Fascinating stories behind an American icon serving a century of musicians

From its origins as a purveyor of mandolins, the company founded by Orville Gibson has become known for guitars that have shaped musical styles, from those of cowboy singers to rock ‘n’ rollerbladers.

It was Ray Whitley who sparked the excitement. Throughout the 1930s, Whitley toured with the World’s Championship Rodeo, providing musical entertainment with his band, the Six Bar Cowboys. In 1937 he pushed the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. to develop a “super jumbo” instrument, an instrument that could go lick to lick with the nearly 16-inch-wide rosewood and mahogany Dreadnought guitar issued by CF Martin & Co.

A Gibson L-4 CES, suitable for jazz players. (Heath Brandon CC BY 2.0, CreativeCommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

“Of course, what someone at Martin saw, and what nobody at Gibson apparently did, was that players were abandoning banjos for guitars and demanding louder instruments,” Walter Carter wrote. in his Gibson company history. There was no other way to match the volume of the singer and the microphone. Playing live dates, Gene Autry, a star of Chicago radio station WLS, was already scratching an ornate Martin D-45, which replaced the smaller Martin that had been stolen with his Buick the previous year. Whitley’s demands on Gibson resulted in a 17-inch-wide body with a mosaic pickguard and the slogan “Custom Built for Ray Whitley” emblazoned on the headstock. The Super Jumbo 200 gets its name from its generous size and high list price: $200 (a 1938 Ford could be had for just over three times that amount). After World War II, the model would be known simply as the SJ-200, and Elvis Presley rocked one when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.

“Gibson-made instruments were stronger and more durable than competing contemporary fretted instruments, and were the go-to instruments demanded by players of the day,” ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons explained in an email.

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Elvis Presley’s Gibson J200 on display at his home, the Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee (M. Littlehand CC BY 2.0, CreativeCommons.org/licenses/by/2.0))

Whitley hauled his SJ-200 to Hollywood, where he penned “Back in the Saddle Again” for the cinematic mystery romance “Border G-Man.” Meanwhile, Gibson has created a dozen additional SJs for key influencers. Autry bought two at the reduced price of $150 each, and his biographer, Holly George-Warren, wrote of one guitar that it was “trimmed with two-tone mother-of-pearl; pearl-encrusted horses and wild horses; and his name boldly written next to inlaid horseshoes on the fingerboard. It was a spectacular instrument and a centerpiece, indeed, that had a lasting impact.

In 1939 Autry recorded his version of Whitley’s tune and adopted “Back in the Saddle Again” as his enduring theme song. Heard today, the lyrics still evoke feelings of truth and triumph, but the cowboy singers would soon be out of fashion. Music made by electric guitars invades the radio waves. Autry ended his career with landmark recordings of holiday songs, namely “Here Comes Santa Claus”, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, and “Peter Cottontail”.

The integration of Gibson guitars into the high spheres of popular music deserves some explanation. The company’s founder, Orville Gibson, had emigrated from his native New York state to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1881, when he was 25 years old. After more than a dozen years as a clerk in a shoe store and a restaurant, he started making musical instruments. In his small workshop, he makes mandolins from a patented model. The 1895 patent application stated that existing instruments were made of too many parts, “in that they lacked the degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action necessary to produce the power and quality of sound and melody”. He boasted that he had achieved “an entirely new sound for this class of musical instrument”. The first Gibson catalog offered a family of mandolins for popular mandolin orchestras, as well as round or oval hole guitars and 12 or 18 string harp guitars. Five stages of ornamentation, from simple to fancy, were available.

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A 1964 Gibson Country Western acoustic guitar (L) and a 1963 Southern Jumbo SJ. (Tony 1212 CC BY-SA 4.0, CreativeCommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
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A Gibson magazine advertisement from circa 1939 to 1940. (Public domain)

In 1902 a group of investors took over the business from Gibson, and the following year the founder – who had become a consultant for the company – resigned, in order to teach music and collect royalties. Eventually, Gibson returned to New York; he died in 1918. His namesake company took an innovative marketing approach, turning music teachers into salesmen and letting customers pay small monthly installments. The Gibson banjo was introduced, but the 1911 L-4 and 1923 L-5 guitars were better suited to Jazz Age outfits like Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians at a time when people were losing their minds dancing the Charleston . With the finest materials and craftsmanship, the 1934 Super 400 continued the trend of successful rhythm instruments. Gibson’s first electric, the hollow-body ES-150, debuted in 1936 and was popularized by ill-fated jazz player Charlie Christian. Praising “electric amplification”, Christian showed the world how to play a real solo, before dying – too young at 25 – of tuberculosis.

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Singers Ray Whitley and Redd Harper, and actor Frank Seeley (right), with other musicians at the Armed Forces Radio Service studio. (Public domain)
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An Orville by Gibson guitar, a range of instruments made for the Japanese market. (Public domain)

While the 1950 Fender Telecaster and 1954 Stratocaster—solid-body electrics made in Southern California—were worthy competition, Gibson made a shrewd move before the era of rock ‘n’ roll and music. electric blues: in order to avoid the dismissive label of “plank” guitar, the 1952 solid-body Gibson Les Paul was developed with the collaboration of Les Paul (Lester Polsfuss), who was a master player and a savant of sorts mad. The guitar that bore his name had a carved maple top with no sound holes, and the golden color was meant to hide a trade secret: the mahogany back. Like Orville Gibson’s mandolins, the new guitar was an innovative departure and an instant classic. The challenge was what to do with it, but the players came first. Bluesman John Lee Hooker, to name one, extracted courage and passion from his Les Paul. Billy Gibbons dubbed his own 1959 example “Pearly Gates”, explaining that the guitar “has those rare qualities found in a precise combination of elements that miraculously came together on that fateful day of manufacture”.

Renamed Gibson Guitar Corp., and now Gibson Brands, Inc., the company moved its operations from Kalamazoo to Nashville in 1985, with acoustic guitars produced in Bozeman, Montana, since 1989. The company has had its ups and downs in conjunction with the inconstancy in the national economy and the guitar industry – even a restructuring during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018. However, the pandemic caused an increase in guitar sales – “Will everyone bought a guitar in quarantine or what?” asked Rolling Stone, putting the company in a good position to capitalize on the recovery. Gibson guitars continue to lend their great sound and seriousness to new musical acts. And it all started with Orville Gibson and his carving tools in Kalamazoo.

This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.

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