Part of the fallout from the guitar boom of the 1960s was an increased academic interest in guitars that manifested itself in the 1970s.
This ranged from Ph.D. theses in musicology – yielding our best biographies of classical players such as Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani – to the involvement of scientists trying to improve the guitar based on principles of physics. The latter efforts were actually initiated in collaboration between Dr. Michael Kasha, a physics professor at Florida State University since 1951, and luthier Richard Schneider, an apprentice of Mexican luthier Juan Pimentel, that began in the mid-1960s. This collaboration eventually added a third partner from Kalamazoo, Michigan – Gibson Guitars – and yielded the Gibson Mark series of acoustics, including the beautiful 1978 Gibson Mark 53.
Michael Kasha became interested in improving the classical guitar circa 1965. Encouraged by the classical guitar establishment, including Andres Segovia, Sophocles Papas, Mario Abril, and Vladimir Bobri (the famous editor of Guitar Review), he began to measure the sound response of great classical guitars, with the help of one E.E. Watson. Convinced he could improve the response and volume of the guitar by applying scientific principles, he began working with luthiers José Fernandez and the young Richard Schneider.
By 1971, Kasha was publishing many of his conclusions, which were basically three-fold; 1) Kasha loaded weight in or near the headstock to increase the transmission of string vibration down through the neck. This was counterbalanced with a weight in the tailblock. 2) The soundboard received a radical revision to the bracing system. Systems varied for classical and steel-stringed models, but basically it involved two transverse bars under the bridge and above the soundhole, then a sort of hybrid X and fan system, X on the upper bout, fanned on the lower, with braces getting thinner as they moved from bass to treble sides. A few brace detours occurred along the way. 3) Finally, Kasha came up with an “impedance-matching bridge” that was basically wide on the bass side and tapered on the treble.
Other improvements were also attempted, including making the back more resonant, etc. These were hardly the first attempts at such improvements! Ever since guitars graduated from ladder bracing, and certainly since the time of Torres, luthiers have been trying to figure out how to get the most from the soundboard. Makers had been working on resonating backs at least since the 1920s. But this effort was probably one of the earliest to apply scientific equipment and principles to the task. While this whole process involved physical analyses of woods and movement patterns of various frequencies and so forth, the actual process was also heavy on trial and error. Art directed by science.
Around ’72, Kasha and Schneider worked together on Kasha’s classical guitar ideas and signed an agreement to sell them through the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company, owners and builders of Gretsch and Baldwin/Burns guitars. That arrangement lasted only about a year, and in ’73 the pair entered an agreement with Gibson to develop a line of scientifically designed acoustic guitars, with Norlin picking up the development tab. The result was the much-heralded introduction of the Gibson Mark acoustics in ’75.
The Gibson Mark line consisted of five steel-stringed models. All were jumbo-bodied, with more rounded shoulders and lower bout than a typical square-shouldered Gibson dreadnought. They could be had in either natural or a sunburst with dark upper bout and a fairly thin band of stain around the lower. All sported 251/2″ scales and had a plastic ring around the soundhole. The top of the line was the Mark 99 in spruce and rosewood with an ebony fretboard, gold hardware, and bow-tie inlays ($2,199). These were basically custom-made by Schneider. The Mark 81 was the top production model, differing only in large pearl block inlays ($999). The Mark 72, a plainer rosewood model with less binding, chrome hardware, rosewood fingerboard, and dots ($749). The Mark 53 was maple-bodied with rosewood ‘board and dots ($649). The Mark 35 had a mahogany body with rosewood ‘board and dots ($569). Cases were an extra $109. Two 12-strings were briefly offered, the Mark 45-12, probably made of maple (two made in ’79), and the Mark 35-12 (12 made in ’77). Another model offered only in ’75 was the Kasha B, probably a classical (21 made).
The Mark 53 is a fine guitar. It’s got the big, tight, booming sound you’d expect from a well-made jumbo, bright and crisp as you’d want from a maple guitar. The workmanship is excellent, with five-ply binding on top, a nice, flamey back, and a maple neck. It sets up great for playing.
All that said, does the science that created it make it special? Maybe it’s because once you get into the realm of manufacturing guitars, any edge derived from the science gets rationalized out. Maybe it’s because science only takes you so far when it comes to the art of building guitars. In either case, however good this guitar sounds and plays, it’s not really remarkably better than any other really well-made guitar. And Gibson Marks didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, though sales picked up toward the end.
The Mark guitars were only offered for four years, until 1979. Only one custom Mark 99 was ever produced and sold. Of the Mark 81s, 431 were produced. The second most popular was the Mark 72 clocking in at 1,229 units. The maple Mark 53 saw 1,424 produced. The most popular was the mahogany Mark 35, with 5,226 made.
Whether or not Gibson Marks would have ultimately become a successful mainstay of the Gibson lineup, by the late ’70s, Gibson was in turmoil and transition, including moving production from Kalamazoo to Nashville. And its parent company, Norlin, was showing definite signs of wanting to get out of the guitar business. So, Gibson pulled the plug on the Mark. Michael Kasha and Richard Schneider continued working together on well-respected, essentially custom-made guitars over the subsequent years. Richard Schneider passed away in 1997, and today, Gibson Mark series guitars are the primary evidence left from that hopeful time when dreamers thought science could trump – or at least, enhance – art. The jury is still out on that, but Gibson Marks are eminently worth seeking out.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.