Orville Gibson A model

Orville Gibson A model
1896 Orville Gibson A model
1896 Orville Gibson A model. Photo: Eric C. Newell.

All carved-top guitars and mandolins trace their ancestry back to Orville Gibson of Kalamazoo, Michigan. However, as this A model mandolin illustrates, Orville’s designs went through considerable refinement through the early years of the Gibson company’s existence to reach the standard of design that we know today.

The highlights of Orville’s life are well-known:

Born in Chateaugay, New York, in 1856.

Moved to Kalamazoo and began making instruments by 1894 (the date on a small medallion in an instrument now owned by the Gibson company).

Obtained a patent in 1898. Though the patent illustrated a carved-top A-style mandolin, it focused on the principle of having the back and sides carved from a single piece of wood.

Applied his carved-top design to mandolins with a pear-shaped body (A-style) and a scrolled body (F-style), as well as to guitars.

In 1902, sold his patent and the rights to his name to five men who formed The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. Ltd.

Had an immediate falling out, after which he had virtually no involvement with the company. He was eventually granted a monthly pension.

Died in Ogdensburg, New York, in 1918.

It’s not possible to make many sweeping statements about Orville’s instruments, because so few of them have survived – probably around 25, and that includes A mandolins, F mandolins, lyre-mandolins, guitars, a harp guitar, a zither, and a 10-string lute-guitar.

In the case of this month’s featured mandolin, just trying to date it creates an enigma. The label features Orville’s head surrounded by the arms of a lyre mandolin – a familiar image from the labels used by the Gibson company until about 1908. The label includes the date of Orville’s patent (Feb. 1, 1898), so it would be reasonable to date it no earlier than 1898.

However, underneath the top is the penciled date Oct. 10, 1896, so the label had to have been applied later. Either the instrument lingered unfinished for two years in Orville’s shop or Orville kept track of the owner and put a label in it after his patent had been approved. Near the date is an impressed brand stamp we’ve never seen on any instrument; “The Gibson Mandoline, made by O.H. Gibson, Kalamazoo, Mich.”

The neck extends in a long volute about halfway up the back of the headstock – sign of a grafted-on headstock. However, playing wear around the nut area of the neck reveals wood grain going continuously from the neck into the headstock, so Orville’s volute appears to be no more than an aesthetic reference to an earlier construction technique – similar to the diamond-shaped volute still found on some of Martin’s high-end models.

The peghead shape is broad but doesn’t appear to be as broad as the “paddle heads” typically associated with Orville. And the top edge of the peghead is carved with curlicues and the slightest hint of the broken-scroll pediment that John D’Angelico would use 40 years later.

The tuners, with their front plates and concealed gears, are unusual for Orville, though they would not be unusual on bowl-back mandolins of the era. The prevailing thought among collectors is that Orville used right-angle tuners on his A models and banjo-style straight-through tuners (or friction pegs) on his F mandolins. These tuners do, in fact, have right-angle gears. The use of fancy tuners probably ties in with the peghead carving.

On the other hand, this is not a fancy mandolin by Orville standards. It lacks the star-and-crescent inlay on the headstock as well as the pearl-ornamented tortoiseshell pickguard inlaid into the top that some of his mandolins have. The only pearl on this instrument is an abalone soundhole rosette.

This mandolin has the hollow body extending halfway up the neck, which is a typical Orville feature, as is the conical bore into the neck block.

Other features of this model can be better illustrated by comparing them to an A model made by the Gibson company from the early 1910s; Orville’s mandolin measures 11″ across the top – an inch wider the than the Gibson.

Orville’s mandolin looks deeper, but the rims are actually narrower – 11/2″ compared to 13/4″ inches on the Gibson.

The depth of the carving on the top and back more than make up the difference in rim dimension. Orville’s top reaches a height of 10/16″ above the rims and his back is 12/16″ above the rim. The Gibson’s top and back both rise only to about 5/16″ above the rim.

The shape of the carve is noticeably different. Orville’s top and back rise steadily from the rim and then form a large flat area about 8″ across. The Gibson carve dips below the rim, then curves steadily with virtually no flat area in the center of the top.

The Orville’s elongated body does not leave much neck for the player to work with; the heel taper begins at the fifth fret and the body binding meets the fingerboard at the seventh fret. On the Gibson A, the heel taper begins at the seventh fret – it’s a much less obtrusive V-shaped heel – and the top binding joins the neck at the 12th fret. Surprisingly, in light of the differences, the scale length on the two is the same – 133/4″.

Though the Gibson-company mandolin of the 1910s, which is still a viable instrument, is clearly a direct descendant of Orville’s mandolin, it went through a remarkable number of design “generations” in less time than a single human generation.

This article originally appeared in Vintage Guitar magazine January 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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