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Thread: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

  1. #1
    Pittsburgh Bill
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    Default Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Out of curiousity I would like opinions as to whether Martin mandolins are inferior in playability and tone to Gibson Mandolins. Is the significant value differences based upon functionality or other factors having to do with emotional / popularity influences?
    I have played a number of vintage instruments that varied from what I thought to have very good to very poor tonality. As per playability I have not liked any of the mandolin flat fret boards and only a few of the neck profiles.
    The thought of owning a near 100 year old instrument in good condition, but with a reworked neck and radius fret board added excites a desire that may someday have to be realized.
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    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Having owned a few of both I can offer this. Martin mandolins play well as long as they have no issues as do Gibson mandolins. All things considered, they are both well made instruments.

    Where they differ is in the sound they produce. Martin mandolins have this sweet airy sound like one might want to hear in celtic or folk music or the like. Gibson mandolins can give you that hard driving bluegrass sound.

    You could play either mandolin in either genre and someone with advanced talents on the instrument could probably produce almost anything. There are difference between Martin and Gibson guitars and there are differences between the mandolins made by both companies.

    Monroe didn't buy a Martin mandolin that was hanging in the Window of a barbershop in Florida, he bought a Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F5. That was the sound he was looking for and that has driven the market for decades.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Their style is quite different.. Martin derived from a Bowl back tradition ..

    As you have seen Bluegrass bands favor Martin Guitars, and Gibson Mandolins..

    Not Gibson Guitars and Martin Mandolins..
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  6. #4
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Before you decide, I suggest you research the Martin Style 20. It was a carved-top beauty and had a nice sound.

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    1. You won't get a radiused fingerboard on either Martin or Gibson mandolins -- unless, as you suggest you get one installed aftermarket.

    2. The real difference isn't in the brand name; it's in the construction methods. Most Martin mandolins are made partially like flat-top guitars (flat back, bent sides), and partially like bowl-back mandolins (flat top with a "cant" -- heat-induced bend -- built into it). The exceptions are the relatively rare Styles 15/20/30 (oval hole), and the corresponding 2-15/2-20/2-30 (f-hole); these models had carved tops. Gibson mandolins (again, with some exceptions, such as the flat-top Army-Navy Model) are made like arch-top guitars, with the top and back carved into an arch. They may have oval soundholes or f-holes, depending on the model, and come in a variety of shapes, the most common of which are the "A" instruments with ovoid bodies, and the "F" instruments with added scroll and body points. Martin mandolins, other than the carved-top models, generally have shorter scales -- especially shorter than the raised-fingerboard Gibson models.

    3. I would say that tonal differences, which Mike E has well-described above, are a question of "difference," not "superiority/inferiority." And construction-wise, both companies built to high standards, though I would say that you might find a bit more qualitative variation in Gibson mandolins than in Martin. Gibson didn't seem quite as strict in sticking to specs as Martin; more idiosyncratic "one-of" Gibsons crop up from time to time.

    4. The "significant value differences" you mention are largely related to the role of mandolin in contemporary music. The main musical genre that features mandolin in our time is bluegrass, and Gibson mandolins (again, as Mike E mentions) are better suited to that style. If you look at those currently building mandolins, either here or in Asia, you will find a preference for the Gibson template -- carved top and back, "A" or "F" body shapes. These decisions are market-driven, as is the price scale of vintage Gibson vs. vintage Martin models, whose original list prices were much closer than their prices on the vintage market. The shifting market led Martin to drop mandolin manufacture decades ago, while Gibson continues to make mandolins, and most other builders are making Gibson-esque variants.

    5. If you are dissatisfied with the neck profiles and "tonality" of many of the vintage models, I'd question the decision to buy a "100 year old instrument" just because it's vintage. There are many excellent contemporary builders capable of turning out a mandolin that meets your preferences more exactly. Those of us who accumulate numbers of older mandolins, and the instruments, generally like the tone and feel of the old instruments -- though most of us have and play newer instruments as well. There is a reason that certain models of mandolin -- especially Gibson "F" models -- can command six-figure market prices, while other mandolins of the same vintage are much lower-priced; it has to do with (at least perceived) musical functionality, more than "emotional/popularity influences." Lloyd Loar Gibson F-5's are, like Stradivarius violins, considered by musicians to be the "gold standard," and their market prices reflect that evaluation. Changing instruments, you find the same factors apply to, say, Martin ukuleles; vintage Martin 5-K's command market prices far beyond contemporary Gibson ukes, for reasons musical and non-musical.

    Which is taking a lot of words to say that vintage Martin and Gibson mandolins -- in general -- are high-quality instruments, neither "inferior" to the other, just different -- and that their musical differences have made them differently valued on the vintage instrument market, largely due to musical style preferences among the mandolin-buying public. Your musical style preference may lead you to one brand or the other; I own both, like 'em both, and use them for different styles of music.

    Have fun! Vintage mandolin trying and buying can be a really enjoyable experience -- you learn a lot and get to experience history in your hands.
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  10. #6

    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by rickbella View Post
    Before you decide, I suggest you research the Martin Style 20. It was a carved-top beauty and had a nice sound.
    +1

    The Style 20 is very beautiful and they tend to sound very good.

  11. #7
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Just to muddy the water, I will mention that the old Lyon & Healy carved top instruments are instruments of high quality.

    Styles B and C are in more or less the same price range as Gibson oval hole A models. In my experience, L & H's tend to be more consistent in tone and projection from instrument to instrument than the Gibson A's. And, for those who care about such things, many of them left the factory with fingerboards that are mildly radiused. The necks tend to be modest in profile compared to Gibson's.

    I might also mention that Martin's oval hole style 15 and 20 models are quite similar in design and appearance to L & H style B's and C's.

    I'll also mention that I owned an L & H style B that miked better than perhaps any other mandolin I have ever owned. I traded it off to a well known player many years ago, but that's another story.

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    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    To muddy the water further, what do we think of homages? https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/153833#153833
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by pheffernan View Post
    To muddy the water further, what do we think of homages? https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/153833#153833
    I, for one, like homages. If I was in the market, I'd sure be looking at this one, especially at this price.
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob Clark View Post
    I, for one, like homages. If I was in the market, I'd sure be looking at this one, especially at this price.
    Nothing against the builder, seller, or potential buyer, but you can buy an actual Martin pretty close in range to the price of this. The “blocky” neck heel kinda turns me off. Just my opinion. As far as the thread goes, I think MikeE and AllenH pretty much covered it!

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  19. #11
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned the fact that most if not all Martin Flat top mandolins have the short 13” scale, aka “violin” scale, another carryover from the old bowlbacks. I think the carried tops like the style 15 and 20 had the longer 14” scale. It’s too bad that bluegrass players never embraced the short scale. Chop chords sure are easier that way!

    I absolutely love my Martin style A! But I am a folkie at heart, just not into bluegrass. If you are a bluegrass player you have to have the carved top. Martin did make carved top instruments as noted above, but I don’t know of any bluegrass players that use one. They just prefer the Gibson sound.
    Don

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    It is not either or. They both have their place. As do other options.

    I am especially enamored of the Lyon and Healy mandolins. I have a Style A that I consider one of the most beautiful mandolins in the world. Just like Martin and Gibson, if you get a good L&H it will be extremely playable and sound fantastic.

    Best to plan on getting one of everything, in due course naturally. Decide what you are getting first, nor now, but realize you are not closing the door to other options as soon as resources and priorities permit.

    That is my approach anyway. YMMV
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    Registered User Bob Clark's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    It is not either or. They both have their place. As do other options.

    I am especially enamored of the Lyon and Healy mandolins. I have a Style A that I consider one of the most beautiful mandolins in the world. Just like Martin and Gibson, if you get a good L&H it will be extremely playable and sound fantastic.

    Best to plan on getting one of everything, in due course naturally. Decide what you are getting first, nor now, but realize you are not closing the door to other options as soon as resources and priorities permit.

    That is my approach anyway. YMMV
    Amen Brother!
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  23. #14
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by multidon View Post
    I’m surprised nobody mentioned the fact that most if not all Martin Flat top mandolins have the short 13” scale, aka “violin” scale, another carryover from the old bowlbacks. I think the carried tops like the style 15 and 20 had the longer 14” scale...
    Yeah, I mentioned that:

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Martin mandolins, other than the carved-top models, generally have shorter scales -- especially shorter than the raised-fingerboard Gibson models.
    Perhaps not as specifically, but that is one of the characteristic differences between Martin and Gibson mandolins.
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  24. #15
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by multidon View Post
    I think the carried tops like the style 15 and 20 had the longer 14” scale.
    According to the Johnson/Boak book, Martin Guitars: A Technical Reference, The earlier oval hole carved Martins (Style 15, 20, 30) had a 13" scale whereas the later f-holed 2-15, 2-20, and 2-30 mandolins had 13-3/4" scales.

    I had a 1940s Martin 2-15 once and while it had a sweet sound, it wasn't anywhere near the Gibson's in terms of tone or volume.
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    Sorry Allen. Missed that in your post. You’re definitely not one who leaves out significant facts! And I meant “carved” tops, not carried. Darn auto correct. I should just turn the dadgum thing off.
    Don

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  27. #17
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Vintage Martin vs. Gibson

    I am not a fan of the longer necks. The instrument feels to me like a large spoon, with all the weight at one end. The shorter necks give the feeling of compactness. A small package capable of great things.

    But its really about preference. What folks like and want to play.
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