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Hands-On Review: Gibson Original Mandolins

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Back in the late 1800s, Orville Gibson focused his considerable genius on building a better mandolin. He changed the nature of the instrument forever. His new design, a radical departure from the traditional, bowl-backed mandolin, was based on age-old principles of violin construction. This low-profile, carved-back A-4 design was patented in 1898 and formed the basis for the Gibson company, which was founded in 1902.

Gibson Original Mandolins

Birth Of An Icon

In the early '20s, legendary luthier Lloyd Loar designed the F5 , based on Gibson's earlier F-4 design. The F-5 was a bit more ornate, with a two-point three-scroll body. It quickly became the ideal for master-level mandolins.

Gibson's renown rose with the popularity of the music form that put the mandolin on center stage. Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys created a whole new genre of music that took its name from the band and became the primary vehicle for the mandolin. Monroe himself played a Lloyd Loar F5 till he died. His stature as a world-class player added to the mystique of the F5 and spawned generations of great mandolin players, most of whom wield F5s themselves. From Sam Bush to David Grisman and Mike Marshall, most of the mandolin greats swear by their Gibson F5 mandolins. And a whole lot of pickers, myself included, respect their judgment.

Gibson Mandolin Headstock

State-Of-The-Art Construction

The cornerstone of Gibson's mandolin construction is the lock-joint dove-tail that joins the neck to the body of the instrument. This joint insures an absolutely tight and infallible fit of the neck to the body while providing superior transfer of sound vibration through the instrument. When I played these mandolins, I could really feel as well as hear that resonance and integrity of structure. Another Gibson innovation is the truss rod in the neck that allows the player to adjust finger action precisely and adds to the overall stability and durability of the neck. Given the small diameter of the mandolin's neck and the great stress placed on it by eight high-tension strings, this is a very important design element.

The dense, two-piece, adjustable ebony bridge on all of these mandolins makes for accurate transmission of vibrations to the soundboard and enhances string resonance. The carved intonation saddles allow precise tone control, and the adjusters provide additional command of string-height. But the truest test of the luthier's art lies in the carving and assembly of the mandolin's body. Both the soundboard and backboard are scientifically graduated for the utmost in vibratory responsiveness. When I played these mandolins, it was clear that this isn't just hype. These instruments rang with the kind of magic that only true master luthiers can produce. And these are American luthiers - exclusively.

Gibson F5 Mandolins

Flatiron Performer A: True Elegance

Don't let this instrument's simple design fool you. When I picked it up the Flatiron Performer A I knew I was holding the work of a master. The neck felt silky and tight, totally integrated into the whole instrument. The spruce top sang out with that "high and lonesome tone" that all true mandolin lovers seek. The maple back and sides were polished to perfection in ultra-thin lacquer and hand-applied French polish. This same finishing technique is used on all these mandolins. The tuning gears were easy to turn and  furnished precise and stable tuning.

Flatiron Festival F: A Touch Of Flash

Featuring the same solid-wood construction seen in each of these mandolins, the Festival F provides an additional visual treat with the luxurious three-scroll design and mother-of-pearl fleur-de-lis headstock inlay. And the nickel plated hardware really sets off the scrolled headstock design. As I played it, I was amazed at the power and fullness of the tone. It immediately became an extension of my body, allowing every musical nuance to shine through.

Gibson Mandolins

F5-G: A Streamlined Masterpiece

After playing the Festival F, I had a hard time imagining how the F-5G could possibly warrant the difference in price. Clearly, I am a man of limited imagination. The triple-bound top, nickel plated hardware, and flower-pot headstock inlay make this a truly gorgeous instrument. And the warm, round tone combined with the great-feeling neck make it as much of a joy to play as Gibson's luthiers must have had crafting it.

F5-L: A Ruby Among Jewels

The F5-L mandolin veritably glowed when I opened its box. I had to just sit a while and gaze upon its splendor. I was afraid to touch the thing. With a triple-bound top and finger rest, bound fretboard, and amazingly delicate abalone fern inlay on the headstock, this mandolin is truly an eye-popper. But the real treat came when I transcended my trepidation and played it - an incredibly sophisticated, mellow sweetness of tone. This mandolin returns to the specs of Lloyd Loar's original F5s. Clearly, this guy was a genius. It's obviously with good reason that this mandolin has become the standard by which all others are judged.

Whether you plan to bring down the house at the Grand Ole Opry or just break down with the boys on the front porch, you won't find a finer mandolin for the job than a Gibson. A century of expertise and dedication rings out in each handcrafted instrument.

Features & Specs:

Flatiron Performer AFlatiron Festival F
  • Spruce top, maple back and sides
  • Parallel tone bar
  • Fleur-de-lis headstock inlay
  • Single top binding
  • Nickel plate hardware
  • Sunburst top; shaded sides, back, and neck
  • Lacquer finish
  • Shaped hardshell case
  • Spruce top, maple back and sides
  • Parallel tone bar
  • Fleur-de-lis headstock inlay
  • Single top binding
  • Nickel plate hardware
  • Sunburst top; shaded sides, back, and neck
  • Lacquer finish
  • Shaped hardshell case
F5-GF5-L
  • Spruce top, maple back and sides
  • Tuned parallel tone bar
  • Ebony extended/dot fingerboard inlay
  • Flowerpot headstock inlay
  • Triple top binding
  • Nickel plate, hand-engraved hardware
  • Cremona sunburst top; shaded sides, back, and neck
  • Lacquer finish
  • Shaped hardshell case
  • Spruce top, maple back and sides
  • Tuned parallel tone bar
  • Ebony extended/dot fingerboard inlay
  • Abalone fern headstock inlay
  • Triple bound, ivoroid/black/ivoroid
  • Gold-plate, hand-engraved hardware
  • Hand-stained Cremona sunburst top; shaded sides, back, and neck
  • Lacquer finish
  • Double-bound finger rest
  • Rectangular hardshell case

Tags: Mandolins Gibson

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