Kalamazoo KG-14 acoustic guitar 1936
There exist only two-and-a-half images of Robert Johnson. By that I mean, two photographs are confirmed to be the legendary bluesman, and the third (discovered in 2005) is still under review.
In what is probably the most famous one, he wears a dapper suit and hat and smiles broadly, holding a battered looking Gibson L-1. While the Gibson company have proudly reissued this model in his honour, it may not have actually been his guitar.
Contemporaries are unsure of his use of the Gibson, but are adamant about his Kalamazoo KG-14 — which is the most likely candidate to have appeared on his infamous 29 recorded songs.
He appears to be holding the KG-14 in the second authentic photo, though so little of it is seen, I would have thought almost any guitar of the era would fit the bill. But according to the experts, this KG-14 has “14 frets to the body, five dot markers, a single layer of binding inside the sound hole, and a black ebony nut.”
It was first produced in the Autumn of 1936, meaning it was brand new when Johnson made his recordings in a San Antonio hotel room that November.
I only recently discovered that this iconic photo was published for the first time in 1986.
The KG-14 is a great little fingerpicking guitar with a fast decay, perfect for the Delta blues style. It’s a very light machine (spruce top, mahogany sides) with a rich mid-range and powerful treble. It was Gibson’s budget version of the L-00, so there’s no truss rod, some cheap tuners, a spray-on logo, and plastic bridge pins.
The third and disputed picture is of Johnson (supposedly) and another musician called Johnny Shines. In it he holds a mysterious guitar that has yet to be identified.
One of the difficulties here is that the photo appears to have been reversed — note the buttons and fastenings on Shines’ clothing, they’re on the ‘ladies’ side. That would suggest the guitar player was left-handed; which would of course rule out Johnson.