Orville Gibson’s Handmade 1906 Artist Mandolin

Proving a Point
Proving a Point

This instrument, bearing a handwritten label reading “Made by O.H. Gibson 1906 Kalamazoo Mich” is arguably the most elaborate scroll-model mandolin ever made by Orville Gibson.
The 1906 date is of interest because it is well after the 1902 incorporation of the Gibson Company. By 1903, Orville had sold his stock in the Gibson Company and had little if any ongoing relationship with the company. 1906 is the latest date we have encountered on any instrument produced by Orville Gibson.

While early instruments bear printed labels with the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company logo, this one has an entirely handwritten label and no indication anywhere that it was produced by the Gibson Company. It would appear Orville wanted to make it clear this piece was his own personal work, rather than a company product. A pearl inlay at the tip-end of the peghead is engraved “O.H. Gibson 1906.” The label makes no mention of the company. The handcrafted aluminum tailpiece differs from standard Gibson Company product. The tailpiece cover is engraved “O.H. Gibson,” rather than “The Gibson,” while the baseplate of the tailpiece is engraved “1906.”

The instrument is constructed very much like those Orville produced in the late 1890s; the neck joint is the early style he used (the heel of the neck is flush with the side rims), the volute and the friction tuners (rather than geared pegs) are typical, the carving of the back (with steeply angled arching at the edges and flat central expanse) is typical, the back, sides, and neck are constructed of walnut, as on most Orville-made instruments, and the body dimensions and shape are typical Orville.

Essentially, this instrument is a throwback to the structural techniques Orville used prior to the incorporation of the Gibson Company.

Although the earliest Gibson Company instruments feature construction essentially the same as Orville’s handmade models, the company soon introduced designs that abandoned his concepts in favor of construction more compatible with factory assembly. While there are no existing documents giving reasons for the changes, it’s safe to assume Orville’s technique of combining the neck and side rim of the body would have been very awkward, as would the deep relief carving of the scroll, the carving pattern of the back. The friction pegs would not appeal to most players. Orville’s mandolins feature a significantly larger body than later Gibson mandos, and most players agree the shallow neckset angle and low bridge do not work as well as the later design, with a higher bridge and steeper neckset.

What few records remain hint that Orville did not support company management’s decision to alter his design concepts to accommodate customer demands or easier production.

Why Orville produced this mandolin in 1906 is speculative. We have not encountered any other examples of instruments handmade by him after 1902. This was very likely made in an attempt to demonstrate that his concepts were indeed superior to the direction the company had taken, and perhaps to influence them to see the error of their ways. Whatever the reason, he produced this mandolin, and it is clear he intended this piece to be a presentation-grade instrument to show off his talents.

The instrument is in fine structural condition and good playing order. Its sound is notably different from later Gibson mandolins, but very much like the few other Orville-made mandos that are still playable. The tone might best be described as semiclassical.

The instrument was on display at the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo until 1961, when company president Ted McCarty made a ceremonial presentation to Maurice Berlin, the CEO of Chicago Musical Instrument Company (CMI). Gibson was purchased by CMI in 1944. After Berlin’s death, the instrument was passed to his son, Arnie, who had assumed the CEO position at CMI after his father’s retirement. It appears to have served primarily as a display piece, and thus shows very little playing wear.

Unlike other famous luthiers who produced relatively large numbers of instruments over a period of years, Orville had a short career as a luthier. The earliest instrument attributed to him is a 10-string mandolin/guitar bearing a small circular plate engraved “1894.”

Although it cannot be proven this is the date of his earliest instrument, no earlier examples have been found, and it has generally been accepted as the start of his career as a builder. Only a few examples of his personal work remain. His instruments feature carved tops and backs that were a radical departure from previous building techniques. While he stressed violin building principles of construction, his carving patterns and technique of incorporating the neck and the sides are radically different. He was an innovative builder with an artistic flare. He produced at least two lyre-shaped mandolins as well as scroll model mandolins and so-called “A-style” mandolins with a simple symmetrical pear-shaped body.

He made guitars in a variety of sizes, and most are notably large for instruments of the 1890s. While the Gibson Company abandoned many of Orville’s structural concepts early in its history, it’s clear his designs laid the foundation for the company’s products. The concept of the carved mandolin and guitar appear to originate with Orville rather than to have been an evolutionary concept built on designs of previous guitar or mandolin builders. Although Orville’s total personal output of instruments was very low, he was one of the most innovative luthiers in history.

For a maker who produced only a few instruments in 12 years, Orville’s influence on the industry is disproportionate to his personal output. Modern jazz guitars and carved-model mandolins are still produced today with designs that can be traced back to his work. We know of no performer today who using an instrument handmade by Orville Gibson.

Since playable examples of his work are scarce, it is possible that had he not been successful in selling his design concept to a group of Kalamazoo businessmen who incorporated the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company, his instruments might be forgotten. Any surviving example of his work is an extremely important artifact. While this mandolin clearly did not influence the owners of the Gibson Company to revert back to his early design concepts, as the finest presentation-grade handmade Orville Gibson mandolin ever made and very possibly the last instrument he produced, this is without doubt an extremely significant instrument.

Photo: Robert Parks.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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