A Gathering of Eagles at the LoarFest
By Article for January Breakdown - by Roger H. Siminoff
January 1, 2007 - 5:00 pm
LoarFest West, 2007
NOTE: the following article about Gibson and the upcoming LoarFest West appears in the January, 2007 issue of Breakdown, Roger H. Siminoff, author, and is made available here with his permission.
LoarFest West is part of the SuperGrass weekend sponsored by the California Bluegrass Association and will be held Thursday, February 1, 2007 in Bakersfield, California.
At the very beginning of the 20th Century, a small company was founded in Kalamazoo, Michigan for the purpose of building guitars and mandolins. In October of 1902, four local businessmen met with a young luthier named Orville Gibson to buy the rights to his one and only patent and begin to manufacture musical instruments that bore the "Gibson" name.
For two decades the company grew commensurate with its competition, building acoustical instruments that bore qualities that were similar to, but no better than other leading brands of the time.
As The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company (as it was known then) was growing in Kalamazoo, a young talented musician by the name of Lloyd Allayre Loar was performing in key musical venues in the Chicago area. He was playing a Gibson F4, but it wanted more from it. Loar was deeply focused on tone, and his point of reference for the optimal development of a soundbox for an acoustical instrument was the great work of the violin masters.
While Loar's communications with the Gibson company are not fully known, we do know that he befriended a Gibson employee named Lewis Williams who invited him to join Gibson and, among other duties, take on the role of acoustical engineer. Records show that Loar lent his hand to many projects at Gibson, but the one for which he is most well known was the development of the "Master Model" instrument line that included the L5 guitar, H5 mandola, K5 mando-cello, and the F5 Master Model mandolin.
The Master Models marked a major departure in typical wood-bodied non-bowed instrument construction. In the development of these instruments, Loar attempted to impart the structural attributes of the violin; a segue that presented the Gibson company with a significant risk: these instruments were so different that they had to be excellent in order for the Master Model line—and Gibson—to be successful.
The F5 of 1923 had a $250.00 price tag—about $30,000 by today's standards&mdashand were approved and signed (but not built) by Gibson's acoustical engineer, Lloyd Loar. Production volumes were not staggering, and during the period Loar was at Gibson less than 300 Loar-signed F5 mandolins were produced.
While the F5 mandolin was not designed for bluegrass (the F5 was intended to be a classical instrument), a young man by the name of Bill Monroe picked one up, added his style to its sound, and created a new music idiom. The rest is history.
In the mid 1960s, as Monroe's bluegrass music was flourishing, the demand for both Mastertone banjos and F5 mandolins increased. With fewer mandolins available than there were people who wanted them, a grass roots movement started to build replicas of these mandolins, and the luthiers who built them were on a journey—maybe mission is a better word—to achieve both the visual and acoustical features of the original F5 mandolins.
Early on, such builders as Bob Givens and Randy Wood were producing excellent instruments which looked, felt, and played much like the heralded F5 mandolins that Loar signed while at Gibson. The fire was fanned by the introduction of my first book entitled Constructing a Bluegrass Mandolin. This book, published first in 1974, included plans, detailed explanations, and color photos on the finishing process and it allowed anyone—not just the expert luthiers—to build a mandolin.
The fire was burning.
In the mid 1970s John Monteleone began to build mandolins that changed the rules. His instruments had new features that set them aside from the traditional F5 mandolins. Other key builders were also making both headlines and beautiful instruments. Among them were Steve Gilchrist, Mike Kemnitzer, and Lynn Dudenbostel. And, keeping the F5 fire burning at Gibson today is a team of skilled luthiers, among them David Harvey.
At SuperGrasss this year, you can meet with and hear from the great luminaries who are cementing today's history in luthiery. In a landmark event, the CBA has assembled a panel of these eagles to share their views on how they build their instruments, how their instruments compare with the heralded instruments of Loar's day, what thought processes stimulate them to develop great instruments, and much more. The panel boasts John Monteleone, Steve Gilchrist, Lynn Dudenbostel, and David Harvey, and I will have the privilege of moderating. The panel will field questions and share their thoughts for two hours (12:30-2:30 Thursday, February 1, 2007) and will close a question and answer session from the audience.
If you build and really want to enrich your experiences, the panel members will meet again that same Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. for an intimate two-hour "Fireside Chat" where you can show instruments you have built, ask questions about building techniques, share your ideas, and learn from today's leading luthiers.
It's a gathering of eagles - not to be missed!
EmCee-Host - Darryl Wolfe
9:30 - 11:00 a.m. Displays, photo sessions, show and tell
11:00 - 12:30 p.m. Luncheon with Lecture by Roger Siminoff
"The Lore of Loar" - slide presentation on the life of Loar (in addition to what he did at Gibson)
12:30 - 2:30 p.m. LoarFest Panel discussion
"The influence of Lloyd Loar on modern mandolin luthery." Featuring: Steve Gilchrist, David Harvey, Lynn Dudenbostel, Mike Kemnitzer, John Monteleone, & host Roger Siminoff.
2:45 - 3:45 p.m. Travelers Trio (Baldassari, Reischman, Nunally)
4:00 - 5:00 p.m. The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble
6:30 - 8:30 p.m. Fireside Chat with the Luthiers