There’s David, then there’s Goliath. Gibson is a bit of a Goliath. The absolute monstrosity that is Gibson reaches back through the advent of American pop culture, 2 world wars (and several regional), prohibition and McCarthyism. Fueling every genre of music, from folk to djent and everything in between, Gibson, along with Fender, were, hell, are rock and roll. As I stated in my post on Joan Jett, a Gibson into a Marshall epitomizes the genre. But way back, before all that, it was about mandolins. Founder Orville Gibson was born on May 1, 1856 and worked various jobs until striking upon the apparently self taught profession of luthier. He is credited with bringing arch-tops to mandolins and guitars and was awarded a patent for it late in the 19th century. His workload for local musicians soon became too great to maintain and with the assistance of several prominent, yet self-serving Kalamazoo businessmen, “The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., Ltd.” was established in 1902 in order to increase production of mandolins and guitars. Sad thing, the company marginalized, due to health and slightly eccentric ideas, Orville to just building instruments at the paltry sum of $500 a year (that’s about $22000 per year now). He had very little say in the way the company that bears his name was run, made a pittance of money and never saw what his company would be to popular culture. He passed away in August of 1918 at the young age of 62 and was not wealthy in the least. Gibson owes much to the legacy of Orville, his byline of the company history continues to be less than it should have been.
Talented musician and luthier Lloyd Loar, who had been working with Orville for several years, was hired as a master builder and designer upon Orville’s death. Loar is credited with developing the L-5 archtop guitar and mandolin in 1922. The L-5 was most popular guitar in the big band era. Its’ touch was at the forefront of rock and roll as well with the famed Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore rocking a Gibson L-5. At that time, Gibson was building mandolins, flat and arch top guitars, upright basses, banjos and specialty instruments. Their first electric guitar was the ES-150, “the spanish electric”, introduced in 1936. The incredible Charlie Christian used an ES-150 as his first electric guitar when he played with Benny Goodman. These models, and those that preceded them, are heralded as the pre-war era Gibsons and are highly prized instruments. A quick look at auction sites show 1930s era Gibsons selling for over $5k US in even rough shape. The only real competitor to Gibson in the pre-war era was Gretsch but Gibson was on top of their game, or were they truly? It took the hiring of a former employee of Wurlitzer Organ in 1948 that would provide the impetus to vault Gibson to powerhouse they were to become. Before that happened, however, Gibson would change hands from the original group of Kalamazoo businessmen to the esteemed distributor, Chicago Music Instruments (CMI) who also handled the distribution for Epiphone.
CMI’s first big move came in the form of one Ted McCarty, born October 10th, 1909, and graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in engineering. Prior to joining Gibson as head honcho, McCarty worked at Wurlitzer from 1936 to 1948. He is probably the only reason that Fender didn’t simply destroy Gibson. Before McCarty took the helm, Gibson was making a paltry 5,000 guitars a year. (at the peak of Ted’s run the employees in Kalamazoo were making 100K) All to keep up with Fender. Gibson, under the helm of Ted, introduced the PAF pickup, the Les Paul, Byrdland, ES-175, Flying V, Moderne, Explorer, Firebird, the stop bar tailpiece and tune-a-matic bridge (one of which sits a mere inches from me in a drawer from some lost Les Paul of yesteryear). To say the Ted made Gibson might be stretching it just a little bit but he certainly didn’t hurt their chances. The relationship with Les Paul, a super star in his own light, further strengthened Gibson’s position. Unfortunately, at first, the Les Paul was a complete flop commercially. Marketed as an upscale guitar, it was much more expensive than the rock machines Fender was creating. It took the British Invasion before the Les Paul gained the fame it deserved and continues to enjoy to this day. Players like Pete Townsend of the Who, Eric Clapton while in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, a young Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, Keith Richards and probably the one with the most influence at the time, one James Patrick Page.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds and countless albums recorded while he was a session musician, made the biggest splash with the Les Paul. Pictured left with his 1959 burst, he is likely responsible for more sales for Gibson than any other artist in the late 1960s and 1970s. Modern day players like Slash and Zakk Wylde certainly have pushed sales up for today’s younger players, but those sales are in the import sourced guitars more than the domestic made Les Pauls. Page made it the guitar popular and inspired artists like Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Saul Hudson (Slash) and Zakk to buy American made instruments. So what is it about the Les Paul, Gibson’s jewel, that makes it perfect for rock and roll? Let’s dive into the anatomy of the Les Paul. Historically, the original Les Pauls were an amalgam of Honduras mahogany, Canadian maple and Brazilian rosewood. All old growth mahogany made up the single or 2 piece back of the guitar AND the single piece neck and headstock.
The single cutaway body shape is then capped with a contoured, usually book matched maple top. Solid colors, such as this 1957 reissue goldtop dissected to your right, would get plain maple tops with little or no figuring (flame, birds eye, quilt) where sunbursts and transparent finishes would have highly figured tops though that direction took some years to manifest. It took a young guitar builder out of Maryland to really whet the appetite of guitarists for guitar candy but we’ll discuss PRS another day. The early Les Pauls used a lighter, more unstable finish known as nitro-cellulose. This sealed the wood but didn’t “encase” it in plastic like modern urethane finishes do. The lighter finish changes over time, evaporating until just the thinnest finish remains. The resonant quality of the cellulose based finish is far superior to any poly today. Guitar builders have recognized this fact and Gibson does use the more expensive nitro on it’s faded and traditional Les Paul model lines.
The bridge is the tune-a-matic unit to the left with a pass through stop bar. The saddles are adjustable on a threaded track to facilitate changes to the intonation. Traditionally nickel plated. The neck is set into the body using a tenon design where a bit of the mahogany of the neck extends past the fingerboard and into the body of the guitar where they are glued together. Early Les Pauls had a long neck tenon giving better connection with the body and that increased sustain and sparkle. Using various plastics, the body and neck is a binding that added a touch of class, inlays of mother of pearl (blocks in the Customs) or trapezoidal pearloid (a synthetic abalone) on the Standards, grace the rosewood fingerboard along with medium nickel frets. The headstock has Kluson tuners, the truss rod cover, the Les Paul signature and a mother of pearl Gibson logo. The electronics were originally P90 pickups but starting in 1956, PAF humbuckers were offered as well. Both pickup configurations used individual tone and volume controls and a three way selector switch that sits on the top bout of the body for easy access. It was this combination of design and materials that caught, and continue to catch, rock and roll lightning in the proverbial bottle. Enough on the guitar, lets get back to the company.
Ted McCarty left Gibson in 1966 to helm the Bigsby company. Bigsby is a type of guitar tremolo system that was very popular in the 1950s through the 1970s and continues to be in use today. The post McCarty era, from 1969 to 1985, mark the worst time for Gibson. Their parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments, were bought out by a Panamanian based brewing conglomerate ECL in 1969 and Gibson remained under the umbrella of CMI until 1974 when it became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments, which was named for ECL president Norton Stevens and CMI president Arnold Berlin. These were dark days for those builders who had been with Gibson for decades. The Norlin era was characterized by declining profits, shoddy management and a shift away from Kalamazoo. It was also during this era that numerous law-suits were filed by Gibson against Japanese manufacturers Tokai, ESP, Yamaha and Ibanez in what I refer to as the Headstock Wars. Guitars in this era are the worst in the entire history of Orville Gibson’s company. In the mid-1970s, Gibson built a new factory, just for Les Pauls, in Nashville, Tennessee and the original plant was left for custom work. Thus began the end of the magic the Michigan plant had created for Gibson.
As the 1970s ended, Gibson was almost out of the game. New rock and rollers weren’t playing Les Pauls or SGs. They were playing Ibanez RG550s, Charvels and Jacksons, pointy guitars with flashy finishes and dive bomb tremolo systems. Hair metal was reigning supreme and Gibson couldn’t compete, rolling out horrible designs like the Corvus or the graffiti finished Explorers in a desperate attempt to stay viable. This was when I first started playing guitar and all I wanted was a Kramer, Les Pauls were for old guys. By 1984 Gibson was on the ropes, nearly bankrupt, despite having shuttered the Kalamazoo plant in early 1984. The company sold the original Parsons Street Gibson factory in Kalamazoo to the plant manager and a number of senior builders to raise money and thusly, Heritage guitars was born from the ashes of the original, non-CNC assembly plant and still creates a small number of wonderful guitars per year.
Shortly after the sale of the Michigan plant, Gibson itself was sold from the Norlin group to Henry Juskiewicz and company president, David H Berryman. It is still a privately owned company. Henry modernized the Nashville factory introducing weight relief and improved production standards throughout the line, bringing the Plek machines into the fold. Plek machines are used to uniformly fit and finish the frets to produce a more consistent experience when playing the guitar. Having played both traditional and plek’d guitars, the nod goes to the latter, Plek machines work well. The company was brought back from the brink of failure and currently produces dozens of different models for domestic and international guitarists is quite profitable. There have been numerous bumps in the road along the way starting in 2009 when the Gibson factories were raided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Seems old Hank and Dave were illegally importing Madgascar ebony and then again in 2011 for illegal rosewood. In 2012, the shortage of rosewood was so great, many Les Pauls were made with roasted maple fingerboards which, according to all accounts, were terrible. For violations of the Lacey Act, meant to force consumers of timber and rare woods to buy from sustainable sources, Gibson had to pay $300,000 in fines.
And in 2015, Gibson made the foolish move of forcing technology into the hands of guitarists the world over by fundamentally changing the Les Paul to have auto tuning, push pull pots to split the humbucking pickups to single coil AND they changed the heel joint. Not only were these options garish, they broke the traditional nature of what made up a Les Paul. You know the motto, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, nothing could be closer to the truth. Guitarists the world over said “NO!!” and refused to buy the new guitars, models languished at instrument retailers all over the world. In 2016, Gibson saw the light and changed course again and began offering HP (high performance) versions of their guitars with the new fangled gizmos in place for some and on the others, the traditional Les Pauls configuration we all love. Gibson changed the face of rock and roll and continues to provide some of the best instruments players can buy today.
This was a hard post to write. It has taken me a month to commit the time to it, to find the facts, to work in the personal aspect. It felt like homework or that job that keeps getting put onto tomorrow’s list to do. Despite the mountain of evidence, it felt dry, boring, Wikipedia-ish. Then I thought about it a little more. So many of the artists I follow, the ones from my earliest years, all played Gibson. Join me next time when I take on Randy Rhoads and his Jackson Flying V that changed the metal world forever. Thanks for stopping by.
KSK April 2017