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Legendary Guitar: Bob Dylan’s Gibson Nick Lucas Acoustic

Dave Hunter
|
04.07.2009

Before he went electric in 1965 — and drew jeers from legions of (arguably small-minded) fans in the process — Bob Dylan epitomized the hard-traveling folk troubadour, and he established this image largely on a vintage Gibson Nick Lucas model flat-top guitar. The young Dylan had played other Martin and Gibson models in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but in those final years of his acoustic era, before a “blonde on blonde” Fender Telecaster ushered in a whole new folk-rock sound, the Nick Lucas was his instrument of choice. He played this guitar in the studio and on tour from 1963 to ’66, and used it for the legendary albums Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing it All Back Home. And, although it didn’t appear on the covers of either of these, it is frequently seen in the many live performance tapes from the day, including broadcasts of the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and ’65, and Dylan’s famous appearances on BBC TV in England in 1965. While, in hindsight, this Gibson Nick Lucas seems “just right” for the young Dylan, and has become an iconic folk guitar as a result, the model’s origins show that it is perhaps an unlikely choice for a scruffy young folky.

Gibson had single-handedly established the archtop guitar market late in the 19th century, but until the late 1920s the company had yet to introduced a truly high-quality flat-top guitar. In the early part of that decade Gibson was struggling to compete with the enormous popularity of the banjo (ultimately concluding, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and issuing its own well-received banjo range), but the humble flat-top was nevertheless showing signs of gaining in popularity. What the company’s directors needed was a start endorsee to help sell the guitars through to the strumming public — and they found one in the form of Nick Lucas. Lucas had started life as a sideman, is considered one of the pioneers of jazz guitar, and has gone down in history as the first musician to record hot solo-guitar performances, and although 1922’s “Picking the Guitar” and “Teasing the Frets” sound tame by today’s standards, they were revolutionary for their time. His own breakthrough as a pop vocal artist came, however, with his 1929 recording of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (a song that sounded considerably less camp in its day than it did when Tiny Tim re-recorded it in 1968). As one of a number of songs featured in the Warner Brothers Technicolor musical hit Gold Diggers of Broadway, “Tulips” gained Lucas massive popular exposure — and he took Gibson’s new acoustic guitar design right along with him, thanks to a deal for a signature model that he’d struck with the Kalamazoo company just the previous year.

Gibson’s Nick Lucas model, also referred to as the Gibson Special (as were many signature guitars in the day), went into production in 1928. The instrument evolved during its lifetime, but consistent throughout was its notably deep body — a little over four inches at the deepest point — which made it an impressively loud, rich guitar for an acoustic with dimensions that were otherwise those of a small-bodied flat-top comparable to Gibson’s earlier L-1. Measuring 13.5” across the lower bout, and originally with a scale length of 24.25”, the Nick Lucas was born with 12 frets clear of the body, but eventually gained a 13, then 14-fret neck, all of which carried a fretboard with distinctive and subtly elegant position marker inlays. Its spruce top was backed by a body initially made from mahogany, but many examples were made with gorgeous Brazilian rosewood back and sides. Other notable details are the archtop-style trapeze tailpiece it was introduced with (changed for a more traditional pin bridge a few years into production), and the change of the headstock logo from “The Gibson” to simply “Gibson” early in the 1930s.

Dylan’s own Nick Lucas model has been variously reported as originating from 1929 and 1933. Its headstock logo — “The Gibson” — would indicate a guitar from the earlier era, although its 13-fret neck and flat-top pin bridge push it into the ’30s. Closer examination, in conjunction with reports made by those who have examined Dylan’s Gibson in person, reveal that the bridge is not original, but is in fact a Guild bridge that must have been added at a later date as a repair or a modification (Eyolf Østrem, Dylan’s Guitars). Nick Lucas models of the 1920s and ’30s were manufactured with dark sunburst finishes, so certainly its natural finish was not original, but all of the above details indicate it was most likely made in the early ’30s. Its current whereabouts are unknown (the artists would later resurface with a Gibson J-200 and a range of Martin models).

We think of Bob Dylan primarily as a singer-songwriter, but listen to these early recordings and his chops as a guitarist ring through. Dylan was a formidable finger picker, and the deep, full tone of his Nick Lucas proved easily up to the task of helping his fingerstyle playing project with punch and clarity, while giving plenty of warmth and zing to his flatpicking too. This was Dylan in his heyday, when his noted songcraft and punishing tour schedule were propelling him to legendary status, and this rare and unusual Gibson flat-top was with him every step of the way.

 


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