Copyright © 1995, 1996 Dan Beimborn and Maxwell McCullough
This page was authored by Dan Beimborn and originally appeared on the Mandolin Pages web site, now revised as the Mandolin Archive, a vintage gibson mandolin guide. In the spring of 1997 Dan decided to liquidate the Mandolin Pages and distribute them in various locations on the web. I was pleased that he offered the Mandolin Cafe the following Vintage Gibson A Mandolin guide.
The Vintage Gibson guide was made possible in part by Maxwell McCollough who provided the beautiful photographs you see in the A-Model guide. Information from George Gruhn and Walter Carter is used throughout the guide.
This guide is intended as a starting point in a search for a Gibson A-model mandolin from the years 1907-1935.
The Gibson Company went through several stages of model design for their mandolins in the last 100 years. The early prototype models were hand-built by Orville Gibson himself, and are very thick and chunky looking as evidenced in this photo of his workshop with many of the earliest A and F model mandolins made hanging on the wall (photo used with permission of the Gibson company).
The basic "A" and "F" model shapes were developed around the turn of the century, and have become the basis for most serious imitators since. Regular production began in the early years of the 1900's, and continued unbroken until the WWII years, and again afterwards up to the modern times. The most generally trustworthy vintage Gibsons fall into the 1900-1930 years, when the instrument was popular and many were produced.
If you are looking to purchase a vintage Gibson to use as a playing instrument, the first good thing to check (before even the price!) is the sound. Strum it, hit chords, open notes, etc. Tune it up, or get the owner to tune it for you. If it doesn't sing, forget it- there are enough of them out there that you will eventually find one that you like. Get a general impression from the instrument how "played in" it is... a nearly unplayed instrument will sound somewhat quiet and muffled (not "Broken in"), where one that has had a lot of service may ring loudly with little effort at all. If it has the "unplayed" sound, it is harder to judge what it will eventually sound like. Instruments can take anywhere from 1-10 years to really break in, depending on how often you play.
Sometimes instruments that haven't been played in a while are "sleeping", it can take a month or so to "re-break" them. Mine sat in the shop for 2 years after the first owner died, and it took about 2 weeks of solid playing to get it to have a "wide open" sound again.. The best thing you can possibly do is try several different instruments.
You will build a strong knowledge of the variations through experience. Remember, you are looking for an instrument that will have a very strong influence on your enjoyment of playing music!
If you've discovered a well broken-in instrument that you like the sound of, you can move onto the next step--model verification. If the sound is "muffled" or unplayed, check out the following section.
A vintage mandolin that hasn't really been played much or broken in should be approached like a brand new instrument. The sound will probably mellow over the years (if it isn't abused or mistreated) into a sound that is similar to a broken-in model of the same vintage. The important breakdowns are:
1900-1910 Orville Gibson labels, "pineapple" shaped tailpiece cover
1910-1920 Fixed bridge models, the biggest production years
1921-1925 Adjustable bridges, truss rods other Loar-Hart innovations
1925-1935 Varnish finish changes to a shinier lacquer topcoat.
Compare a "Broken in" Gibson from the same period (1900-1907; 1908-1920) for a fairly accurate estimate of how the instrument will eventually sound. For the period of 1921 onward, try to get a near exact analogue because there are so many differences.
All of the above are signs of use and wear. They are not really bad in and of themselves, but they do indicate how much an instrument has been played. If your eyes tell you a story that is not compatible with the "mint condition" or "as new" description, be wary.
The first thing to look at is the label. It should tell you the model number and serial number of the instrument. Some were written in pen, some in pencil. Mine (1921) is nearly illegible, but with a bright light and a lot of patience, I was able to read all of the information from the inside. The serial number (when compared to the ones in Gibson records) will tell you within a few months of when your instrument was made. Also, with a dental mirror and flashlight, you should be able to see a different factory number up on the block where the neck meets the body inside the instrument.
The label will probably have yellowed somewhat with age, but a nice new-looking piece of whitish-grey speckled paper with crisp, clear writing does not indicate a forgery - that's what they were like when brand new! The early instruments with Serials below 10000 have a lyre mandolin and Orville Gibson's face on the label.
You will want to make sure that the instrument you are looking at is the model that it is advertised as, because those little model numbers do a lot to the price of the instrument. The higher numbers have more fancy decorative features in general, but do not necessarily sound any better than "lower end" models. I personally would be hard pressed to trade my A0 for an A4. Anyway, don't pay A4 prices for an A0!!
There are many instruments that break the rules, but these are a few basic guidelines:
This one is easy. If it has a curlycue on the bass side of the neck next to the fingerboard, it is an F model ("Florentine") mandolin. An A model mandolin is symmetrical, and teardrop-shaped.
L-R: Gibson A3, Gibson F4
Prior to 1921, the only bridges made for Gibson mandolins (A or F) were made from a single piece of wood, with no adjusting screws. Models around 1910-1921 have little inserts on the saddle for compensation. If the instrument has an adjustible bridge and a date prior to 1921, it is most likely a replacement bridge. Many instruments had upgraded parts as gibson released new models.
The term "binding" refers to the white band that surrounds the face, back, neck, or headstock of the mandolin. More binding = high model number. The only completely unbound Gibson was the Ajr model, a stripped-down (in decoration) version of the classic A model. Prices should range relative to each other in this fashion:
L-R: A, A2Z, A3, F4
Plain model, with no binding or inlay decoration at all, brown finish. Plain tailpiece cover. Shaped hardshell or canvas case. Can have the "snakehead" peghead (see below)
A or A0
Brown or black finish, binding only on face and in soundhole. One ring of purfling around the soundhole. Pickguard that is pinned into the fingerboard and bridge, clamped to the side of the instrument. Pearl dots on fingerboard. Dark stained birch (not the best "wavy" or "curly" cut) back and sides. "The Gibson" stamped on tailpiece cover. Shaped hardshell case. More detail on this model.
Similar to A0, has some features (double purfling on soundhole) of an A2. "The Gibson" stamped on tailpiece cover, inlaid in headstock.
A2 or A2Z
Brown, black, or blonde finish all possible. Binding on front, back, soundhole, fingerboard; "The Gibson" inlaid into the headstock, closer grained (most of the time!) spruce top then a model A0; pickguard that is pinned into the fingerboard, bridge, and clamps to the sides of the instrument. Double ring of purfling around the soundhole. Pearl dots on the fingerboard. Dark stained birch back sides (still not usually a "Wavy" or "curly" cut). "The Gibson" stamped on tailpiece cover. Headpiece veneered in black on the front. Black inlay along the "keel" in the back of the neck.
Similar to A2, but with snakehead peghead, blonde finish, b/w binding, and (usually) A2-z on the label. Made in the Loar period (1924-25). More detail on A2 or A2-Z mandolins.
Nearly identical to an A2, but with an orange top in the teens, and a refrigerator-White top in the late teens, early twenties. A squiggle inlay in the headstock under "The Gibson". Bound on top, back, sides, around the fingerboard. The binding on the top is black then white. These are somewhat rare. Wood quality improving (tighter grain, more "nice looking" features). Bitch sides and back stained red. Bound fingerboard, no extension "The Gibson" stamped in tailpiece cover. Headstock with black wood veneer top. Black inlay along the "keel" in the back of the neck. Shaped hardshell case with red lining most of the time. More detail on the A3 model mandolin.
The top of the line. Red, black, or red sunburst finish (red in the middle fading to black or brown at the sides), fleur-de-lis under "The Gibson"; Handel inlaid tuner buttons prior to 1916 (WWI) (a dotted "+" in each button). Thick white ring between the double purfling around the soundhole. Can have "Snakehead peghead" (see below). Shaped fingerboard extension. Black veneered headstock, front back. Black inlay along the "keel" in the back of the neck. Shaped hardshell case with green or red silk lining most common.
L-R: A3 peghead, "snakehead" peghead, F4 peghead
This is a peghead that tapers from small to large from the top, rather than the other way around. Conventional wisdom is that these somehow sound better, and prices go up accordingly. These can exist on any model numbers including the Ajr (most common 1924- when most if not all Gibosn A models had them). The "rules" for purfling and inlay seem to be put on hold for snakeheads, the specs seem interchangable accross models
The standard Gibson A models had a "keel" shaped neck, similar to the letter "v". The "keel" is rounded, but the modern "U" shaped neck is considerably rounder. Anyway, some Gibsons have slightly more rounded necks.
Most Gibson A models had a Honduras Mahogany neck ("Unwarpable" in the catalog literature!), some had a maple neck.
Many thanks are due to the net community, including Maxwell McCullough for the pictures and Tony Williamson for his encouragement.
Special thanks to the Mandolin Cafe's primary business partners.