.. in 1893 started making mandolins with a carved front and back in a small room over a shop in Main Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA and such beautiful works of art were his instruments that he had no difficulty in selling them. A true craftsman he took pride in the production of the revolutionary mandolins he fashioned with loving care.
Some 450 miles away in Rochester New York an enthusiastic teacher of the mandolin names L A Williams had been buying Gibson mandolins by mail to sell to his pupils but could not get enough instruments to meet his demands.
In the summer of 1902 Mr Williams travelled to Kalamazoo and after lengthy discussions with Gibson tool a leading part in the promotion of the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co. with the sole aim of increasing output. Sylvo Reams was appointed secretary and general manager. Bigger premises were acquired and woodworking craftsmen taken on to assist Orville. Under Reams’ guidance the company grew and flourished and with Williams in charge of advertising and promotion the products of the firm became more and more popular and well known the world over, but Reams died on 5th January 1917.
Gibson, a genius at devising and manufacturing the unusual turned his attention to the banjo early in 1900; his main objective at the time being to add strength to the hoop of the banjo. In Boston, Mass (a hive of industry as far as the banjo was concerned) “tone rings” were being developed and launched along with various devices for improving both the necks and the hoops . Gibson devised an all wood hoop with a “shelf”, under which a metal “bracket band” was housed.
Business boomed and in July the company opened its new $75,000 factory at 500 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, but less than six years later he had to move to number 900 to what was claimed to be the fine s tans most up-to-date equipped factory of any in the industry at the time.
For its “designer and acoustical engineer” the company has Lloyd a Loar a musician of the highest rank. He had studied harmony and theory and the physics of music at several American colleges and was a graduate in Physics, Geometry and Mechanics. His was the guiding hand behind the Gibson instruments for many years until his death in 1943.
The next major development in the company’s banjos took place in 1922 when the “Gibson Tone Projector” was produced. This was a device, it was claimed “actually projects the tone” which resonators do not accomplish”. A year later LA Williams, who had done so much to make the company what is was, resigned due to ill health.
Unlike most banjo makers of the period the early Gibson banjos were fitted with machine heads and not pegs.
The next innovation was the famous “Mastertone” banjos and tenor-banjos, fitted with the normal type of resonator. At first the tenor banjos were made to a 19” scale – “just short enough to allow the average hand to use mandolin fingering: that is, seven frets up to the first position but long enough to give all the pep and snap allowed by law”. Soon after the company came into line with other tenor-banjo makers and lengthened the scale.
From 1926 all “Mastertone” banjos were fitted with the normal type tone ring but during the period 1932 to 1935 the company also marketed a banjo without any tone ring and it is this instrument, using the full diameter of the 11” vellum, that finds great favour with present day American “Folk” banjoists.
When America entered WWII in 1942 the making of banjos ceased because of the government’s limitations on the amount of metal allowed in any one musical instrument. The company was able to make mandolins and guitars and the factory also made aircraft components.
In 1944 the Gibson name and plant was acquired by the Chicago Music Instrument Company of Chicago and in 1948 they started to make “Gibson” banjos and by the 1960’s were selling four models of tenor, plectrum and 5 string banjos incorporating the best features of the pre war instruments.
Pictures courtesy of Smakulas Fretted Instruments