Mando-family Instruments

George Gruhn
"The Vintage Catalogue"
Frets Magazine, March 1983

Between the years 1905 and 1921, the Gibson company developed a complete line of mandolin-family instruments, which corresponded to the pieces in a string orchestra. (The name of the company originally was the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company.) The mandolin had the same tuning as that of the violin; the mandola's tuning was the same as that of the viola, an interval of one fifth lower than that of the violin; and the mandocello, which had the same tuning as that of the cello, was tuned an octave below the mandola. The mandolin, mandola, and mandocello had eight strings; the large mandobass had four single strings.

Gibson actively promoted the concept of mandolin orchestras and ensembles (as described in my May `79 "Looking Back" column on mandolin orchestras). The company trained teachers, published instruction methods, and designed and manufactured new instruments to fit in with the various mandolin ensembles.

In those days, no Gibson instruments were sold in stores. The sole distributors were Gibson agents, who also were music teachers. The agents operated in different ways: Some traveled, within Gibson-assigned territories, while others worked solely out of studios. These were the people who organized the mandolin clubs and orchestras, and Gibson supplied them with sheet music, instruction manuals, advertising materials, and anything else they needed to ply their trade.

Gibson's enterprise caught the competition napping. Its marketing scheme was well thought-out, an adaptation of an approach that band instrument companies already had been using with considerable success. No other fretted instrument manufacturer tried to climb aboard the Gibson-fueled bandwagon until it was too late. By the time Martin and Lyon & Healy brought out mandolins with carved tops and backs, Gibson had the market fairly well sewed up. Lyon & Healy eventually copied the mandolin family idea, bringing out its "Lealand Family Of Mando-instruments" in 1913, with a piccolo or soprano mandolin as well as four Gibson-type models; but these never enjoyed the success of the Gibsons.

Of course, the Gibson teacher/agents extolled the merits of all-Gibson orchestras at their free demonstration concerts (which featured Gibson-sponsored groups), explaining to audiences that with a little practice they could soon form an orchestra of their own. And naturally, all orchestra members had to have Gibson instruments -- which were quite expensive for their day. However, Gibson shrewdly offered financing, permitting buyers to make small monthly payments.

The A-4 mandolin, H-2 mandola, and K-2 mandocello are similar in appearance, except for size. Their basic specifications are as follows:

A-4 9 7/8" 1 3/4" 13 13/16"
H-2 11 1/8" 2" l5 13/16"
K-2 14" 3 1/4" 24 3/4"

When these instruments were manufactured, Gibson's A model mandolin line consisted of the style A, A-1, A-2, A-3, and A-4; the latter style was the most deluxe model offered in this body shape. The mandolas and mandocellos were available in style 1, similar in ornamentation to a style A-1 mandolin; style 2 was similar to the A-4 mandolin; and style 4 featured the same florentine-scroll body shape and ornamentation as those of the style F-4 mandolin.

The A-4, H-2, and K-2 are constructed with spruce tops, mahogany necks, and ebony fretboards. Although the catalog states that their backs and sides are maple, these instruments really have birch backs and sides. The only Gibson models from this period that featured maple backs and sides were the styles F-4, H-4, and K-4.

The A-4 and H-2 illustrated here have opaque black finish on the tops, a standard feature of the time, while the K-2 is stained in the red sunburst that is typical of the later models. The backs and sides on all three instruments are stained maroon; the necks are a natural mahogany color.

Since these three instruments are close in age, they feature the same basic fittings, such as the German-made Handel tuners, which feature wire and pearl inlaid buttons; "The Gibson" stamped tailpieces; celluloid pickguards with fastening spikes fitting into the side of the fretboard and the bridge; and a fastening clamp on the side of the body. The ebony bridges aren't adjustable for height, but they feature separate ebony saddles.

It is possible to date Gibson instruments by their fittings, finish, and structural specifications, since these elements changed with time. A serial number list also aids in dating instruments. When there is a discrepancy between the list and the specifications, it is possible that the piece is a forgery, or that it may have been altered. It is also possible that the factory restored it at a later date. In this case, the instrument's features appear to be factory original, but from a different time period than the one indicated on the list.

The three instruments illustrated in this article appear to be fully original and conform to the standard specifications for the period in which they were manufactured.

Mandolin orchestras and ensembles were virtually extinct by the mid-'20s. Although the mandolin became popular as a bluegrass and country instrument, demand for mandolas and mandocellos remained very low in spite of their fine quality. Recently such groups as the David Grisman quartet have introduced new musical forms that make excellent use of the mandola and mandocello.

Since mandolas and mandocellos are scarcer than are equivalent mandolins, these beautiful instruments are now sought by collectors and musicians alike.

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