The priority Gibson put on mandolins in its early years was reflected in the company’s original name – Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., Ltd. And the fact Gibson strung its guitars with steel strings suggests it may have viewed them as an extension of the mandolin family rather than as an instrument with its own voice. In 1908, the “suggestion” of Gibson’s mandolin approach to guitar design became obvious fact with the introduction of a new Style O model with a scroll body shape.
Style O models had been part of the Gibson line, along with L-series models, from the company’s beginnings in 1902, and although the body shapes were distinctly Gibson, with circular lower bouts, they were symmetrical in shape like any other guitars of the era. But the 1908 Style O was something altogether different.
Although it was not simply a larger-scale version of Gibson’s F-style mandolins, which featured a scroll and three points on the body, plus a scroll cutout on the headstock, the Style O’s design was nevertheless clearly influenced by the F mandolins (one of Orville Gibson’s original designs dating back to the 1890s). The upper bass bout of the guitar extended into a scroll, as it did on the mandolin, but the design was refined from an artistic standpoint, such that the line from the scroll (where the neck meets the body on the bass side) continued on the opposite side of the fingerboard through the upper treble bout, which extended outward to a point. The lower bout retained the typical Gibson circular shape of earlier models..
Gibson initially called the new Style O “Special Grand Concert,” but it was the only grand-concert-sized guitar (16″ wide) in the line. In 1911, when a more conventional 16″ guitar (the L-4) appeared, catalogs began referring to the Style O by the name most collectors call it today – the Style O Artist.
The Style O had a radical appearance compared to guitars of 1908, and that would continue throughout the model’s production period from 1908 to 1925. Not only was it radical in appearance, it was functionally very modernistic and innovative. Whereas most guitars of the period had necks with 12 frets clear of the body, the design of the Style O’s upper treble bout provided 15 frets clear of the body. Although it did not have the circular or cupped shape of the cutaways we’re familiar with today, it functioned the same, allowing easy access into the higher register.
In other respects, the Style O was a typical Gibson instrument. Like all Gibsons from the time of Orville until Gibson’s first flat-tops appeared in the mid ’20s, the Style O featured a carved spruce top. Although catalogs specified maple back and sides, the Style O, like all the other Gibsons of its period (except the F-4 mandolin), was actually made of birch. Like the L-4 and the earlier O-series guitars, the Style O had an oval soundhole (the smaller models in the L-series had a round soundhole). The O’s mahogany neck with dark center lamination, ebony fingerboard with white binding, and pearl dot inlays, were all standard Gibson fare for the period. The bound peghead initially sported only a pearl-inlaid fleur de lis; “The Gibson” in pearl was added circa 1915. The bridges were standard Gibson-style, starting with a non-height-adjustable ebony unit and switching to height-adjustable in 1921. The tailpieces, too, were standard Gibson for the period and changed with the bridge, from a trapeze-style with a crosspiece of tortoiseshell-grain celluloid and strings anchored in the crosspiece by pins (similar to bridge pins), to a more modern trapeze with a metal crosspiece. Early on, the finish was usually black on top with uniform red mahogany stain on the back and sides, becoming shaded mahogany finish in the late 1910s.
From a manufacturing point of view, the Style O had a more complex design than that of a guitar with a symmetrical body shape, and the carved top and back further complicated production. In addition, the model was well-ornamented (compared to other Gibsons), which required more labor. Consequently, the Style O was the most expensive guitar in the Gibson catalog through most of its existence. Pricing fluctuated, starting with a list of $150. A price list for Catalog H (ca. 1911-’12) shows a dramatic drop in pricing to $77 list, although catalogs continued to list the model at $150. By comparison, when the Style O listed for $150, the next expensive model, the L-4, listed for $124. Prices did drop, then rose again, peaking in 1920 at $304 for the Style O and $230 for the L-4. Only a year later, as Gibson began to experience financial difficulties as a result of the rising popularity of the banjo, prices again plunged to $150 for the Style O and $120 for the L-4. The Style O was last listed in 1923 at $225. The L-5 had been introduced at $275, and on the price list of January 1, 1924, the Style O was gone, although examples exist with serial numbers from 1925.
There is certainly no question that the Style O was – and still is – a striking guitar. The body shape, with its bold lines, makes the instrument stand out in any group, and they are seen often in group photographs from the mandolin orchestra era. Their visual appeal and rarity make them highly sought by collectors today. Unfortunately, their performance quality makes them considerably less appealing to musicians. The tops are relatively thick, resulting in limited volume, and the necks tend to be large, even after late 1921, when they were fitted with Gibson’s patented adjustable truss rod. Consequently, photos of Style O Artist models in the hands of professional guitarists are few and far between. The best known artist (if not the only artist) to be photographed with one is blues singer Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958).
While the Style O Artist model may be more appealing visually and as a collectors’ item than as a great-sounding utility guitar, its design continues to have merit. An instrument with similar specifications, but a lighter, more carefully graduated top and more modern neck dimensions, could be an exceedingly fine guitar.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Vintage Gibson Style O 1917