The Mandolin's Heyday

Frets, March 1979

Early Gibson mandolin family instruments consisted of mandolin, mandola, mandocello, and mandobass. Varied in size and tuned one fifth apart, these instruments were the fretted equivalents of the violin viola, cello, and string bass and could be played in much the same manner, using music composed for their bowed counterparts.

In my view, the evolution of instruments occurs in three basic ways: a new instrument is developed, an existing one is improved in response to public demand, or a maker first produces an instrument and then attempts to create a demand for it. Sometimes this entails writing or arranging music spedfically for the new instrument and promoting the music along with the instrument. The Gibson Company used this approach with considerable success to create a demand for the mandolin family instruments. When they introduced the mandola, mandocello, and mandobass around 1910, they also introduced the concept of a mandolin orchestra that could play regular orchestral string music using these instruments. They promoted this idea vigorously, using a carefully planned program to show music teachers how to sell a considerable number of Gibson instruments at one time (on commission) by organizing mandolin orchestras. As a result, countless mandolin groups of various sizes were formed all over the country. Most of them used Gibsons exclusively, and sales of the company's mandolin family line flounshed. The mandolin orchestras became so popular with both professional and amateur musicians that they dominated the fretted instrument scene in America for nearly a decade.

The history of the Gibson mandolin family begins in the late 1890s with Orville Gibson's design of a mandolin that was radically different from the instruments that had originated in Italy several hundred years before. The typical Italian-style mandolin was the so-called "bowl back," "gourd," or "tater bug" with a deep bowl-shaped back, a flat angled top, and a scale length about the same as a violin's. This design became the accepted standard for a mandolin and was copied widely by other makers throughout Europe, particularly in Germany. Mandolins weren't produced in the United States in any significant quantity until the 1890s, and before that almost all the mandolins seen here were German or Italian imports of bowl-back construction.

The first American company to produce mandolins (bowl-back) on a large scale was Lyon & Healy in Chicago, whose better quality instruments bore the Washburn brand. They turned out mandolins in very large quantities during the 1890s and offered them in many different models. However, they were all basically the typical 8-string bowlbacks and they didn't represent any particular evolution of the mandolin design over what had already been achieved in Europe. In 1898, Orville Gibson patented a mandolin that was to revolutionize the design of the instrument. A radical departure from the Italian-style mandolins, his design featured a relatively flat carved back, a carved top, and a longer fretboard. Early Gibson catalogs carefully explain that on a violin fingerboard, the fingers are placed where the frets would be if there were any. Therefore, a fretted fingerboard must be longer to allow the player to use violin fingering while still keeping his fingers behind the frets. The two body shapes Orville used for his mandolins, the teardrop-shaped A style and the Florentine style with points and scroll, were also different from other fretted instruments made at the time. In almost every conceivable aspect of design and appearance, Orville Gibson's mandolins were something new, and they seem to have emerged straight from his own creativity and workshop.

Gibson sold the patent on his mandolin and the rights to use his name and manufacturing methods in producing a line of Gibson instruments to five businessmen from Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1902. Although Orville was certainly a true innovator who came up with highly original mandolins and guitars, the instruments he himself made were often rather crude. The Gibson instruments produced after he left the company, however, were quite different. Even those made as early as 1910 were better sounding and playing instruments -- and far more sophisticated -- than any of Orville's.

The mandolin family instruments appeared shortly before 1910 and evolved very quickly. Since the company was already geared up to produce mandolins, it was no problem to produce them in vanous sizes. The mandolin was tuned like a violin, and it was a logical step to develop fretted instruments tuned one fifth apart that corresponded exactly to the bowed instruments of the classical orchestra. This was a significant contrast to the banjos,which came in many sizes that weren't particularly useful in conventional musical arrangements. Tuned like a string quartet, the mandolin family instruments developed by Gibson were ideal for playing in groups and were capable of playing sheet music for bowed instruments,which already existed in abundance.

The only instruments of this type to come out before Gibson's innovation were octave mandolas tuned one octave below a mandolin. Since these didn't fit into the tuning scheme of the string quartet they weren't particularly useful for playing standard orchestral music. Some early Gibson ads for the mandola carefully called it a tenor mandola and stressed the advantages of its C-G-D-A tuning over that of an octave mandola.

It was a logical step to go from the idea of the mandolin family to the concept of the mandolin orchestra, and here Gibson could look to the example of the band instrument companies that for some time had been setting up bands and supplying everything from instruments to sheet music. Gibson soon developed a similar program to organize mandolin orchestras as a means of selling instruments, and was the first fretted instrument company to use this approach. Its marketing scheme was very well thought out, complete in every detail, and was very successful. Strangely enough, nobody else cashed in on the mandolin boom to the extent that Gibson did. Lyon & Healy and Martin both failed to bring out a mandolin with a carved top and back until it was too late for them to benefit greatly from the interest in mandolin orchestras. Lyon & Healy eventually did copy the mandolin family idea. Their 1913 catalog featured "The Lealand Family of Mando lnstruments," which not only included the four that Gibson had but also a piccolo or soprano mandolin. These instruments weren't as successful as the Gibsons, however, probably because they didn't sound as good and weren't promoted as effectively.

Gibson's development of the mandolin family and mandolin orchestra show that it was a very creative company for its day, but its success with the mandolin family instruments was as much a product of good timing as creativity. The mandolin orchestras filled the void left by the decline of the 5-string banjo and provided an excellent way for people to entertain themselves in the days before radio, TV, and movies. The most important factor in the growth of the mandolin orchestra movement, however, was undoubtedly Gibson's remarkably effective promotion.