It’s been 120 years since Orville Gibson started carving his newfangled mandolins in a tiny workshop in the town of Kalamazoo, Mich. An eccentric renaissance man, he was a performing musician and inventor who had decided that just because those big-bellied “taterbug” mandolins had been around for hundreds of years, it didn’t mean he couldn’t come up with something better. Borrowing concepts from the great violin makers, combined with a personal aesthetic steeped in the flowery flourishes of the nineteenth century Art Nouveau movement, Gibson invented the modern mandolin, an American instrument for a new century.
“He had a modest little workshop on the second floor of a retail store,” says Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of the multi-national entity now known as Gibson Brands, Inc. “He was a musician that played the mandolin and determined that none of the instruments of the day were acceptable, and so he set about making his own instrument to meet his standards of perfection.”
The patent he filed after building that first mandolin was awarded in 1898 and remains his sole patent. First and foremost an artist, Gibson’s many talents did not include finance. “Orville was not interested in really being in business,” Juszkiewicz explains. “He was only interested in making the best instrument. And he did, and it got a lot of attention. The legend in the company goes that he was approached by Wurlitzer (the major American dealer and distributor of quality musical instruments in the first half of the twentieth century) and was asked if they could buy one hundred of his mandolins. Orville replied, ‘Well, that’s possible. But I am currently making one mandolin a year, so it will take me a hundred years to fulfill that order.’” Fortunately for mandolinists, production increased in 1902 when a group of Kalamazoo businessmen bought Orville out for $2,500 and started the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co. Ltd. Read entire article »