In the opinion of most American mandolinists, Gibson brought mandolin design to a level of perfection in 1922, with the introduction of the Master Model F-5. It wasn’t much earlier – 25 years or so – that Orville Gibson created the F model as one of two mandolin body styles (the other being the symmetrical A) to carry his new concept of stringed instruments with a carved, arched top. However, Orville’s instruments differ considerably from the ’22 Master Model, and even from the Gibson company’s F-style models of 1910.
The Gibson F-2 you see here, circa 1905, illustrates many of the evolutionary changes.
The most obvious difference between this mandolin and today’s F models is the point on the upper bass bout. Orville’s mandolins had three points, like this one, but the bass point was purely ornamental, and Gibson did away with it in 1910. The point on the upper treble bout points downward, whereas on the two-point models, it points upward.
Another obvious difference is the inlaid pickguard. Orville’s instruments had a pickguard of real tortoiseshell, trimmed with mother of pearl, inlaid into the top of the mandolin. On an Orville-made instrument, the guard might extend completely under the strings. This F-2 retains the inlaid pickguard – smaller than the typical Orville guard, but placed to better protect the top from pick wear. In 1908, the inlaid guard gave way to Gibson’s elevated type, which is used to this day on archtop instruments.
The differences in body size are not so noticeable, but with a ruler in hand, they are significant. This mandolin measures approximately 15″ from the end to lower bouts the top of the scroll, and 101/2″ across the widest part of the body. With the move to the two-point body, Gibson reduced those dimensions to about 14″ long (to the scroll) and 10″ wide.
Orville’s mandolins were quite deep, with a rim dimension of at least 2″. The 1905 F-2 appears at first to have a streamlined body, with a rim depth of only 11/2″ deep. It seems as if the company went too far, because with the two-point models, the depth increased to 15/8″, and with the f-hole models of 1922 the depth increased again, to 13/4″. However, the thin rim of the ’05 F-2 is deceptive. The arch of its top and back are more pronounced than on later models, so the actual depth of the body is greater than those with wider rims.
One of the more subtle, but most important, differences is the bridge. Orville’s bridges were very low, and the angle of the string “break” over the bridge was slight. While most of Orville’s design features made for an instrument that could be played harder and louder than the traditional bowlbacks of the day, the low bridge negated some of that advantage. The neck of this Gibson is set at a greater angle, which requires a higher bridge and a greater “break” angle, which in turn increases the string tension on the top of the instrument, resulting in greater volume. Gibson would continue improving bridge designs, with a higher bridge, patented saddle inserts (in 1909) to provide better intonation, and a patented height-adjustable design (still the industry standard) in 1920.
Neapolitan bowlback mandolins of the 1890s typically had a natural top finish, as did the guitars of Martin, Washburn, and other makers of the day. A dark finish was unusual, but almost all of Orville’s surviving instruments have a black or dark-brown top. Gibson changed the standard top finish on F models to “golden orange” (a.k.a. “pumpkin”) in 1908, but most F-4s and virtually all F-2s retained the black top until the introduction of red mahogany stain in 1914.
Back and Sides
Turning the mandolin over reveals a major difference between Orville’s mandolins and the Gibsons of the 1910s and 1920s. The back of this instrument is walnut, which was Orville’s preferred wood. Gibson catalogs, from the founding of the company in 1902, described the back wood as maple, but it would take a number of years for the company to catch up with its own advertising. By ’08, Gibson was making F-4s with maple back and sides, but the great majority of mandolins and guitars were made of the cheaper maple look-a-like – birch. Not until the ’20s, did “maple” in the catalog truly indicate maple.
The walnut back of the 1905 F-2 has a rounded shape, much like a modern maple-back mandolin, but far different from the back of an Orville-made mandolin. An Orville-made instrument would have a carved back, but it would be flat across the middle with a “lip” around the edge.
A modern mandolin has a definite neck joint where a small neck heel is typically defined by a celluloid heel cap (or else covered by a small extension of the back). Orville’s instruments didn’t have a conventional neck joint; instead, the rims continued into the neck, and neck was slightly hollowed out. The neck joint of the ’05 F-2 falls somewhere between, with a massive, but not well-defined, heel. Though there is a line of binding material at the 12th fret, marking the point where the neck meets the body, the body continues up the neck, leaving only about eight frets clear.
The first Gibson catalog describes the tuners on F mandolins as “friction pegs,” but they were typically banjo-style tuners, not violin-style pegs. At the time, right-angle tuners were relegated to the A-style models, but by 1905, fancy Handel units with inlaid tuner buttons and engraved plates were standard equipment on higher Gibsons.
Orville’s label used an image of him framed by the arms of a lyre mandolin, and that image continued on labels such as the one on this F-2, after the Gibson company was formed. Orville’s image disappeared from Gibson labels in 1908.
Gibson finished its first round of improvements on Orville’s designs by 1910, and the F mandolins went through the 1910s – the height of the mandolin’s popularity in America – with no major changes. As the ’20s began, with the mandolin’s popularity waning, Gibson brought another round of design changes to the F-style, starting with the height-adjustable bridge and the adjustable truss rod (the latter was incorporated in 1921, and both were across-the-line upgrades). In ’22, Lloyd Loar brought the F-style mandolin to what many consider the pinnacle of design, adding f holes and parallel tone bars, lengthening the neck, and elevating the fingerboard off the top.
The full evolution of the Gibson mandolin took only about 20 years, but instruments like this F-2 show there were many steps between Orville and Loar.
This article originally appeared in VG January 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.