The History Of: Gibson

author: NIN&J5 date: 11/06/2006 category: the history of

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While working in his small Kalamazoo, Michigan workshop on a hot summer afternoon in 1894, Orville Gibson did not comprehend the affect his instruments would have on the music world. Starting with strong convictions about instrument design and quality, Orville created a whole new family of guitars and mandolins and later inspired generations of craftsmen to produce some of the finest instruments the world has ever heard or seen. A virtuoso classical mandolinist and acoustical engineer, Lloyd Loar joined Gibson in 1919, one year after Orville's death. Loar's cultivations of Orville's orginal carving concepts brought about the Master Model F-5 mandolin and L-5 guitar, with tuned tops and backs and the first "f" holes ever found on fretted instruments. The F-5 was hastily judged the greatest mandolin ever built, while the L-5, in the hands of players like Eddie Lang, became the first guitar to take a serious role in the orchestra scene. It quickly replaced the tenor banjo as a rhythm instrument and became the basis for Gibson's dominance ans superiority in the new field of arch top guitars. The 1920's saw another period of incredible innovations, including elevated fingerboards, bridges with height adjustment, and Thaddeus McHugh's adjustable truss rod, patented in 1921. Simple and direct in operation, the truss rod balanced the tension of the strings on the neck and kept the neck in perfect alignment. The 1920's also saw Gibson develop banjo concepts like the modern tone ring and resonator which revolutionized the tenor banjo of its day and laid the foundation for Earl Scruggs and Bluegrass music 20 years later. By 1924, Loar had a prototype of an electric bass with a strong design emphasis on the pickup and the strings. Anticipating a sound and market by almost 30 years, Loar's radical design was not accepted by Gibson management or the public and he resigned in 1924. It was the first example of Gibson engineers being far ahead of their time. During the Depression, Gibson entered the toy market and expanded its stringed instrument production to include instructions of the violin family, an ironic return to the designs which had inspired Orville in the first place. Innovation continued in all areas, and the company even introduced an inexpensive "Kalamazoo" line of acoustic guitars. In 1934, the L-5 was expanded to a larger size to compete with brass-heavy orchestras, and an entirely new design, the Super 400, was introduced for the staggering sum of $400. The extra-large jazz guitar had the power to cut through any horn section, and is considered by many to be the high point of arch-top design. Almost immediately, however, Gibson engineers found another way to cut through the horn section. This time, the market was ready. The 1937 Gibson catalogue featured a new electric guitar, the ES-150. This "Electric Spanish" guitar blended the new technology of magnetic pickups with arch-top design in an instrument designed to be amplified. When a young man from Oklahoma named Charlie Christian plugged in with Benny Goodman, he turned the guitar into a lead instrument. Music would never be the same and Christian's forceful lead guitar lines invented a whole new musical style that's been duplicated for over 50 years. During World War Two, Gibson's instrument production was suspended as materials became very difficult to obtain. In 1944, the company was brought by Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) a noted music wholesale company. With the end of the war, production resumed in 1946 and an enormous pent-up demand for musical instruments developed another boom era for Gibson. In 1948, industry veteran Ted McCarty was hired. McCarty's tenure as President of Gibson lasted from 1950-1966 and in those 16 years the labor force increased 10 times, profits increased 15 times, and sales went up 1250%. Additionally, McCarty and his gifted team created such classic instruments as the Les Paul, Byrdland, ES-335, Flying V, Explorer, SG and Firebird electrics, the Hummingbird and Dove acoustics, as well as the Tune-o-matic, stop bar tailpiece, and the humbucking pickup. Les Paul had been developing the concept of the solid body guitar since the 1930's. In 1941, he split an arch-top Epiphone in half lengthwise and bolted both sides to a 4" x 4" solid block. This two pickup monster (Les called it "The Log") was not a pretty sight, but it established Les' idea that solid body instruments had a unique sound and musical future. Les had presented his ideas to Gibson in 1945 or 1946, but demand for traditional Gibsons that the company didn't see the need. According to Les, "They poliely ushered me out the door. They called it the broom-stick with a pickup on it." However, several years later, Gibson executives recognized the significance and future of Les Paul's solid body design. Ted McCarty found Les and Gibson's Les Paul guitar made its debut in 1952. For the first time, two woods - maple for the top and mahogany for the back - were combined on a solid instrument for a musical purpose, balancing the bright attack of maple with the warmth and richness of mahogany. The tune-o-matic bridge appeared on the Les Paul in 1954, and the humbuckers followed in 1957. When the LP was offered with a cherry sunburst top in 1958, one of the greatest electric guitar designs ever was firmly established. In 1957, CMI bought Epiphone, had all the remaining tooling shipped to Kalamazoo and begin manufacturing Epiphones in 1959. At first, the remaining original parts were used. Later, Epiphones used standard Gibson parts and hardware even though many traditional Epiphone names - Emperor, Sheraton, Coronet - remained. The 1960's was a period of incredible growth for the music business in general and Gibson in particular. The explosion of rock and roll, jazz and folk music produced unprecedented demand for guitars of all types. Back-orders were as long as two years on many models. Major makers - including Gibson - began to experiment with new materials, designs and production changes in an effort to speed production and improve profits. CMI was acquired by Norlin Industries in 1969, and in 1975, Gibson opened a new factory in Nashville, Tennesse. The recessions of 1980-81 took their toll on many American companies. At Gibson, the engineers had noticed the upsurge in vintage instrument sales and began to revise instruments like the Les Paul and ES-335 to their orginal specifications. In addition, completely new designs like the Chet Atkins CE solid-body classic guitar were developed. With the music market still weak, Norlin decided that it had no future in the music business. They decided to sell out, and on January 15, 1986, Gibson was bought by a team headed by Henry Juszkiewicz and David Berryman. By 1952 Les Paul was not only the most popular guitar player in America, he was also a leading innovator in guitar and electronics design. He had been experimenting with electric guitars for as long as there had been electric guitars. He had once mounted a guitar string on a railroad tie to confirm his belief that a solidbody guitar would maximize sustain, and he had incorporated a mini-railroad rail-a 4"x4" piece of pine-into the body of a homemade solidbody electric guitar he nicknamed "TheLog." (Which I spoke of before) In the early '50s, when the solidbody guitar first became commercially viable, Gibson designed an instrument that would change the image of the solidbody electric from a simple plank of wood to an elegant, stylish piece of art. Such a guitar would be a radical move for a traditional company like Gibson, but Gibson had been founded on the radical mandolin and guitar designs of Orville Gibson back in the 1890s. This new model would have the same carved-top contours that had set Orville's instruments apart from all others. With the new model near ready for market, Gibson approached Les Paul, the obvious choice to help launch it. Les was already intimately familiar with the unique characteristics of a solidbody electric guitar. And he was at the top of his career. His 1948 hit, "Brazil," featured six guitar parts, all played by Les in a virtuoso demonstration that would eventually earn him recognition as the father of multi-track recording. When he combined his guitar and electronic talents with the vocals of his wife Mary Ford, the result was gold-two million-selling records in 1951, "Mockin' Bird Hill" and "How High the Moon." The Les Paul Model, as it was originally called, has changed little since its debut in 1952. Except for an updated bridge and humbucking pickups, the Les Paul Standard of today is still the pretty much the same guitar. The Les Paul has been the driving force behind many changes in popular music. It powered the blues rock sound of the late '60s and the southern rock of the late '70s. By the '90s the Les Paul was providing signature sounds for every genre of rock, from alternative to metal. With a renewed committment to the best specifications of vintage instruments and a vigorous program to make each new Gibson the best it could be, changes began right away. The market was ready to believe in Gibson and the new team was happy to provide Gibsons worth believing in. A new R&D team, dedicated to both Gibson history and innovation, expanded traditional product lines and invented new ones. The Chet Atkins family was expanded with creative use of wood technology yielding the SST and SST-12 string which offer acoustic tonality at stadium tonality at stadium volume levels. Guitars like the Les Paul Classic captured traditional technology, while instruments like the M-3 set new standards in functional shapes and creative use of electronics. Acoustic instruments and banjos were also evaluated, historic models revived, and new designs created. In 1990, Gibson opened a state of the art facility for acoustic production in Bozeman, Montana where the dry climate made building conditions ideal. Gibson celebrated 100 years of inspired musical instrument design and production in 1994. Then and now, Gibson products offer an unbeatable combination or performance and value for any musical purpose. Continuing in the tradition of providing "American Guitars - Built by American Musicians" each Gibson is an investment in your musical future, and an example of one of the greatest traditions in music history.

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