TENSION FREE INSTRUMENTS -
THE GUITAR AND MANDOLIN DESIGNS
OF ORVILLE GIBSON
The name Gibson is best known today as the company that builds electric guitars, in particular the widely used Les Paul model. However, the history of the company goes back to 1902, 50 years before the Les Paul was introduced, when a group of five businessmen purchased the rights to the name and patent of a Kalamazoo luthier named Orville Gibson.
Gibson was born in 1856, near the town of Chateaugay in upstate New York. He was the youngest of five children, having two brothers and two sisters. Little is known of his life until 1881 when he was listed in the Kalamazoo City Directory. He worked various jobs; in 1885 he was a clerk in a shoe shop, and in 1893 he was listed as working as a clerk at a restaurant.
By 1896 Gibson had ceased working in menial jobs and had set up his own business, being listed in the City Directory of that year as a “manufacturer musical instruments”. However, Gibson had been making instruments before setting up full-time - there is a surviving 5-course guitar which has a label “Made by Orville Gibson 1894”, and in 1895 he filed for a mandolin patent.
It is difficult to know how successful his business was. Enough of his instruments survive to show that he was certainly hard working, often building very decorative instruments with inlay on the soundboard and around the edges. However, the difficulties of being a one-man band were evident. There is a story of a dealer who asked for a price quote and delivery date for 500 mandolins. The reply was “$100 per instrument, 500 years for delivery”.
By 1902, it became clear that there were too many limitations on a one-person business, and Orville Gibson was approached by five men who would provide the capital to expand his ideas. The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company Limited was formed on October the Tenth, 1902. Orville Gibson was one of the original shareholders in the company; and part of the agreement was that he was to work as a consultant for the new company, a position which didn't suit him, and within one year he had effectively severed all manufacturing links with the company.
Initially, the new Gibson Manufacturing Company built instruments exactly as Orville Gibson himself had done, though for reasons that shall be outlined, they evolved their own designs over a period of 6 or 7 years.
Orville Gibson made a number of different types of instrument. Like most individual luthiers, he seems to have worked on a bespoke basis, building instruments specifically to a player’s requirements - although naturally there was an attempt to standardise where possible, to make the workshop production easier.
Orville’s primary concern was with the mandolin family. The interest in the mandolin in America can be said to have commenced when the “Estudiantina Figaro”, or the “Figaro Spanish Students”, as they were popularly known, arrived in 1880. This group of musical performers played guitars, bandurrias, and a violin. The bandurrias were mistakenly referred to as mandolins, and following the success of the “Students”, other performing groups set up playing a similar style of music and wearing a similar type of Spanish clothing. As many of the early imitation groups comprised Italian immigrant musicians, they probably used the mandolin as the instrument was native to their home country.
By the early 1890s, the mandolin had gained popularity through much of America, prompting the formation of many mandolin orchestras, playing classical string music using mandolin-family instruments rather than bowed strings, and Orville Gibson set out to design an entire family of mandolin instruments.
By 1902, when Orville was approached by the five businessmen, he had developed on a range of instruments - building mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, guitars and harp guitars; each instrument offered in two different styles. [SEE OVERHEAD ONE] The mandolin, mandola, and mandocello were all built in either the “A” style, as shown at the top left, featuring a symmetrical body, or the “F” style, seen at the top on the right, with an extraordinary body with two upper- and one lower body point, and a scroll at the bass upper bout. These two mandolin designs are still considered to be the standard shapes followed today by almost all American mandolin makers. Gibson’s two guitar models were the “L”, with an oval soundhole, and the “O”, illustrated at the bottom left with an oval soundhole, and the two harp guitar styles are the “R”, with six sub-bass strings, and the “U”, as shown at the bottom right, with ten sub-bass strings.
Orville Gibson is also known to have made some non-production instruments, several of which still survive. He made at least one guitar-zither, now in the possession of the Gibson company; a harp guitar with the sub-bass strings running the full length of the body, rather than from the headstock to the bridge; and at least two lyre-mandolins. His influence for these instruments was obviously the European lyre-guitars which would have no-doubt been imported into America. Almost certainly Gibson was attracted to the shape of his lyre-mandolins, and used a picture of one of them, overlaid with a photograph of his head, as the centrepiece of his business cards and instrument labels.
Simply looking at the pictures gives some ideas about the new ideas that were developed by Orville. The first feature that would have been noticed by players at the time was the shapes of the instruments - particularly those of the mandolin, mandola and mandocello. All previous mandolins were of the “taterbug” or “potato” shape as originated in Naples. Many early mandolin makers were immigrant Italians, including members of the Vinaccia family, and the American-made instruments are indistinguishable from those built in Europe. The deep multi-ribbed backs, and bent-back soundboards are found in the instruments from both countries. Although Gibson’s “A” model is symmetrical, is has a waist near the top of the body rather than the lute shape of the other models.
The second feature that was a new departure from the taterbug instruments was the carved top and back. Orville is said to have also made violins, and took the violin concept to the mandolin by carving the top and back, though he didn’t use f holes, retaining the Neapolitan-style oval hole instead.
The third feature that a player from that time would be struck by was the size of these instruments. Neapolitan-style mandolins and violins have a string length of about 13 inches. The mandolins of Orville Gibson had string lengths of 15 inches. The guitars were equally large - a common American made guitar of the time might have a body width at the lower bout of a little more than 14 inches, as found in the largest of the Martin Company’s models at the time - Orville’s guitars were 17 inches or more at the lower bout. His harp-guitars were up to 20 inches wide.
The final feature that players of the time would have noticed at a first glance was the stringing. The mandolin family instruments had used metal strings as standard for many years, but Orville’s guitars were perhaps the first guitars to be designed specifically for metal strings rather than gut.
It would take a close examination to reveal the major difference between the instruments of Orville Gibson and those of other makers. This difference was the subject of his patent which was filed in 1895, and granted as patent number 598 245, on February the First 1898. [SEE OVERHEAD TWO] The accompanying description makes clear the intentions of Orville’s design. His introductory sentence sets the problem that he finds with other mandolins. Orville says, “Heretofore, mandolins and like instruments have been constructed of too many parts...”. When talking about the technological developments of his design, he says that the components are “carved to leave the layer-grains of the wood in the same position they occupied in natural growth” and later says the construction is free of “internal braces, splices, blocks, or bridges... which, if employed, would rob the instrument of much of its volume of tone and the peculiar excellency thereof.” A final feature of his design is the importance with which he regards the internal cavity of the instrument, carving underneath part of the fingerboard in the neck section to increase the internal air cavity.
In practice, this meant the Orville Gibson was using a single piece of wood for the rims (or sides as we would say in Britain), the neck, and the head, without any joints. The back of the instrument was not carved from the same piece of wood, at least not in a form attached to the sides, and, of course, the soundboard was of a different species of wood.
It is probable that Gibson developed his tension-free principles from looking at violins. Brian Harvey, writing in The Violin Family and its Makers in the British Isles, mentions British made violins in which the bass bar has been carved as part of the soundboard itself, rather than being made as a separate piece and added afterwards. This idea occurs as early as in the instruments of William Baker, the seventeenth-century Oxford maker, as also discussed by Peter Trevelyan, writing in the Galpin Society Journal, in 1996. Other factory-produced violins from the continent also has an integral bass bar, for example the opened violin on display next door in the Edinburgh University Collection. Possibly Gibson had even heard of instruments like rebecs, or modern folk variants of them, which had their pear shaped bodies carved out of the one piece of wood.
The implications of Orville’s ideas are obvious. The first problem that Orville was faced with when putting his ideas into practice was finding suitable wood, especially the large planks of hardwood required for the rim, neck, and head piece. Even in a mandolin the a piece of wood approximately 30 inches long, by 11½ inches wide, and 2 or so inches thick was required. In a guitar, the piece of wood needs to be about 39 inches long, 18 inches wide, and perhaps 3 inches thick. The wood for the backs of the instruments must also be found, and should ideally match that of the rest of the instrument.
It is probable that the majority of Orville’s wood came from reclaimed furniture - he was known to have built a violin which used wood from the old Boston Town Hall. His usual wood of choice appears to be walnut, although birch and maple are also found. Soundboards were usually of Adirondack spruce, occasionally fir or cedar.
Gibson’s second problem was actually making the instrument. Using wood in which the growth rings follow what was found in nature presents difficulties when trying to make the rims of the instrument. Although cutting the outside shape is not at all difficult, since the centre of the instrument is solid, the wood is very fragile when trying to cut out the inside, leaving only about three millimetres width. Some parts of the ribs would have fibres perhaps only a centimetre long, and the wood at the bottom of the instrument had a grain length no more than the thickness of the sides. The patent drawing shows the rims were thicker at the bottom. This was partly due to the bottom of the instrument having the tailpiece attached, with all of the tension of the strings on it, but the fragile structure may also have played its part.
Removing the excess wood in the centre of the instrument was probably mostly done with a large fretsaw, but the final shaping of the inner surfaces must have been a slow and nerve-wracking job. Gibson would have had to use an outer mould, holding the instrument firmly in place, and was probably forced to also clamp sections of the structure to the mould so that it did not lift and possibly tear as the inside was spokeshaved to completion. The job would certainly have taken considerably longer that bending the ribs, as other instrument makers were doing.
There is one further aspect of Orville’s method of working which should be mentioned. When an instrument maker looks at the “F” model mandolins, with their carved scroll and body points, they are aware that the work in bending the sides to fit those shapes is mach more than in the symmetrical “A” model instruments. This is reflected in the price of new mandolins today, where luthiers sell “F” model instruments at up to twice the price of “A” models. Discussions on the Internet mandolin list frequently refer to the scroll as basically “a very expensive strap holder”. However, for Gibson, carving the rims out of the solid probably found the work on the “F” model instruments to be only a little more time consuming than the “A” model. Carving the “F” model shape out of the solid is fairly straight-forward, and solidbody electric guitars of today make use of many different body shapes. The inside carving of the “F” model is slightly easier than that of the “A” model using Gibson’s techniques, as the mandolin is held more firmly in the mould by the scroll and various body points.
When the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company was formed in 1902, the intention was to make instruments exactly as Orville had done, but his tension-free principles were soon abandoned step-by-step. The reasons are fairly obvious: The first sign of a problem occurred in April 1903, just six months after the company was formed, when the board of directors voted to call for an additional $2000 of treasury stock, an additional 20% of their original operating budget. The board had failed to realise that the wood required to make the instruments was more expensive than that of ordinary timber.
One of the main problems was the large sizes required for the instruments. A method was soon put in practice to help out, when the neck and head were spliced to the rims, using some of the waste wood that was cut out from the middle of the body. The wood needed for a mandolin needed be only about 17 inches long instead of 30, a saving of about 40% for that part of the instrument. Two piece backs were also increasingly common, allowing other small pieces of wood to be used. Soon the other main feature of Orville’s patent - the sides carved from solid - was to be replaced by sides bent in the normal fashion as found in violins and other stringed instruments. This meant that the wide pieces of wood were no longer required - the two sides could be cut from a piece of wood no more than 3/8 of an inch thick after it was sawed into two bookmatched halves.
Other changes made by the Gibson company were beneficial to the final instrument. The backs of Orville’s instruments were carved, but a large area in the centre was flat, and the wood was left quite thick. The Gibson company altered the shape of the backs to a curve which was closer to that of a violin, and made similar changes to the soundboard, which in Orville’s instruments was domed almost to the edge. They also reduced the string length from 15 inches to a more manageable 13 7/8 inches - taking the standard 13 inch violin string length and adding 7/8 of an inch to compensate from the width of the frets.
Despite all of Orville Gibson’s early ideas, the company that used his name had developed a more successful instrument without any additional input from Orville himself. The instruments that were being built five or six years after the Gibson company was formed were of a quality that makes them sought after and played at the end of the twentieth century.
As those instruments are still highly regarded, it is perhaps worthwhile finishing by considering opinions of the tone quality of Orville Gibson’s instruments. The tone quality of the instrument was the primary objective of his tension-free design. Orville’s instruments must have been highly regarded in his day, as it appears he had all of the work he could handle, and one of the reasons for forming the Gibson manufacturing company was to increase the output for his product. Modern opinion tends to be less flattering.
Roger Siminoff, an American researcher and instrument maker, made a reconstruction of the trademark lyre-mandolin in 1975, and the following year was consulted by Gibson when an original lyre-mandolin was sent to the company for restoration and refinishing. Siminoff’s reconstruction took him about 100 hours to make, and the restored original was played once it was completed. He states that it “differed some from the one I built - especially in its deeper body - but like mine, it did have poor tone, power, and sustain”.
The leading American guitar collector, Scott Chinery, was asked in an interview about his favourite instruments to play, and his second-mentioned instrument was an 1898 Gibson guitar, commenting that “its ... design is as innovative and unique today as it was almost 100 years ago ... With this guitar you get the roundness of a flat-top, with the projection of an archtop”. Other commentators are less kind - the July 1984 edition of Vintage Gallery shows an early guitar and concludes with the comment that “Although these guitars look outstanding, they are relatively difficult to play and have a deep, dead tone”.
Perhaps the most knowledgeable person concerning early American guitars, George Gruhn, writing with Walter Carter, best sums it up, stating that “In light of Orville Gibson’s profound influence on mandolin and guitar design, one might reasonably expect his instruments to be among the best of their kind ever made. One would probably be disappointed. Although a fair assessment of their quality is difficult, since genuine Orville-made instruments are rare and seldom found in good playing condition, these instruments are typically rather hard to play. Furthermore, to modern ears, the large bodies give them a deeper, deader tone that makes them sound decidedly inferior to the instruments that the Gibson company was making by 1908”.