Although Gibson generally focused on mass-produced models, customers could special order one-of-a-kind instruments from the company just like they could from an individual luthier like John D’Angelico or Charles and Elmer Stromberg. This is one such example of the kind of custom guitars that a few players had Gibson make for them.
According to Gibson’s shipping ledgers, the factory order number 346A was for a batch of guitars coded S-2, which were Roy Smeck Radio Grande models. This custom-made guitar was apparently part of that production batch, as it also has the same slope-shoulder body shape and setup for Hawaiian-style playing as the Radio Grande. However, that is where the similarity pretty much ends, as the remainder of the features are all derived from Gibson’s top-of-the-line Super 400 model introduced only one year earlier in 1934. That makes this the only Super 400-style flattop Gibson guitar ever made.
Like a Super 400, this guitar has a five-piece split-diamond headstock inlay with a similar three-piece diamond on the headstock’s rear, split-block fretboard inlays, mottled pickguard, and generous amounts of multi-layer binding. The back and sides are also maple whereas the Radio Grande would have had rosewood. The neck heel cap on the back is even engraved with the word “Super” in the same style lettering as the Super 400. The only significant difference is this guitar’s gold-plated Grover Imperial tuners with stairstep buttons, which are an improvement over the open gear G-98s found on the Super 400 archtop at this time.
In addition to the FON stamped on the neck block, an additional label affixed inside the guitar by its original owner verifies its age. The label reads, “Howard Cranford, Dec. 14, ’35, Tulsa”. This guitar also pre-dates Ray Whitley’s similarly appointed SJ-200 custom, long considered the first SJ-200, by about two years. Is it possible that Whitley knew Cranford, saw this guitar, and used it as inspiration for his own custom guitar? Other than this guitar’s Hawaiian setup, the similarity between the two is uncanny.
This guitar previously appeared on page 157 of George Gruhn’s book Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments.
FON: 346A stamp on neck block
Top: Spruce, sunburst finish
Back and sides: Maple
Neck: Maple with mahogany center strip
Bridge/tailpiece: Rectangular rosewood pin
Tuners: Gold-plated Grover Imperial with stairstep buttons