Prewar A Model Mandolins

Frets, March 1981

During the pre-war years, Gibson made several mandolin models. This month, I will describe three examples of those models: an A-1 and an A-4 made in 1915, and a plain A model made in 1923.

Gibson made two basic mandolin body shapes, the pear-shaped A model and the F or Florentine model, which has body points and a body scroll, with a fancy scroll-type peghead. Most of the mandolins that Gibson produced (until recently) were A models.

All of the A models made through the 1920s had oval soundholes, but from the '30s on, a number of A models were made with f-holes. The most common of these is the A-50. The first F model mandolins also were made with oval soundholes.

Before the 1930s, standard Gibson A model mandolins were offered in five styles, ranging from the extremely plain A-O or A-Jr, to the A-4, which was the most elaborate of the A series. All of these styles feature the pear-shaped body with oval soundhole; carved top and back; ebony bridge, ebony fretboard inlaid with pearl dots; mahogany neck; and spruce top. According to the Gibson catalogs, the back and sides are maple; but prior to 1925, many were actually made of birch, which has a similar appearance. (Interestingly enough, the F-2s made until around 1925 also had birch backs and sides although maple was always used on the F-4s.)

The style A-O or A-Jr. is an extremely plain mandolin, as befits its position at the bottom of the line. It has a uniformly dark brown finish, a blank headstock, and no binding at all. The style A-O also lacks any ornamentation on the headstock, but it has white binding around the edge of the top, and the soundhole has white trim inside with a ring of purfling around it.

The style A-1 is similar to the A-O, except that it has "The Gibson" inlaid in pearl in the peghead, and white binding on the fretboard. The A-2 has binding around the edge of the back and fretboard, as well as around the edge of the top and the soundhole. It also has a pearl "The Gibson" inlaid in the peghead. The style A-3 features the same ornamentation as the A-2, with the addition of a small pearl design below the name on the peghead; and the A-4 is distinguished by an abalone fleur-de-lis inlaid on the peghead, and an extended fretboard (on the treble side above the soundhole). A-3s and A-4s made prior to 1917 have German-made "Handel" tuning machines with elaborately inlaid bone knobs.

The A models, with the exception of the A-Jr., were produced in several different finishes—such as all-brown, or the combination of a black or blonde soundboard with reddish back and sides. A-3s typically have white (painted) soundboards with reddish back and sides and white fingerrests. (The early versions had natural soundboards and dark fingerrests.) Early A-4s usually feature black soundboards with reddish back and sides, while the later models have red sunburst soundboards. In most cases the earliest A models had black soundboards, which were followed in later production by the natural or blonde ones, and finally by the all-brown (dark coffee-color) ones. The three mandolins pictured here have virtually identical body dimensions. The width is 10-1/16", the rim is 1-7/16", and the scale length of all A models (and all F models) is 13-7/8".

The A model with the dark brown soundboard, serial-numbered in the low 70,000s, was made in early 1923. It has a peghead with angular sides, commonly referred to as the "snake" peghead. The A-1 with the natural blonde soundboard, has a serial number in the low 20,000s, dating it to early 1915. The A-4, numbered in the 23,000s (late 1915), has a red sunburst soundboard.

All three of these mandolins are typical of their respective periods. Since the A is from a later period than the A-1 and the A-4, it differs in some respects. The A model has an adjustable truss rod (introduced by Gibson in 1921, effective on serial number 68,500), and an adjustable bridge (which was patented in 1921).

The style A is of particular interest because it has the "snake" peghead. A variation of the standard A-model headstock shape, it is narrower at the top than at the base, which positions the tuning posts closer together at the extreme end of the peghead. This allows the strings to run in a rather straight line from each post to the nut. Oval-hole A models, such as these, are very similar in construction to the oval hole F and F-4 models of the same era. They have the same basic type of soundboard shaping (arching and graduating), and one small cross brace inside the instrument behind the soundhole. The fretboards on these A and F models are glued to the soundboard, rather than elevated as on the F-5 model. Like other Gibson instruments of this period, they are finished with varnish. Although the neck length is shorter than the neck of the F-5, the string scale length is identical. The bridge on the F-5 is positioned in the center of the soundboard, forcing the nut further away from the body (and thus necessitating a longer neck).

Outstanding mandolinists in widely diverse fields, such as classical player Howard Frey and bluegrass artist Red Rector [Frets, March '80], play A-4s and consider them eminently suited to their purposes. Virtuoso picker Norman Blake [Frets, April '79], who has both a Lloyd Loar signed F-5 and seven A-4s, frequently plays an A-4 for both recording and performing. At present, Gibson A model mandolins can be bought at very reasonable prices, and they are one of the few professional quality, prewar fretted instruments that are still affordable, even for the beginner.