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Gibson Turns 120

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But the Instrument Maker Hardly Looks Its Age

By Marty Paule

When Orville Gibson began selling instruments from his single-room Michigan workshop in 1894 it’s doubtful he had any sense of what he’d set in motion. Iconic instruments such as the revered Gibson F5 mandolin and L5 acoustic guitar as well as the game-changing Les Paul and SG electric guitars lay far in the future. As did innovations such as the PAF humbucker and Tune-o-matic bridge.

120 years on, Orville would probably be stunned to learn that his enterprise has evolved into an international concern that builds hundreds of products ranging from traditional stringed instruments to innovative electric guitars to cutting-edge pro-audio gear.

Gibson Mandolin Patent
A patent drawing of Orville Gibson’s arched-top mandolin—in its day a revolutionary adaptation of violin design. Courtesy of Gibson Guitar Corp.

Gibson’s recent breakthrough guitars that tune themselves (more on that later) would have doubtlessly captivated Orville—a relentless tinkerer and innovator. The modern Gibson Guitar Corp. comes by its passion for innovation honestly. After all, its original mastermind revolutionized guitar and mandolin making when he adapted the carved, arched-top construction of violins in producing instruments so different from the norm that they earned him a patent.

In 1902 a group of Kalamazoo, Michigan businessmen formed the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co, Ltd. to produce Gibson’s designs, and the die was cast. Following Gibson’s death in 1918, the company hired designer-luthier-musician Lloyd Loar who created the F5 mandolin—an instrument prized by bluegrass musicians today. He also developed the much-copied L5 guitar and A5 mandolin.

Gibson Goes Electric

Gibson’s electric guitar legacy dates back to 1936 when the company unveiled its ES-150, the first commercially successful Spanish-style guitar with an electric pickup. (The “ES” stood for Electric Spanish, and the “150” referred to its $150 price tag, which included an amplifier and cable.) It was the endorsement of jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and his revolutionary bebop single-string playing style that helped put the ES-150 on the musical map. The bar-style pickup used on the ES-150 produced a clear, biting tone, but the hum it generated was a problem that wouldn’t be fully solved until the 1950s with Gibson’s humbucking pickups. The company spun off several variations of the ES-150, and in 1940 began installing Alnico pickups—predecessors to the P-90 pickup that’s still in production today.

Production was crimped by material shortages brought on by WWII, and Gibson contracted with the military to furnish metal and wood parts. Once the war was over, however, the company shifted into high gear, producing a string of electric guitars that would reshape the sound of American music.

The ES-175 debuted in 1949. Gibson’s first cutaway-bodied electric guitar, it was equipped with a single P-90 pickup and had a laminated top to keep the price down. A dual pickup model followed in 1953, and in 1957 it was offered with humbuckers.

Enter the Les Paul

Meanwhile in 1952, Gibson’s most iconic electric guitar, the Les Paul, made its debut. Designed by Gibson’s president Ted McCarty in collaboration Les Paul, a guitarist noted for his efforts to improve the electric guitar’s playability and sound, it would eventually be offered in four models—the Custom, Standard, Special, and Junior. The LP took the guitar world by storm. Its solid body solved the age-old problem of feedback that haunted hollow-body electric guitars, and it’s ornate Florentine cutaway facilitated high-note soloing. Initially equipped with dual P-90 single-coil pickups, the introduction of Gibson’s PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucking pickup solved the other problem plaguing electric guitars: the hum.

Les Paul Black & White Photo
In this ‘50s-era shot, Les Paul wields a tremolo-equipped version of the guitar that likely will be his most durable legacy. Photo courtesy of Gibson Guitar Corp.

In 1957, the Les Paul Custom came to market with its dual PAFs. A three-pickup version followed. Over the years Gibson has released dozens of variations of the LP, and it has only grown in stature. Oddly though, in the early 1960s the Les Paul fell out of favor due to issues of weight and cost as well as a perception that it was a bit old-fashioned. But starting in the mid-’60s, British artists such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Jimmy Page, who all loved its thick, rock-and blues-friendly tone, rekindled interest in the LP. This resulted in the 1968 resumption of LP production.

Solid Yet Lighter

In the interim, seeing the need for a lighter, double-cutaway axe that was more comfortable and offered improved upper fret access, Gibson introduced what it first marketed as a revamped LP in 1961. Soon to be named the SG (standing for Solid Guitar), its simpler solid-body construction and more slender neck shape resulted in a lower price and heightened playablity. As with the Les Paul, the SG’s profile became a much-copied shape knocked off by other guitar makers. And also like the LP, Gibson has continued to produce many variations based on the original SG.

The flurry of creativity that had marked the late 1950s for Gibson were also notable for its introduction of two new, radically shaped guitars: the Flying V and the Explorer. Neither guitar did well at first. But Gibson recognized the designs had been ahead of their time, reintroducing both guitars a decade later to a much healthier reception.

Gibson Min-ETune System
The Min-ETune system provides perfect tuning in a matter of seconds and lets you select from 12 alternate tunings—six you can program any way you like. Photo courtesy of Gibson Guitar Corp.

That was Then…

Since the 1960s, Gibson has weathered changes in ownership, downturns in the economy, and relocation of its plants to Memphis, Tennessee and to Bozeman, Montana where its high-end acoustic instruments are made today. What has remained constant is the company’s preeminent position as an instrument maker. Its electric and acoustic guitars, banjos, and mandolins endure as some of the most revered and sought-after instruments among musicians of every description.

In 1957 Gibson bought out rival archtop guitar builder, Epiphone. Today that brand produces many of Gibson’s designs using less expensive materials and methods so as to offer cash-strapped musicians more affordable alternatives.

Apart from its tradition as an instrument maker, Gibson is a significant player in the pro-audio arena today. Its acquisition of brands such as Onkyo, Stanton, KRK Systems, and Cerwin-Vega underscore the company’s forward-looking orientation.

This is Now…

Gibson has hardly sat on its laurels either. In recent decades the company has continued to refine and upgrade its legacy instruments with new levels of craftsmanship and technology.

With the introduction of its 2014 product lineup—a celebration of 120 years of continuous operation—Gibson has outdone itself.

Gibson Guitar Factory

Gibson’s famed Memphis factory is just off Beale Street—home of America’s blues tradition. Photo courtesy of Gibson Guitar Corp.

Probably the most significant element in that lineup is the introduction of the Min-ETune automatic tuning system that’s available on select guitars. Housed in a compact box attached to the back of the headstock, this robotic tuner gets all six strings into perfect pitch in a matter of seconds. The Min-ETune lets you select from 12 alternate tunings too—six of which you can program any way you like. If you usually switch between standard, open, and alternate tunings during a set, there’s no longer any need to bring along other guitars to the gig. While you chat up the crowd, Min-ETune will get your axe ready for the next song in a moment. It’ll even let you adjust your tuning to match up with other instruments. Battery-operated, the Min-Etune will provide 80-100 tunings on a single charge. Pretty sweet!

 

Another hallmark of Gibson’s 2014 product line is an inlay at the 12th fret with the legend, “120th Anniversary.” Other tweaks include Max Grip speed knobs, cryogenic fret wire for extended life, and extra-large strap buttons for security. Guitars wirth bound fretboards also get an undercut fret treatment for an extended playing area. Select models will also include a cool brown case with pink plush interior.  

Straight from the CEO

We recently interviewed Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz and asked him if there are any specific 2014 models he’s particularly excited about right now.

Henry Juszkiewicz: “2014 is a very special year for everyone at the company. It is our 120th year in business and we wanted to make the all the guitars produced this year very, very special. We pulled out all the stops.

Like we did for the 100-year anniversary, we have a special collector’s guitar series to commemorate this event that we call the Double Diamond Series. We have taken six Gibson classic models—Les Paul, SG, Firebird, Flying V, Explorer, and the rare Moderne—and will build some of the most beautiful and elegant versions of them ever made. There will be 120 made of each model, commemorating each year of Gibson’s history. They will be embellished with diamonds, 24-carat gold, Swarovski crystals, hand-painted and signed, and come with real leather cases. The instruments are so valuable that while we will sell them through our dealer partners, we will ship directly to the consumer as each instrument is made. We sold out our 100-year series in a matter of a few weeks, well before they were completed, and I have never seen one being resold.”

2014 Gibson Les Paul Standard SuburstThe 2014 Les Paul Standard is loaded with 120th Anniversary features including the revolutionary Min-ETune auto tuning system and comes in a special commemorative case.

Read the full interview here.

Musician’s Friend has the entire 2014 Gibson lineup of electric guitars and basses in stock and ready to ship. You’ll find Musician's Friend-exclusive videos of each model with Gibson’s head luthier, Jim DeCola, elaborating on the complete Gibson 2014 120th Anniversary collection.

Tags: Gibson Les Paul Epiphone

Comments  

# Ken Witwer 2014-05-04 21:21
Happy Birthday from the family of your first landlord....
Reply
# Craig Sutherland 2014-02-02 04:15
Congrats on e 2014 line up, are the lefthanded firebirds now availiable ? Please e-mail me cataloge with models and prices Thank you Craig Sutherland
Reply
# Odell Huddleston 2014-02-01 19:09
Love the Les Pauls congratulations on 120 great years. I
Reply
# DESI SLOAN 2014-02-01 18:29
My first Gibson was a Melody Maker which I played for six months. Due to tuning problems' I took it to a repaid shop, The diagnosis was a crack around the tuning pegs. In todays world I am unable to afford a Gibson Les Paul so I settled for a Epiphone Les Paul and am more than happy with my guitar. If luck has it I hope to be in a position to own one of the 120 anniversary Les Paul's. I will be looking forward to playing one at my local Gibson dealer. Thank you everyone at Gibson for keeping up the good work supplying quality instruments .I so look forward to seeing Joe Bonamassa play one.
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