Did you know Gibson’s first guitar was not a guitar at all? That’s right…. It was a mandolin. This was the first documented musical instrument made by Orville Gibson in 1894. This Mandolin-guitar had ten strings and was created with an arch-top design common to violins. These instruments were “unlike previous flat-back instrument.”
So Who Is Orville H. Gibson
Orville Gibson was born May 8, 1856. He grew up on a sixty acre farm northeast of the village of Chateaugay in Franlin County, New York. Orville came from a very gifted family which comprised a writer, a painter, an upholsterer, a carpenter, and an expert musician/craftsman. The Gibsons lived just east of Earville on the south side of Farquer Road, a few miles from the train station in Chateaugay on the Ogdensburgh & Lake Champlain Railway line, which ran west through Malone and after a few connections, linked up with the lakeshore and Michigan Southern in Buffalo. Getting from Franklin County to Kalamazoo Michigan, would have been a relatively easy trip by 1870s standards.
Exactly when Orville Gibson began playing music or how and when he learned the craft of instrument making, is uncertain. It is know that by the time he reached Kalamazoo, he was already an accomplished musician and performer.
In the spring of 1876, Orville worked as a salesman in Kalamazoo Michigan and became friends with the several of the musicians in town, including William E. Hayes, a violinist with whom he had performed with in the Presbyterian Church benefit.
New Musical Instruments
In 1894, Gibson had just created the earliest Gibson instrument: a mandolin based on the arch-top design common to violins. Young Orville continued to work out of his one man woodworking shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to produce a brand new family of mandolins and acoustic guitars. They all featured the arch-top design.
A demand for the Gibson instruments, begins to overwhelm young talented craftsman. In 1902, Orville Gibson sells his name to five financiers in Kalamazoo, including music store owners and lawyers. He forms an agreement to found the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company. He remains with the company as a consultant up until 1904.
In 1910, Gibson releases its first line of flat-tops, an “Army-Navy” model guitar aimed primarily at servicemen toward the end of WW1.
After a number of hospitals stays, the company’s founder, dies at the age of 62 on August 19th, 1918. From 1908 until his death, Gibson was paid the modern equivalent of $20,000 every month.
A New Look At Gibson
In 1921, Gibson designed the first adjustable truss rod and a height adjustable bridge. In 1922 Gibson develops the F-5 mandolin, in a bid to recapture public demand of the instrument. Today, folk and country players regard the F-5 as the finest mandolin ever played.
Also in 1922, the L-5 acoustic guitar was originally included as the largest member of the new mandolin family, but soon distinguished itself as Gibson’s first “modern” acoustic guitar. Though the arch top started to give way to the popular flat-top guitar, Gibson produces its first proper flat-top by the end of the 1920s. In 1926, the small and simple L-1 model goes on sale.
Once the flat-top guitars prove to be a viable product, Gibson signs the first star of recorded guitar, Nick Lucas, as a distinctive artist. The Nick Lucas model features the same body as the L-1, but caters more for the sound and accessibility.
In 1933, just before the company debuts its very first electric guitar, Gibson introduces larger, deep-bodied flat-top acoustic guitars. While arch-tops remained their leader, flat-top acoustic guitars become cemented into the brand’s catalog.
in the late 1930s, the company struggles to sell their guitars during the great depression. Gibson focuses primarily selling extremely cheap guitars out of Kalamazoo. They begin crafting new designs. In the year 1934, Gibson has competition with the up and coming instrument manufacturer, Epiphone. In an attempt to defeat its competitors, Gibson advances the bodies, ranges and volumes of its many arch-top guitars and announces a new venture into the flat-top market like the round-shouldered dreadnought shaped Jumbo model.
During WWII, Gibson production is significantly hindered and several new models are introduced, such as the Southern Jumbo acoustic guitar. A shortage of steel forces Gibson to build guitars without truss-rods and marked a transition in popularity from arch-top guitars to flat-top.
With a postwar boom in the demand of musical instruments on the horizon, the Chicago Musical Instrument Company buys Gibson. During the following years, further innovation was implemented.
Even though Gibson continues its success with the L-1, L-0, and L-00 flat top models, the first Jumbo was improved upon and replaced by both the J-35 and the Advanced Jumbo, in 1936.
In 1937, the most impressive flat-top for the era came when “cowboy” star Ray Whitley, ordered a custom acoustic guitar from Gibson. The super Jumbo, or known as the J-200, was born. This huge Jumbo guitar will go on to become the signature guitar for players familiar with the Grande Ole Oprey and various Country and Wester circuits.
Introduction Of Les Paul And New Leadership
Recording artist, Les Paul was recruited to popularize what is considered by many as the bran’s most popular brand of guitar. The” Les Paul Model” hits the electric guitar world by storm and was critical appraised, and is widely renowned to this day.
While Gibsons competitors centered around the folk guitar boom of the 50s and early 60s, Gibson takes a different route and produces upgraded versions of previously released models. The changes included a height-adjustable bridge fitted onto the company’s flat-tops.
In 1971, Gibson once again changes ownership. The Ecuadorian Company Ltd, or later known as Norlin, begins to slowly move the company out of Kalamazoo Michigan, and into Nashville, Tennessee. In 1984, the production of Gibson instruments leaves Kalamazoo entirely.
Once moved, the company starts to have difficulties and soon began dying. In 1987, Gibson opens a new plant in Boseman, Montana, and production in Nashville shifted exclusively to that of electric guitars. The plant in Montana focuses on the production F-5 style mandolins.
The manufacture of Mandolins in Bozeman go above and beyond the current quality standards. The skilled team of luthiers are praised for their achievement. In the meantime, the demand for the flat-top guitar skyrockets above that of mandolins.
Taking the manufacturing plant’s knack for acoustic instruments into account, Gibson begins moving flat-top production to Boseman while assigning Nashville to mandolin production. Since 1989 to present day, Gibson strives to create flat-top Gibson guitars of the highest quality.
To this day, Gibson continues to produce some of the cleanest, deepest, full-toned acoustic guitars. Today, Gibson produces a multitude of signature series models from, entry to advanced level guitars.
With 120 years of innovation, the history of Gibson guitars is always expanding. Some big names like, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley and more great artist, have sworn by the Gibson name.
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