A Brief History Of Gibson Mandolins

There are very many styles and varieties of mandolins made by very many manufacturers and independent luthiers. But, typically referred to in the USA are those manufactured by the Gibson Co. (or patterned after the Gibsons).

Prior to about 1900, the typical mandolin was the Neapolitan style. The oldest surviving instrument was made by the Vinaccia family of Naples, Italy around the mid-1700's. This type of mandolin has a bowl-shaped back and a top made from a flat piece of wood bent over a hot poker forming a slight kink or ridge about where the bridge fits. This kink is important, and is what marks the advancement of luthiery credited to the Neapolitans, for it strengthens the top enough to withstand higher tension strings.

Then around 1900, Orville Gibson of Kalamazoo, Michigan created two new styles of mandolins. Inspired by the way violins are constructed, he made his mandolins with a carved back (much flatter than the bowl-back of the Neapolitans, but carved to shape, none the less) and, importantly, the top carved in an arched shape. The plainer of the two styles he called his "A" style - it has a simple round teardrop shape profile to the body and a simple plain peghead. His other fancier style he called his "F" - it has a fancy body profile with projecting points and scroll and the peghead is likewise of a fancy shape. [It is said that these designations were short for "Artist" and "Florentine", but the names are confusing because they have been applied by the Gibson Co. and other makers to various other styles of mandolins. The letter designations, A and F, have been more consistently applied to the styles described.]

A few years later, some moneymen (and Orville) formed the Gibson Co. and were very successful in manufacturing mandolins, guitars and later banjos. The Gibson Co. used the following letter designations for its instruments:

These letter designations were suffixed with a number indicating the level of materials and ornamentation. No number for the plainest of a series and up to (originally) the number 4 for the most highly ornamented. So, for example, in 1916: a plain "A" was the least ornamented of the plain bodied mandolins with no inlay on the peghead; the "A1" added "The Gibson" inlayed in pearl script on the peghead. I don't know if there was any particualar year in which Gibson offered a full line of A, A1, A2, A3, A4 and F, F1, F2, F3, F4; however, the nonmenclature during this period is that the higher the number, the more highly ornamented as compared to others of similar vintage.

All Gibson mandolins had oval soundholes (and guitars too; which had either round or oval holes) until 1922. In that year, Gibson introduced a level of master-grade instruments under the watchful eye of its top engineer, Mr. Lloyd Loar. These instruments designated as the F5 mandolin, L5 guitar, H5 mandola, K5 mandocello, no mandobass and exactly one A5 mandolin; were characterized by very high quality workmanship, materials, ornamentation AND f-shaped soundholes. The F5 mandolin also has a longer neck than the previous mandolins allowing easier access to the higher frets. These instruments signed by Mr. Loar have become highly prized collector items.

The period from the 1910's thru the 1930's has thus become to be regarded by many as the golden age of American stringed instrument manufacturing. All this focus on Gibson instruments is not to slight the many other fine instruments from other manufacturers during this time. Mandolin varieties include: the cylinder-backed Vegas, Martins with their flat back and kinked tops, the fiddle-headed Lyon & Healys as well as the many fine bowl-backed European mandolins. But the fact of the matter is that Gibson was, by far, the most successful of all, and so its terminology has been adopted my most mandolin affectionatos.

From the 1930's on, begins what many see as a long decline in quality of mandolins, Gibson's and others too. This is somewhat understandable as the mandolin was not the popular seller it once was. Post 1930 terminology is also more confusing than the golden age terms. For example: Gibson had F7's and F12's which were of lower grade than the F5's of the same years - violating the higher number = higher grade system. A-style mandolins came to have f-holes, and the oval-holed F-styles were no longer made. In the late 50's Gibson made a fancy oval-hole A5 with two points on the body. (There are golden age examples of this style also - considered in casual speech to be of the "A" variety, regardless of what its manufacturer might have actually called it.) The early 70's saw a scrolled "A" made by Gibson, but with the scroll not really carved to shape, just a lump made to look like a scroll - thus violating the "F" = scroll rule. Keeping track of all these variations would be a bewildering task.

Through all that time, Mr. Loar's F5 remained the standard by which others were judged. Many manufacturers to a greater or lesser (mostly lesser) degree made F-style mandolins in the F5 configuration. Many independent luthiers copied Loar's F5 - some perhaps exceeded its quality. Finally, in 1978, Gibson itself decided to try to recapture the level of quality of the old Loar F5. Mustering all its in-house knowledge and drawing on outside expertise from some of these same independent luthiers who had studied and duplicated the Loar design, they re-introduced the master-grade mandolin; now designated as the F5-L. [Actually patterned closer to the "Fern" style F5's from the years shortly after Mr. Loar left the Gibson Co. - for those who split such hairs.] The lesser configured Gibson being designated as the F5-G.

Now at the cusp of the 21st century we have entered the second golden age of stringed instrument building. Many independent luthiers, small and medium size mfr.s are building - not just mandolins, but guitars, banjos, harps, dulcimers, etc, etc. These range from student-grade up to (and in some cases perhaps exceeding) Loar-grade instruments. Many larger manufacturers are making (mostly lower end, but some higher grade) instruments by the thousands. More telling that we have truly entered a new golden age is the renewed interest in a wide variety of styles; not just the F5, which everybody tried to copy for so long. Each maker has his (hers/its) own terminology for his (hers/its) various styles of mandolins. The names "Artist" and "Performer", for example, were used by the Flatiron Co. (owned by Gibson, and recently closed-up) - the "Artist", I think, being the more expensive.

Common speech has mostly stuck to the Gibson terms from the first golden age:

For more information, the following books may help:

Acoustic Guitars And Other Fretted Instruments - A Photographic History - by George Gruhn & Walter Carter pub GPI Books / Miller Freeman ISBN 0-87930-240-2

The Early Mandolin - The Mandolino and the Neapolitan Mandoline - by James Tyler & Paul Sparks pub Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-318516-4

Written By Donald Lashomb