Gibson was founded as a mandolin builder in 1902, and from the outset it promoted a standardized, wide-ranging family of instruments, all featuring Orville Gibson’s revolutionary carved-top design.
The family extended beyond the mandola and mandocello, which had existed in one form or another as Italian-style bowlbacks, to encompass a mandolin-inspired guitar (the Style O Artist) and a mando-bass. Of all these new instruments, the most successful was the mandocello, and the pinnacle of Gibson mandocello design was the K-4.
The K-4 was not the biggest or most innovative of Gibson’s mando-family creations. The Style J mando-bass and Style U harp guitar were larger, but they were large to the point of being unwieldy curiosities. The mando-bass was arguably the most revolutionary of all of Gibson’s instruments, being the first plucked/fretted bass (at a time when the typical “combo” bass instrument was either a bowed upright or a tuba). The harp-guitar’s extra rack of sub-bass strings looked like a good idea on paper but proved difficult to navigate, and not as effective as Gibson had envisioned. Gibson’s mandola was innovative in that it established the tenor mandola, tuned the same as a viola, as the standard for the instrument. Unfortunately, the mandola’s connection with the viola extended to the viola’s status as an instrument that has always been lost in the shadow of the violin. The mandola lacked the high-end response of the mandolin, and the existence of its low-C string was often ignored by arrangers, who typically wrote mandola parts that could be covered by a third mandolin.
The Gibson mandocello, on the other hand, worked quite well. Although the early A-style models had a smaller body than a guitar, the scale length was the same as a guitar, and the range was slightly lower (two full steps). However, the mandocello’s double-string setup gave it more cutting power on single-note passages and more depth in the lower register than any guitar could muster. It had – and still has – a unique voice. Gibson sales manager Lewis A. Williams, whose prose in Gibson catalogs often reached evangelical fervor, called the mandocello “the richest in tone of the plectrum instruments.” Just as the cello – not the bass – is the anchor of a string quartet, so the mandocello became a vital component of the mandolin quartets and larger ensembles that sprung up in the first two decades of the 20th century.
Gibson’s first mandocellos featured the symmetrical pear-shaped body of the A-style mandolins. The K, K-1, and K-2 mandocelllos, all introduced in the company’s inaugural catalog in 1902, differed only in degree of ornamentation. The mandolin offering, however, included a series of models with “F-style” bodies, featuring a scroll on the upper bass bout and three (later just two) body points. By 1911, Gibson was at the leading edge of the mandolin craze, and expanded the F-style design into the mandola and mandocello line (and adapted it for guitar).
The K-4 mandocello had the same style number and appointments as the F-4 mandolin: scrolled, two-point body with oval soundhole; bound ebony fingerboard with an upper-register extension over the soundhole on the treble side; tuners made by the Handel company of New York, with buttons inlaid with floral patterns; scrolled peghead shape with “double-flowerpot” pearl inlay and “The Gibson” logo; and rich “red mahogany” stain finish lightly shaded toward the center of the top and back to create a hint of a sunburst effect.
Although the K-4 differed from the F-4 only in size, it made a much stronger visual impression, like a full-size work of art compared to the miniature version represented by the F-4 mandolin. And the K-4 carried a premium price in 1911 of $70 wholesale, compared to $55 for an F-4. The comparable guitar – the scroll-body Style O “Artist” – was only $42.50. Even the gigantic mando-bass was cheaper at $50. Only the Style U harp guitar cost more, with a wholesale price of $80.
The K-4 appeared just as Gibson was hitting its stride as the leader of the mandolin movement in America. Gibson published manuals on how to form mandolin orchestras, promoted music publishers who offered orchestral arrangements, and participated in the activities of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists and Guitarists. Surprisingly, the mandocello and tenor mandola appear to have been a hard sell, and the reason was music notation. Apparently, most manufacturers and music publishers took the easiest course of action and promoted the octave mandola, whose music could be read easily by a mandolin player, while they ignored the mandocello and the tenor mandola, which required transposing.
Gibson’s Lewis Williams attacked the notational issue in Catalog H with a warning about a mandolin orchestra that could be “defeated through its own stupidity.” He went on to extol the mandocello and mandola as saviors of the mandolin group; “The jaded, listlessness, drying-up, dying out Mandolin Club without tenor or bass voices when once jacked up with the tenor mandola and mandocello will give every player such brimfulness of fire, life and musical vigor as to make the fingers impetuous in their eagerness to turn the pages ahead of the hurrying eyes.”
The K-4 remained Gibson’s fanciest mandocello through the 1910s and into the early ’20s. Its price increased steadily, peaking at $195 wholesale ($345 list) in 1920, then falling back as the mandolin began to fall out of favor. In 1922, Gibson attempted to revive the mandolin orchestra with a new family of instruments designed by acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar. Although Loar’s F-5 mandolin and H-5 mandola were based on the scroll-body designs of the F-4 and H-4, respectively, Loar made a dramatic departure from that tradition with the K-5, for which he simply appropriated the body of his L-5 guitar. While the K-5 sounded great, it took away the mandocello’s visual identity. And although the red-finished, scroll-bodied K-4 cut a more striking appearance than the Cremona brown sunburst, symmetrically shaped K-5, the K-5 was priced at $275 (list) and the K-4 was dropped to $200.
In the end, it didn’t matter, because the end of the mandolin era was imminent. Gibson listed the K-4 through 1939 but few if any were made after the 1920s.
Today, the K-4 remains the pinnacle of Gibson’s mandocello design. Just as oval-hole mandolins have a different sound than f-hole models, so the K-4 speaks with a more clearly defined “cutting” quality than the f-hole guitar-bodied K-5 or the modern f-hole scroll-body models by other makers. It is one of those rare instruments with a unique look, a unique voice and a continuing appeal to players.
Above Photo: Walter Carter
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jun. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.