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Thread: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

  1. #1

    Default Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    I'm a newbie at the Mandolin Cafe; however, fate provided me with a new, old mandolin that was somewhat of a mystery until I believe my research resolved the matter. It all began when a good friend gave me a banged-up, A-style mandolin that to my old eyes looked like a Gibson. I scoured the net for days and nights trying to find a matching mandolin, but to no avail. My new/old mandolin was solid and it's playability and tone was far better than any of my other mandolins.

    Another friend asked me if I had ever seen a book written by Paul Fox called "The Other Brands of Gibson. I hadn't, so I purchased a digital copy and began reading and looking at every image. I learned that Gibson once sold a few different styled guitars and one specific model of mandolin to the Tonk Bros. organization in Chicago between 1934-35 era. Mr. Fox even included a photo from a Tonk catalog of the singular-model mandolin that Gibson sold to Tonk. That mandolin had the Tonk moniker of "Fascinator" printed on its headstock. It was a perfect likeness of my new-old mandolin except for one important detail -- there was a difference between the mother-of-pearl dot patterns on the fretboard. The catalog image fretboard had only three dots while my mandolin had the same three dots plus two horizontal dots on the 12th fret. All of the Gibson mandolins I found that had two parallel dots on the 12th fret had an additional dot father below on the fretboard. So, it was back to the drawing board of endless hours perusing Gibson mandolins for a perfect match.

    I have no idea how many images of Gibson mandolins from the 1930's I examined; however, not one matched the fretboard on my "Gibson". By accident, I stumbled onto a photo of a Kalamazoo Mandolin that perfectly matched my fretboard, but it had Kalamazoo printed on it's headstock.

    When I researched the Kalamazoo Mandolins, I learned that the Kalamazoo mandolins also were manufactured by Gibson. It was considered a lower, more cost effective mandolin, but it was built by exactly the same craftsmen as the "Gibson" brand, and frankly, some of these lower line mandolins played and sounded equally as good as the more extensive mandolins. I also learned that Gibson craftsmen sometimes used different hardware on these lower line mandolins, so even though they were listed as the same instruments, they had different attributes.

    In summary, I believe I have one of the only remaining Tonk Bros. "Fascinator" mandolins that was produced by Gibson craftsmen, not recognized as a "Gibson" mandolin, but resembling a Kalamazoo KM-21.

    No, I have no desire to part with this old mandolin, because it is about the only thing I own that is older than me.

    I look forward to your comments.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Last edited by William C Light; Dec-03-2021 at 9:17am. Reason: Add photos

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  3. #2
    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    That's cool. Would love to see you post photos of this instrument. I'm always interested in seeing the off-brands that Gibson made, and the way things varied from one model to another.
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  4. #3
    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    Let's see it!

    Ha ha, post collision with Eric.

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  6. #4

    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    I am so new to this site, that I have no idea how to post photos yet.

  7. #5
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    Gibson Inc. manufactured instruments under a variety of names, with Kalamazoo being one of the more common -- but there are dozens, a bewildering variety. Here's what the Fox Guitars website lists:

    From 1926 through 1970, Gibson guitars made over 40 different brands and over 300 different models of instruments that didn't carry the Gibson name. The vast majority of the "budget brands" were made during The Great Depression. They include names like Bellson, B&S Barrington, Oriole, Cromwell, Kalamazoo, Ambassador, Capital, Carson Robison, Ray Whitley, Andy Sannella, Fascinator, Francis Day & Hunter, Grinnell, Hayden, Kel Kroydon, Martelle, Marshall Special, Henry L. Mason, Mastertone Special, Mitchell Brothers, Old Kraftsman (Spiegel), Montgomery Wards/Recording King, Reznick Radio Special, S.S. Stewart, Trujo & Truett, Washburn, and Werlein Leader. Gibson also supplied many guitar components for National/Valco. Here is the most complete collection of all of the known "budget brands" including descriptions, catalog illustrations, shipping ledgers entries, and photographs of existing instruments. New brands keep popping up all the time with names like Joe C. Sapp, Morris King, Marlin Conrad Studios, Levy-Page, Liberty, B&S Barrington, Pifer, Robinson, Clark, Concentino and Forbes Radio Special that were all recently discovered. It is almost certain that more budget brands have yet to be discovered.



    I'd take a slight exception to the idea that these brands were of the same quality as the main-line Gibsons; they were, in many cases, designed to be "budget models," and differed in construction and especially finish and ornamentation. Other "non-Gibson" brands were basically regular Gibson instruments, but labeled to be sold by catalog merchants, or individual dealers -- or even musician/teachers.

    The Gibson experts among us (not me!) can usually tell when an instrument's of Gibson origin, even when it's labeled with another name. The practice of "off-labeling" instruments for sale by others -- as well as marketing "budget lines" of instruments, but not using the firm's "premiere" designation, to preserve the "Gibson means quality" image -- was very common, and you'll find a label like "S S Stewart" on a melange of instruments made by a half-dozen firms.
    Allen Hopkins
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  9. #6
    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    Listed in Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars as being made for Tonk Brothers in Chicago circa 1935. It's a model 5284. It is basically the same as the Kalamazoo models.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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  11. #7

    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    I will be posting two reports in time order regarding my research on the Tonk/Gibson/Kalamazoo mandolin that I recently restored. Hope you enjoy.

  12. #8

    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    Click image for larger version. 

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  13. #9

    Default Re: Gibson, Tonk & Kalamazoo

    Absolutely....

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