In June of this year, bluegrass mandolin players worldwide celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first Loar-signed Gibson F5 Master Model mandolin. OK, “celebrated” may be too strong a word; perhaps “noted” would more accurately describe the festivities. But the occasion was worthy of note-on June 1, 1922, Gibson’s “acoustic engineer” Lloyd Loar signed and dated the first Gibson F5 mandolin. The Loar-signed Gibson mandolins were later made famous by Bill Monroe, who made most of his iconic music on one. This column discusses the Loar F5 mandolins.
First, a little background. At the turn of the 20th century, for a decade or two, America was in the grip of a mandolin mania. Mandolin orchestras as well as smaller mandolin bands playing mandolin arrangements of classical and popular music and everything in between were the rage. At that time, just before recorded music became widely available, people who wanted music had to make it themselves, and mandolins were ideal for homemade music. Easily portable and tuned the same as a fiddle (GDAE low to high), with eight strings (four courses of two strings tuned in unison) rather than the fiddle’s four, the mandolin was ready made for amateur music making. The mandolin strings are plucked with a pick, rather than bowed as a fiddle, and the mandolin (unlike the fiddle) has frets. Both pick and frets make a mandolin much easier than a violin for a beginner to play. Like the violin family, which included violin, viola, cello, and bass viol, the mandolin family included mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, and mandobasses. As the smallest and highest pitched of these mandolin family instruments, the mandolin usually carried the melody.
The mandolin is a member of the lute family and originated in Italy. Classical mandolins had flat tops, short necks, and a large bowl-shaped back that served to amplify the notes. These bowl-backs, also known to bluegrassers as “taterbugs,” were the dominant style of mandolin for most of the instrument’s history. But Orville Gibson, a native of Chateaugay, NY, who founded the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company of Kalamazoo, MI, developed a mandolin whose top and back were carved and arched, like the top and back of a violin. Fortunately, Gibson introduced his new mandolin design at about the same time as the mandolin craze was ramping up. The Gibson mandolins projected very well and became popular. Gibson also made guitars and the other mandolin family instruments, and the company Orville founded was well positioned to outfit the period’s many mandolin orchestras. Although Orville Gibson died in 1918, the company he founded over a century ago still makes mandolins and other instruments today.
In the early days, Gibson made two styles of mandolins: a simple “A” model, with a teardrop shaped body, and a fancier “Florentine” model that had a curved body scroll and two or three body points. Both styles had oval soundholes in the middle of the top of the instrument. Differences among models of the “A” or “F” style reflected differences in trim and woods used. Before the introduction of the F5 model in 1922, Gibson’s high end mandolin was the F4, a Florentine style mandolin with a red (Adirondack) spruce top, maple back and sides, an oval soundhole, and a fancy inlay and the “The Gibson” inlaid in pearl on the peghead.
Gibson mandolins were considered top of the line instruments and were played by many of the day’s leading professionals. One of these music professionals was Lloyd Allayre Loar, whom Gibson hired in 1919. Loar became Gibson’s acoustic engineer. In this capacity, Loar designed a new “F” style mandolin, called the F5 Master Model. Loar also designed other mandolin family instruments and a guitar in the Master Model line, including the L5 archtop guitar made famous by Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family.
The F5 Master Model mandolin became the top of the Gibson mandolin line. Loar wasn’t thinking about bluegrass, which didn’t exist in 1922. Rather, he wanted his mandolin to cut through and be heard more clearly above other instruments in the mandolin orchestra or other ensemble. Toward this end, Loar’s F5 design made several important innovations. First, the oval soundhole was replaced by f holes on either side of the mandolin bridge, similar to but larger than those on a fiddle. Second, the neck of the mandolin was lengthened; since the scale length (the distance between the nut and the 12th fret) did not change, the longer neck had the effect of positioning the mandolin bridge in the center of the top rather than closer to the tailpiece, as with the F4. Third, the part of the mandolin fingerboard that extended over the body was raised off the top of the mandolin so as not to impede the vibration of the top. The fingerboard extension on all prior Gibson mandolins had been glued to the mandolin top. In addition, Loar braced the tops of the F5 mandolin with two roughly parallel spruce struts glued to the inside of the top on either side of the bridge. These innovations all made the F5 louder and more percussive than the earlier Gibson mandolins.
The first Loar-signed F5 mandolin known to exist today is number 70281, dated June 1, 1922. It is estimated that approximately two hundred of them still exist. The known Loars are documented at the Mandolin Archive website (mandolinarchive.com) along with other vintage Gibsons and mandolins made by a few contemporary builders. In December 1924, Loar left Gibson; the latest known Loar-signed F5, number 80417, is dated December 1, 1924 (Numbers and dates are from the Mandolin Archive website).
Unfortunately for Loar and Gibson, by the time the F5 appeared on the market, the mandolin boom was receding, and the F5 was not a best seller. It didn’t help that the F5 was priced at $250, with a case available for an extra $25. It seems a bargain given today’s prices (noted below) but $275 was a lot of money 100 years ago, approximately $4,432 in 2022 dollars (per saving.org; a lot of money but still a bargain today given what Loars actually sell for now).
So matters stood until Bill Monroe bought his Loar F5 mandolin in the 1940s. Bill had already recorded 60 sides with his brother Charlie as the Monroe Brothers between 1936 and 1938 and 16 sides with the Blue Grass Boys in 1940 and 1941. In those recordings and his personal appearances, Monroe played a 1930s Gibson F7 mandolin. The F7 was a good sounding mandolin but on a close listen to the recordings Bill made with it, one can hear that it lacked the pop and clarity that Bill was later to obtain with the Loar.
Monroe’s Loar, likely the most famous mandolin in the world, is number 73987, signed by Loar on July 9, 1923. Loar signed a number of other F5 mandolins on that date and July 9 Loars are especially coveted by bluegrass pickers. Bill told mandolin innovator David Grisman the story of how he came to own the Loar. Monroe was in Miami, window shopping, and noticed the mandolin for sale in a barbershop window for $150. The price, $100 less than the instrument sold for new two decades before, reflects the relative lack of popularity of mandolins at the time. Monroe tried the mandolin, liked it, and bought it. Tom Ewing, who recounts the story in his biography of Bill Monroe, states that Bill bought the mandolin early in 1945 and that it was then in pristine condition. A photo of Bill with the mandolin around this time confirms that the mandolin then looked almost new. It didn’t look that way long.
Bill first recorded with the Loar in early 1945 and the difference it made to his playing and sound was immediately apparent. Compare his mandolin blues called “Honky Tonk Swing,” recorded on the F7 with the Blue Grass Boys in 1941, with “Blue Grass Special,” another mandolin blues recorded with the Loar at the 1945 session. Bill’s playing on the F5 is clearer and punchier, and because each note was so distinct (Bill said the mandolin had good “separation”), Bill’s technique evolved to take advantage of what the F5 could do. By way of comparing the F5 sound to the sound of an old F4, which was the high end Gibson mandolin before the introduction of the F5, listen to Bill playing “Monroe’s Hornpipe,” recorded in 1958 on a borrowed F4 while his Loar was in the shop (mandolin break starts at 0:29). There’s no mistaking that Bill is the picker, but the notes on the F4 sound tubbier and not as percussive as the notes on Monroe’s Loar in “Blue Grass Special.”
Bill Monroe played Loar number 73987 for the rest of his life, and when Bill died in 1996 the mandolin had been through a lot. He said that to get the right tone in a mandolin, “you have to whip it like a mule.” Bill followed his own advice. He removed the pickguard, accidentally broke off the peghead scroll, scraped off a coat of lacquer that Gibson had applied without asking him, and generally beat the stuffing out of it. In the 1980s, after the peghead had finally been repaired, a vandal broke into Bill’s home and smashed the mandolin to pieces with a fireplace poker. Gibson’s top mandolin luthier, Charlie Derrington, lovingly and painstakingly restored it, and remarkably, after all that, it still had that Monroe sound.
Bill Monroe single-handedly created the boom in Loar-signed Gibson F5 mandolins. By the late 1940s, as other musicians were beginning to play music in the style that came to be called “bluegrass,” mandolinists were already searching out Loars like Bill’s. One of the first was Pee Wee Lambert, who recorded on his Loar F5 with the Stanley Brothers early in their career. Lambert emulated Monroe’s singing style and mandolin style. The value of the Loar mandolins began a slow climb. Around 1960, another Monroe protégé, Frank Wakefield, bought one for $150, the same price Bill had paid for his in 1945. Frank said, “I gave [the seller] the money and he practically threw it at me.” But by the end of the 1960s, the price had increased to around $1,000, and it continued to soar during the 1970s and 1980s. By this time, other bluegrass mandolin virtuosos like Bobby Osborne, Herschel Sizemore, and Rick Skaggs were playing Loar F5s, and for bluegrass mandolin players, once you had one, your search was over. In the early 1990s a decent July 9 Loar went for around $45,000, but by 2008, when the market peaked, the asking price on a July 9 Loar hit $250,000. After the 2008 crash, the market pulled back some, and asking prices today range from $120,000 to $175,000, although at those prices they seem to linger on the market.
So is the Loar mystique genuine, or does it simply reflect a herd mentality? I believe it’s real. Certainly mandolin virtuosos like Chris Thile and those mentioned above think so. Thanks to the kindness of several Loar owners, I have had the good fortune to play a number of Loars over many years. They have been among the nicest sounding mandolins I have ever had in my hands. They don’t all sound the same but they all have power, clarity, and beautiful tone. In the right hands, they sound like nothing else. At current prices, the vast majority of bluegrass mandolinists will have to enjoy the Loars in those right hands, which sounds mighty fine.