Vintage Guitar - December 2016 - Open - 52

COLUMN The (Way) Back Beat

mandolin. Six-strings were considered
adjuncts to accompany the mandolin orchestras actively promoted by Gibson; the
official name was The Gibson MandolinGuitar Company and their cable address was
"Gibmandlin." Mandolins were up-front
in the catalog and in far greater numbers
in artist endorsement photos. Well into
the '20s, guitars were rarely featured in
advertising, and instruments tabulated
by the Mandolin Archive research project
show an overwhelming preponderance of
mandolins. Still, guitars were an essential
part of the early line. Very early Gibson
guitars (1903-'08) have inconsistent features
and are so rarely encountered today as to
be difficult to categorize. The first models
were beautiful (in their own way), fascinating curios, but on the whole, of minimal
interest to modern players.
The Gibson company's initial offerings, as
shown in the first catalog of 1903, were the
L series of carved guitars retaining Orville's
pan-like top and back contours built to
varying dimensions; the L-1 (Standard or
Concert), L-2, and L-3 (Standard, concert
or Grand Concert) were offered at a price
spread of $44.32 to $101.95. Each was successively fancier but of similar lines, with
a tight-waisted, round-bottom body and
round soundhole. Higher-grade Style Os
had a large "paddle" peghead, wider waist,
very large oval soundhole, and progressively

elaborate trim (including pearl soundhole
rings and "zig-zag" body binding). Styles O
through O-3 were described in the spread
of Standard/Grand Concert size and priced
from $88.65 up to $212.77 (an astounding
sum in 1903) for the 16" Grand Concert
O-3, with a fully-inlaid fingerboard with
"Sydney pearl" patterns - "The richest
guitar yet offered!" There also exist early
Style O variations with enormous "Special
Grand concert" 18" body width - something pioneered by Orville. This would be
a short-lived concept, but its descendant
would reappear 30 years later.
Several styles of harp-guitar were offered,
as well, with prices up to $354.60 - part of
the reason these (and in fact all) pre-1910
Gibsons are very rare today. By 1905, some
were built with geared tuners and a traditional slotted headstock, while others had
paddle-shaped/banjo-style friction tuners,
which were awkward with steel strings.
Gibson first used a traditional glued-on pin
bridge was used at first, but within a few
years began to equip guitars with the tailpiece and f loating bridge common to mandolins. The company also soon embraced
the three-on-a-plate geared strip tuners that
for years would be another trademark, of
sorts. Finishes varied, as well - many early
models had a jet-black top, but the more
natural "orange" and shaded red sunburst
would become more common.

VINTAGE GUITAR

52

December 2016

(LEFT) An L-3 promo sheet from the early '20s, with
artwork unchanged from the teens. (RIGHT) Handcorrected 1909 figures indicate the increasingly liberal
terms the company offered as sales increased.

Well into the early '20s, Gibson asked
the customer to specify if the guitar was to
be equipped with gut strings (standard for
"fine" guitars of the time) or "wire" (steel)
strings more suited to the mandolin orchestra.
Early catalog listings emphasize "always state
whether gut or wire strings are wanted" in bold
type. The instruments would be expected to
perform better with steel - the tops are generally quite heavy - but it would be interesting
to try one gut-strung for comparison! Gibson
claimed to have won a blind test at an early
meeting of the American Guild of Banjoists,
Mandolinists and Guitarists: "Conditions
- gut and silk strings... Result - unanimous
Gibson verdict!"
From the beginning, Gibson promoted its
guitars as different, designed for projection
as opposed to the "sweet, diminutive" tone
of other six-strings. "A player can throw
such a tone about as far as he can throw
a pillow-sham," was Gibson's dismissal of
more traditional guitars. "The new and
highest ideal is not guitar tone, but harp
tone." To this end, it also admonished, "The
back of Gibson guitars should never be
held f lat against the clothing, as it impedes
vibration."


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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Vintage Guitar - December 2016 - Open

Contents
Vintage Guitar - December 2016 - Open - Cover
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