• Celebrating the Convergence of Eagles: 100 Years of Lloyd Loar Signed Mandolins

    If you are reading this article today, please join us in rejoicing on the 100-year anniversary of the issuance of the F5 mandolin; an instrument sparked by two eagles, whose fire was fanned to an inferno by a third.

    Steve Gilchrist
    Steve Gilchrist with Lloyd Loar signed F-5 #70281. Photo credit: Roger H. Siminoff.

    About the author: Luthier, Orville Gibson and Lloyd Loar historian, author, inventor, and acoustician Roger H. Siminoff makes his home in Atascadero, California. For more on the life and work of Orville Gibson and Lloyd Loar please visit Roger's web site.

    In 1856 Orville Gibson was born in Chateaugay, a small town in upstate New York about an hour north of Lake Placid and about the same distance from the Canadian border. Orville was the youngest of five children born to John and Amy Gibson.

    Orville had special health needs which brought him first to Battle Creek, Michigan for medical care, and later to Kalamazoo. Initially, Orville's interest in musical instruments was a hobby, and he sought daytime jobs for income. In the late 1800s he began building very unusual acoustic stringed instruments that represented a radical design departure from other instruments of the day, and he opened up a shop in an upstairs flat on South Burdick Street in downtown Kalamazoo.

    On May 11, 1896 Orville applied for his first and only patent, for a stringed instrument whose ribs (rim) were cut to the body shape from a single piece of wood so they would always be in their natural state rather than being bent as was the traditional process for hollow-bodied wood instruments.

    Whether Orville's atypical instruments were the sign of sheer creativity or an extension of his troubled mind, we will never know. (He was in and out of psychiatric care numerous times, finally ending up in the Saint Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, N.Y – today known as the Saint Lawrence Psychiatric Center.) What is important though, is that he left behind a legacy of 118 years of a robust line of stringed instruments that bore his name.

    On January 9, 1886, in the small town of Cropsey, Illinois 233 miles southwest of Kalamazoo, Lloyd Allayre Loar was born to George and Clara Loar. Lloyd was the oldest of three children, having a brother Raymond and sister Madelon. The family had varied musical interests which spurred Lloyd to pursue a career as musician. As a young man Lloyd was proficient on violin and piano with additional interests in the mandolin and mandola. He studied abroad and at several music institutions domestically, and was involved in several bands and ensembles.

    History doesn't reveal whether Orville and Lloyd ever personally crossed paths. Orville sold the rights to his name and his designs in 1904 to several local businessmen, and in 1907 he left Kalamazoo to head back to Saranac Lake, NY. Regardless of whether Orville and Lloyd met, clearly their interests and energy were intertwined.

    As early as 1913 Lloyd was arranging musical scores for Gibson for which the company's instruments were to be played. As with the Gibsonite bands that Gibson fostered, the company was very focused on various marketing efforts to promote its products and help drive sales. In 1918, at the end of WWI, Lloyd joined Gibson as an almost-full-time consultant, and applied his other hours to being a traveling musician. Contrary to popular belief, Lloyd was a musician and a self-proclaimed musical acoustician; he was not a luthier. One might think of Loar's role as being similar to that of Les Paul; both were highly proficient musicians, both contributed successful design ideas to Gibson, except that Les lived in New Jersey and was at the Kalamazoo plant on Parsons Street only a few times, while Lloyd lived in Kalamazoo and was at the plant almost daily. During his tenure at Gibson, Loar figuratively wore many hats as a part-time employee, while Les was never employed by Gibson. And, similar to the way Les Paul's name found its way to truss rod covers of countless instruments that Les did not build, Lloyd's signature found its way to the signature label inside several hundred mandolins, guitars, mandolas, and mandocellos that featured his design ideas.

    Lloyd was particularly enamored by the magic of the violin, and in a college class he taught at Northwestern University in the late 1930s and early 1940s until his death in 1943, he professed that “the tone of the violin is one of the most efficient acoustically,” and he went on to praise and laud the great work of Stradivari and Amati. Lloyd was intrigued by the design features of the violin and by the idea of tuning the air chamber to adjust the pitch of its parts; something that wasn't done to guitars and mandolins previously.

    As a result of his intense interest in the violin and his position as Gibson's acoustical engineer, Loar was able to successfully promote the idea of including the features of the violin in the company's mandolin and guitar line; an idea as radical as Orville's approach. These included the introduction of f-holes with the bridge positioned at the f-holes' center points (a classic signature of the violin); a fretboard raised above the soundboard (as the violin has its fingerboard raised above its belly); two longitudinal tone bars (like the violin's singular bass bar); tap tuned tone bars, backboard, and air chamber (which he further professed in his Physics of Music class at Northwestern University); graduated soundboards and backboards; a 5.5° neck pitch to increase the string break angle over the bridge to 16° (although violins typically have a 22°-24° string break angle, the highly arched and comparatively narrow belly [soundboard], coupled with the use of a soundpost, make it structurally feasible for the violin to withstand this higher string break angle); and a neck moved outward (the result of the new bridge location) to allow greater playable access to the fretboard.

    For the mandolin line, these features were applied to Gibson's existing F4 model, maintaining its unusual body shape, while lengthening the neck and narrowing the peghead. The tuning posts were aligned inward rather than outward to facilitate stringing the instrument.

    The design changes were also applied to Gibson's mandolin, guitar, mandocello, and mandola lines. The model names were attributed to Loar and were to be known as the “Master Model” instruments. (Jules Bellson [1905-1994], Gibson's historian, who didn't personally know Loar, once told me that the folks at Gibson spoke of Loar as “Master Loar.”) In addition, this higher level in the hierarchy of the Gibson product line was assigned a level 5. Thus, the Master Model F5 mandolin, Master Model L5 guitar, Master Model K5 mandocello, and Master Model H5 mandola were born.

    All of the Master Models boasted Gibson's newly patented truss rod system, designed by Ted McHugh. Unfortunately, the new truss rod system was fraught with problems because the design of the rod called for it to be imbedded upside down, with the anchor points being low at both ends and the center of the rod positioned high in the center of the neck. (The truss rod was finally inverted in the late 1930s, but let's save this topic for future articles and posts).

    But wait. There was a third eagle. Along came a budding musician from Rosine, Kentucky named Bill Monroe who found one of these F5s in a barbershop window just waiting for him to wrap his fingers, playing technique, style, and vision around it and foster an indelible sea change in the sound of acoustic stringed music, and much of it centered around the F5 mandolin.

    Steve Gilchrist with Mike Kemnitzer of Nugget Mandolins at Steve's home in Australia with #70281. Photo credit: Richard Jefferson, March 21, 2016.

    Aside from possible prototypes yet to be discovered, the first F5 mandolin, serial #70281 had a signature label dated June 1, 1922 – one hundred years ago, today! Fortunately, the instrument still exists but it was in a state of disrepair until it fell into the talented hands of Steve Gilchrist in October of 2015 to be refurbished and kept musically alive.

    In 2016, Walter Carter wrote a wonderful in-depth article for Fretboard Journal about the tedious process Steve applied to restoring this mandolin, and you can find that link below along with more photos and the details of #70281 at the Mandolin Archive.

    If you are reading this article today, please join us in rejoicing on the 100-year anniversary of the issuance of the F5 mandolin; an instrument sparked by two eagles, whose fire was fanned to an inferno by a third.

    To all the luthiers, musicians, fans, publications, supporting social media, and others who revel in every aspect of this amazing instrument, here's wishing us all a very Happy Anniversary!

    Epilogue: As much as I'd like to take credit for remembering this anniversary date, I have to give credit where credit is due. It was May 11, sometime in the morning, and I was driving to the Post Office to drop off the morning Straight Up Strings deliveries. My phone rang and it was Scott (Tichenor). After exchanging some brief niceties, Scott said "Do you know what June 1 is?" A million thoughts ran through my mind, flashing through birthdays I forgot, the age of Mandolin Cafe, missing a dinner with Scott at NAMM, when my car service was due ... but I came up blank. "I don't know," I said sheepishly. "It's the hundred year anniversary of the F5,” said Scott. "Please write a piece for us!"

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    Comments 13 Comments
    1. addamr's Avatar
      addamr -
      Very much enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    1. grassrootphilosopher's Avatar
      grassrootphilosopher -
      WELL DONE!
    1. Brian Ebie's Avatar
      Brian Ebie -
      Great article. Roger is always an excellent writer and fountain of information!
    1. trebledwaters's Avatar
      trebledwaters -
      Excellent! More. MORE! Roger, please give us more mandolin history.
    1. Steve Roberts's Avatar
      Steve Roberts -
      Happy Anniversary! Great piece Roger, thanks. For more about 70281, including video taken today, don't miss Tony Williamson's latest 1922 dispatch-

    1. Verne Andru's Avatar
      Verne Andru -
      Thank you. Very well done!
    1. BrianWilliam's Avatar
      BrianWilliam -
    1. journeybear's Avatar
      journeybear -
      Fascinating essay! Learned a lot, including some things I should have known already. Well, better late than never, and once taught, one learns. Thanks for the lesson.

      A couple of things baffle me. First, it's the term "eagle." I thought that might mean there's some sort of eagle in the design, though I'd never seen one - but then, I've never held a Loar F-5 nor been up close to one still enough to examine closely. That doesn't seem to be what was meant, and there isn't a clear reference in the piece. There is a mention of a third eagle, Bill Monroe, but again, I don't follow the reference; the first two aren't specified. So I wonder - does the term refer to the personages of Gibson and Loar? I have to ask, because it is not made clear directly, and if it is inferred, I can't be sure I'm understanding correctly - so I wonder.

      The other point of confusion - there's no mention of Orville's brother, Wilbur. Didn't he have just as much to do with the tinkering that led o flight? Are those the two eagles? Oh, wait - I'm being told that's a different Orville. Sorry about that. I do make mistakes; I'm not always Wright.

      In all seriousness, I enjoyed this article tremendously, and appreciate the fact of today's historical significance. I will celebrate by playing my only Loar-era instrument, a lovely F-4. Hooray!
    1. Mike Marshall's Avatar
      Mike Marshall -
      Brilliant piece from Northfield. I love what they've done to get more great mandolins into more peoples hands. It's been a pleasure working together.

      Also shout outs to Steve for bringing 'numero uno' back to life. He's a miracle worker.
      Wonderful details from Tony and Roger too.

      Happy Birthday Ya'll!

    1. Mando Mafia's Avatar
      Mando Mafia -
      Very nice and informative article. I had not put two and two together, but my aunt was born on May 31st 1922, one day before the first Loar was launched into the world. She just celebrated her 100th birthday too!

    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.
    1. JEStanek's Avatar
      JEStanek -
      Fabulous. I learned a bunch I hadn't known before. Thanks!