factory. An October, 1926 issue of Gibson’s Mastertone Magazine called Hart, Campbell, and Stout the “three men who are the guiding forces back of Gibson, Inc.”, while at the same time, it still showed Nick still playing his Gibson L5. Even the May, 1927 convention issue of “The Mastertone” had no mention of any new guitar models, which should put to rest any thoughts the Nick Lucas Special was ready for prime time any earlier than 1928. It’s likely that Nick would have received the first “prototype” prior to the publishing of these 1927 magazines, as it could have taken many months prior to that for Gibson to produce the final version that got Nick’s seal of approval. In March, 1928, Gibson was finally ready to put the new Nick Lucas Special in their Catalog ‘Q’, but were still slow to really start promoting it. The first advertisement for the Nick Lucas Special didn’t appear until an April, 1929 issue of “The Crescendo” magazine touting its “new tone of startling depth and roundness”, but also suggested it was “equally effective for Hawaiian or Spanish style playing”. Being new to the world of “flat top” guitar manufacturing, Frank Campbell and Gibson seemed unsure of how to market them, let alone a custom “artist” model with a hefty price tag of $125.00.
However, Nick Lucas clearly loved his new guitar and newly discovered photographs and Gibson documentation show that he owned and played no less then 11 different versions and probably several more over his 70 year career. There were the “label” guitar; several all black versions; the “flat black”, “dot neck”, and the “big-body Nick”. Nick must have been very proud of the fact that his guitar featured his name and photo and remains the only label to ever feature anyone other than Orville Gibson himself.
Above: c1929 The “Artist tie-up” marketing campaign is shown in this window display of mid-west Gibson dealer, J.W. Jenkins & Co. in Kansas City. The life-size cut-out Nick Lucas playing his Gibson L5 and several other late 20s era Gibsons are displayed, but no Nick Lucas Special in sight. It indicates that dealers were not “stocking” such an expensive custom guitar and were available as a special order from the factory.
In 1929, Nick had starred in “Gold Diggers of Broadway” and in one of the first talking movie sequences in color, played his big hit song, “Tip Toe Through the Tulips With Me”. In another interview, Nick asked Gibson for a flat-black finish, not the standard glossy finish so “the spotlights wouldn’t make it glare”, possibly stemming from the bright movie lights reflecting off the glossy version he played in the movie. Frank Campbell began to actively promote Nick and other featured Gibson players in what was referred to as the “artist tie-up”. It was the latest in late 1920s marketing to help local music stores take advantage of big stars making local appearances. One example was an elaborate window display at J.W. Jenkins Music in Kansas City, c1929. A rare glimpse at the power of Nick’s appeal to the public, but also a mystery as to why the life-size cut-out showed Nick playing his Gibson L5 and no “Gibson Special” anywhere in sight. From the amount of new historical data, digitized images of period magazines, catalogs, and advertisements, it was clear that dealers were not stocking the NLS, but wanted to draw in the customers who wanted to play the same guitar as Nick. Gibson Sales Reps may have had “sample” guitars to show to dealers, but each one was most likely custom-ordered from Kalamazoo and Gibson would only build the guitars to fill each customer order.
In order to get an idea of how many Nick Lucas’ were made, a combination of old Gibson shipping records and information from their present-day owners revealed a total of 180 well-documented guitars. This could easily put total production at approximately 250 during the entire 10 to 11 year run from 1928 to 1939. There were many variations of the NLS, including 4-string tenor guitar versions, a late 30’s model with a factory installed electric pickup, and one very rare “Florentine’ model, as well. Gibson only made the small-body model in ‘28 and ‘29, and changed to the bigger body size by February, 1930, as indicated by the change in the case size on Gibson’s price list. One major factor that limited the number of Nicks sold was its hefty price tag. At $125.00, it was the most expensive flat-top guitar made, and in the middle of the Great Depression it’s not hard to imagine how few people could afford it.
Below: Long before Nick Lucas ever got his “Gibson Special” he played Gibson mandolins, banjos, and guitars. This 1924 photo shows Nick with his Gibson L-4 arch-top guitar (left). One of Nick’s “glossy black” versions he played in the 1929 Warner Brothers movie “Gold Diggers of Broadway”. This still photo was taken from the “In My Kitchette” sequence. Note the glare on the body from the movie lights (middle). A 1929 Warner Brothers promotional shot shows their new star Nick Lucas playing a “dot neck” version of his guitar. It has standard Gibson mother-of-pearl dot markers in the fingerboard vs. the fancier inlays of the other Nick Lucas Specials (right).
Above: One of the sheet music covers for “Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me”, another hit song he performed in the first talking color movie scene in “Gold Diggers”, shows Nick with the “flat black” version with banjo-style tuners, so “the spotlights wouldn’t make it glare” (left). In 1930, Gibson increased the size of all of its flat-top guitars to 14 ¾” wide, including the Nick Lucas Special. Although Nick preferred the “small-body” 1920’s version, a rare photo from 1934 shows “The Crooning Troubadour” playing a “big-body Nick” – all black of course (middle). This 1943 portrait shows Nick playing one of his custom-made “Gibson Specials” sporting the 1920s-style body, but with a 14-fret neck. All of the original 1920s version he played had 12-fret necks (right).
All of Gibson’s new flat-top designs between 1929 and 1932 varied greatly, suggesting a very experimental and transitional period for the Kalamazoo company. There were 12, 13, and 14-fret necks (number of frets clear of the body), elevated “arch top” style fingerboards, adjustable height bridges with extension tailpieces, several different flat-top bridge shapes and sizes, as well as different finishes ranging from “Argentine Gray” to “Black Ebony” and a variety of pick guard options, too. You could even opt for Montgomery Ward’s all-black Recording King Model 551, which was essentially a big-body 1930s-style Nick Lucas for the bargain price of $48.00, but made by Gibson.
Pictured above, the evolution of the Nick Lucas Special: (Left) An early 1928 (possibly a late 1927 dealer model) without a label and the lowest FON (factory order number) known to exist); small-body version with “fat belly button” bridge, highly slanted “The Gibson” mother-of-pearl logo and intricate fingerboard inlays, including the rarely seen “5-pointed star” inlay at the 3rd fret. This guitar also has a pre-1928 style “H” braced Adirondack Red Spruce top. (Middle) An early 1930 “big-body Nick” still sporting a 12-fret neck and flatter “The Gibson” logo with less intricate fingerboard inlays than the 1928, but an extremely light weight guitar with “X” braced top. (Right) A 1936 Nick Lucas with “fleur-de-lis” peg head inlay below; 14-fret neck, flamed maple back & sides, X-braced spruce top, “fire stripe” pickguard and fingerboard inlay at the 1st fret. This guitar also has a “sprayed” sunburst vs. the 1928 and 1930 versions that had “hand-rubbed” finishes. In order to accommodate the 14-fret neck without changing the body size, Gibson moved the sound hole, bridge, and bracing approximately 1 ½” further up the body. Photo: Ken Fallon
Possibly the best evidence of any pre-1928 Nick Lucas is the small body version (pictured above left), with a full 4 5/8" deep rim at the tail block. Its owner Rob Baker searched for just the right one and found this guitar at a guitar shop in Paris, France. In fact, it has the lowest FON (factory order number) ever recorded – 8815. The dramatically slanted “The Gibson” mother-of-pearl peghead logo, intricate fingerboard inlays including the 5-pointed star at the 3rd fret; unusual “modified” H-braced top with finger braces and 1926-style back braces, as well as having no label, possibly indicates that it was a “dealer sample” used by Gibson salesman like Frank Lucas to show to distributors and at conventions. Although it sports the classic “fat belly bridge” with extra bridge that were standard on almost every 1928 Gibson flat-top, most ‘28 flat-tops had the “A” type top bracing pattern. It also has a rather curious under-sized truss rod, which may have come from another Gibson instrument, like a mandola. Gibson did not start putting truss rods into their flat-tops until 1928, including the L-1 and L-0.
The 1930 model (center) is one of the first of the newer big body versions with larger fingerboard inlays and no “star” at the 3rd fret. It still had “The Gibson” logo in mother of pearl, but much less slanted than before, and a gorgeous hand-rubbed sunburst finish. By the time Gibson had discontinued all of the small-body size flat-tops, they were employing an X-braced top, and several early 30s examples have extremely light weight bracing, including the very tiny braces on this 1930 Nick. Many collectors agree that these early 12-fret versions are some of the best flat-tops Gibson ever made, and only four years after they began making any flat-top guitars. There were also 13-fret versions of the Nick Lucas, but by 1933 or 1934, Gibson had settled on a 14-fret neck as the standard for all of their flat-tops, except Hawaiian models like the Roy Smeck guitars and the HG-00. In order to maintain Gibson’s 24 ¾” scale length, the 12-fret neck design enabled the bridge placement to be lower down on the body, which contributed a lot to the dynamic tone and volume these guitars deliver and make them more desirable to collectors. However, a 14-fret neck on the same body size required moving the sound hole, bridge, and bracing approximately 1 ½” further up the body and leaving a slight gap between the sound hole and the end of the fingerboard. The 1936 Nick Lucas (pictured right) is a good example of these changes and also featured the addition of a fingerboard inlay at the 1st fret, a “fleur-de-lis” peghead inlay and a “fire stripe” pickguard. This guitar also has beautiful flamed maple back and sides, and “sunburst” shading on the top, sides and back. It has the same basic X-brace top as the ’30, but the braces were much taller and stiffer. These guitars represent three distinct stages in the evolution of the Nick Lucas Special from the earliest version to its last incarnation. Luthier Ken Fallon was working on all three when they were photographed for this article and commented that the 1928 Nick had a deep resonant tone, but was a bit more ‘boxy’ sounding compared to the much lighter braced and larger 1930 and 1936 versions.
Nick Lucas Specials have also been played by other well-known celebrities from Carson Robinson to Bob Dylan and remains one of the most unique and collectable Gibson guitars ever made. In 1934, Gibson dropped the price of the Nick Lucas from $125.00 to $90.00 suggesting an attempt to remedy sagging sales, but finally discontinued it in 1938. It last appeared in Gibson’s 1937 Catalog “Y” and the last price list dated February 1, 1938. Although a few more were made, shipping totals after 1938 were a fraction of previous years. The last Nick Lucas Special ever made, with the highest recorded serial number 93261, was shipped from the Kalamazoo factory on August 14, 1941 to Nick Lucas himself, a fitting end to a great 10-year run.
Copyright 2011 Paul M. Fox