The Gibson Guitar Corporation was originally formed in Kalamazoo, Michigan as the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., Ltd. in 1902 by Orville Gibson and five other businessmen. Beginning in 1894, Orville Gibson hand crafted instruments that were arched and carved like violins. In 1898, Gibson was granted his first and only U.S. patent ( patent #598,245), which registered Gibson’s ideas for the construction of mandolins using a carved solid piece of wood, as opposed to the traditional bending of thin wooden strips to compose the sides. Gibson felt that the assembly of bent wooden strips was inferior to his own carving method, which increased resonance and vibration, and improved the quality of tone in an instrument.
In 1904, the five businessmen who had formed the partnership that founded the company purchased the exclusive rights to the patent from Orville, and continued to manufacture instruments under the Gibson moniker. In 1908, the company’s partnership awarded him an annual salary of $500 (about $20,000 in today’s economy), in addition to royalties he was receiving for his original designs. Orville’s association with the company remained constant through 1911, though health issues would slowly deteriorate him until his death in 1918.
By 1919, the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co. had become aware of the evolving trends in instrument manufacturing and hired one of their own acoustical engineers, Lloyd Loar, as a design consultant. Loar instituted a process of tuning the sound chambers and air holes of instruments to achieve louder, more amplified instruments; these methods would yield the Gibson “Master Series” instruments of the 1920’s, including the iconic L-5 guitar model, and establish the company as the leading manufacturer of archtop guitars. Loar would leave the company in 1924 to pursue his own interests in instrument design and innovation.
In 1935, the Gibson Co. began to actively pursue the development of an electronic pickup to amplify instruments. Employing the engineers of the Chicago based company Lyon & Healy in conjunction with musician Alvino Rey, a prototype was developed and later finalized by Gibson employee Walter Fuller. The resulting hexagonal pickup was not introduced until later that year on a lap steel guitar, and in 1936, it would be mounted onto an F-holed archtop guitar which would become known as the ES-150 model; the “ES” stood for “Electro Spanish”, and the 150 represented the retail price of the guitar (about $2500 in today’s economy). The quality of this model was solidified by the endorsement of jazz musician Charlie Christian; due to his popularization of the ES-150, both the guitar and pickup are known today as the “Charlie Christian” models.
In congruence with the American involvement in World War II, the Gibson Co. practically halted production of musical instruments and manufactured wood pieces for the military. This era would yield only one significant advance to Gibson’s manufacturing of instruments: the cursive logo which is inlaid into the headstocks of instruments would be changed to the block-styled lettering we find on Gibson instruments today.
After the war, Gibson would begin its most successful era of innovation, typified by the visionary leadership of design engineer Ted McCarty. Hired as vice-president in 1948, McCarty would be promoted to company president the following year. That year (1949), Gibson would also see the debut its first electric guitar to feature the standardized P-90 pickup and a cutaway bout accessing the upper frets of the fingerboard: the ES-175. Currently still in production, the ES-175 model is preferred mostly by jazz guitarists for the distinctive tone produced by its large, hollow body chamber.
The 1950’s would see a rise in popularity for the Fender brand electric solidbody “Telecaster” guitar, and necessitated the development of a solidbody guitar by Gibson; in 1952, the Les Paul model was released. Named for the most popular guitarist of the time, the guitar known as the Les Paul was actually designed by McCarty for Paul as the first solidbody guitar to feature a carved, contoured top. The Les Paul was later made available as four different models: the Junior, the Special, the Standard and the Custom, with only the Standard and Custom models featuring the trademark carved, contoured top. In 1954, the Custom model would be used to introduce McCarty’s newest innovation, the Tune-O-Matic bridge, which is still Gibson’s standard electric guitar bridge to this day.
1958 would be one of Gibson’s most prolific years in all its history, as McCarty would introduce not only a semi-hollowbody guitar design, but three futuristic body styles known as the Moderne, the Explorer, and the Flying V. The semi-hollowbody guitar, titled ES-335, combined a traditional archtop aesthetic with the modern solidbody construction of the Gibson line, giving the guitar an increased sustain. The Moderne, on the other hand, was a huge departure from earlier Gibson designs, and was never officially put into production; the Explorer was discontinued after only a year of production due to a faulty headstock design; and the Flying V, also discontinued after only a year of production, would enjoy a belated popularity resulting in a re-issue production run ten years later. The Moderne, the Explorer, and the Flying V were all solid bodied and made from varieties of African Limba wood, which were trademarked as “Korina” in the U.S.
When sales of the Les Paul model had slowed, Gibson responded in 1961 by changing the body style entirely. The new “Les Paul” featured a thinner one-piece body, a flat top, and a double cutaway, as well as a “faster”, slimmer neck. Though the new styling was a success, Les Paul himself did not prefer any of the changes and had his name removed from the model; it would become known as the SG, which is an abbreviation for “solid guitar”. The SG became a staple of the Gibson guitar line and is still currently in production as Standard, Custom, and Artist Signature models.
In 1963, Gibson would continue pursuing modernistic designs as McCarty commissioned automobile designer Ray Dietrich to design a guitar that would appeal to the public; the result was the Firebird. McCarty used Dietrich’s elongated body design to incorporate a new technique of constructing the neck through the center of the body. The most interesting aspect of the Firebird’s design is its “reverse” horn styling, with the treble horn rather than the bass horn extended from the body. The production of Firebird guitars was initially halted in 1969, only to be reissued two years later.
After 1974, Gibson began to slowly relocate its headquarters/production center from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee. In 1984, the Kalamazoo plant was officially closed, and by the end of 1985 it appeared that despite a reputable legacy, the Gibson Guitar Co. would not make it into the next decade. All fortune changed in 1986, when two businessmen rescued the company, and quickly rebuilt its reputation for the production of high quality instruments. Under the new ownership, Gibson would see even more accolades bestowed upon the company’s designs, exemplified by its Nighthawk model, which was recognized by the industry for excellence in 1994 (the year of Gibson’s 100 year anniversary).
In the new millennium, Gibson has continued to be an innovator of musical instruments with the introduction of its Robot Guitar line. The Robot Guitar line has brought much advancement to the capabilities of an electric guitar, particularly in its distinction as the world’s first self tuning guitar. Constant innovations have kept the Gibson Guitar Co. relevant to musicians for over a century, an will continue to do so for many decades to come.
Gibson USA, 2009. Nashville, TN. 2009 http://www.gibson.com/en-us/Support/AboutUs/
Carter, Walter 2007. The Gibson Electric Guitar Book: Seventy Years of Classic Guitars. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007
Siminoff, Roger. 2009. Atascadero, CA. 2009 http://www.siminoff.net/index.html
Bacon, Tony. 2000. Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Thunder bay Press. 2000