Trivia Question for October 22, 2021

This Contest is Closed
The winners are:
Andy Bing
Todd Evans
Wayne Fugate
Neal Loevinger
Steve Margulis
Stuart Mount

click photo to enlarge


The most prized and expensive bluegrass mandolins (as played by Bill Monroe, Bobby Osborne, Frank Wakefield, David McLaughlin, John Reichsman, Pee Wee Lambert, Ricky Skaggs, Joe Val, Chris Thile and MANY others) are:

  1. Gibson model F5, approved and signed by Acoustic Engineer Lloyd A. Loar, made from 1922 to 1924
  2. Early (ca. 1894 to 1900) pre-corporate-production models hand-built by Orville Gibson himself
  3. Gibson “F” models (principally F5 and F12) made since WWII
  4. Gibson model F7, made AFTER 1930, as played by Bill Monroe with the Monroe Brothers
  5. A “flat head”
  6. A “herringbone”
  7. Any “signed” Gibson F5 mandolin (signed on inside label)
  8. Any mandolin with “The Gibson” in script in the peghead
  9. Any mandolin with “Gibson” in block letters in the peghead
  10. Lyon & Healy Style A mandolin

The answer is “A,” a Lloyd Loar Gibson F5

Additional Bowden Comments
Glad to see some new names showing up in the winners list! Of course, A was the answer. Yes, it might have been easy for those in the know, but for those who haven’t paid attention to the vintage instrument world in bluegrass, it might have led to some head scratching or research.

Gibson mandolins all had round/oval sound holes from the time Orville Gibson developed the “carved” mandolin family. He borrowed the body carving idea from violin making. About 1921 or so a well known Gibson endorser, mandolin player, violinst, and band leader name Lloyd Allaire Loar joined the Gibson company as “Acoustic Engineer”. He was a college grad, but no college any has ever heard of was granting degrees in Acoustical Engineering in the first quarter of the 20th century. Mark it down to Gibson’s advertising copy writers. Lloyd had some ideas about improving/correcting some issues with Gibson’s mandolin line, using more violin building principles. The “oval hole” Gibson mandolins all had characteristic un-balancedly loud bass notes on the 4th course of strings. Lloyd decided that “f” shaped holes would let him control the volume and tone of the strings (the “f” holes in the top can be delicately widened from a narrow origin as needed to regulat the tone, as on a violin). He also freed up the vibrations of the top by raising the fingerboard extension off of the spruce top of the instrument (the fingerboard had been glued to the top to that time, like a guitar — violin fingerboards are elevated). He lengthened the neck a bit, as violin builders had done to Stradavari’s masterpieces. Mostly Lloyd brought in violin building techniques to check and control the tone or note emitted by each piece of wood in the body, and the resulting tone achieved when they were all glued together. (If he wasn’t satisfied with the tone, the size of the “f” holes might be enlarged, or some pieces of wood might even be re-carved). If Lloyd was satisfied with a completed instrument, we would hand-date and hand-sign it, attesting to this careful process.

Gibson had plenty of inventors and tinkerers on the payroll who also added contributions to the improved mandolin. Lloyd didn’t do it alone, not did he build them all himself. The Gibson builders already knew how to carve, join, use a truss rod to keep the neck straight, how to design the various hardware, and especially how to apply the gorgeous Gibson stains and finishes. VERY well, by the way!

The top of the Gibson line had always been the Model “4” til that time. “A” stood for tear drop shaped mandolins; “F” stood for Florentine shaped mandolins (with added points and scrolls and fancy peghead shape), “H” stood for mandolas; “K” stood for the huge mando-cello. In 1921 the best Gibsons had oval holes and a model 4 meant the highest level of decorations. The new design from Loar et. al. was denoted the “5” or “Master Model” series, for all the members of the mandolin family. The first documented F-5 Master Model mandolin was in 1922. Gibson’s marketing people went to work eagerly promoting this new top of the line deluxe world-beating wonder. It was priced at $250, which was SKY-HIGH for that time.

Lloyd Loar promptly equipped his “Gibson Orchestra” with the Master Model Style 5 line of instruments and was featured in all the advertising. (Mandolin orchestras were a “thing” at that time.)

The surviving earliest 1922 example of a “Lloyd Loar F-5 Master Model” has been featured in a luthiery magazine. Basically, it was a “problem” example. A number of rookie mistakes were made on the instrument, and apparently it was difficult to play in tune and didn’t sound great. It has been completely rebuilt and corrected by a wizard mandolin builder and is now considered a very fine instrument.

By December of 1924 Lloyd Loar had approved and signed something like 315 F-5s, plus lower numbers of the larger members of the mandolin family and even a handful of arch top guitars using the same construction principles. They were all dated and serial numbered. Approx 200 or so are known to exist. Surely 100+ instruments of this quality were not lost or destroyed, so all the mandolin hunters know there are still some Lloyd Loars out there “under the bed” or in the attic. As for Lloyd, having influenced an entire line of improved stringed instruments for Gibson, he became fascinated with electrical amplification (remember at this time, the recording industry didn’t even have electrical microphones nor speakers!) He turned his attentions to inventing pick ups and amplifiers for strings instruments (including violins). Apparently Gibson didn’t agree with this effort, and by Christmas 1924 Master Lloyd Loar was shown the door. Gibson of course kept making these wonderful instruments, but minus Loar’s famous date and signature. From 1925 to the 1980s, no one signed Gibson instruments of any quality. When Gibson took the F-5 mandolin design back “closer” to Loar’s standards in the 1980s, they started having their head luthier sign the label. There have been perhaps 10 or a dozen different names signed in Gibson’s “F-5L” (“L” for “Loar”) since. The current Master signing Gibson mandolins is David Harvey, who used to play mandolin in bluegrass bands.

Lloyd Loar never had another notable success. He was too much ahead of his time with electrical amplification. But by the mid 1930s Gibson had seen the light and was busy developing first electrical Hawaiian guitars, then electric arch top guitars. Loar remains known today for the bluegrass F-5 mandolin and the L-5 arch top guitar as played by Mother Maybelle Carter and almost EVERY big band rhythm guitar player.

While Loar’s Master Model arch top guitar went on to GREAT glory, the mandolin’s popularity collapsed by 1930. Only a single well known performer played Gibson Master Model mandolins — Dave Apollon. Dave was an orchestra leader who cultivated a gypsy/Russian look and accent, and led his orchestra through pop tunes with his Loar Master Model Gibson, or a violin. He made many movie short subjects featuring his music. His mandolin survived the centuries and somehow found its way to Nova Scotia and the hands of a country picker who formed a band like Billl Monroe’s WWII war-time outfit, with accordion!

Bill Monroe started out on Gibson oval hole mandolins (like just about everybody) and bought a new mid-1930s built Gibson F-7, which was a less expensive version of the Loar design. It wasn’t until 1945 playing a show in Miami FL that Bill spotted a used F-5 for sale hanging in a barber shop window! Now Bill knew the F-5 was a higher grade instrument than an F-7, but he probably had never heard of Lloyd Loar! He probably knew that his F-7 was HALF the price of a new F-5. So, for $150 he bought the barber shop F-5, which turned out to be signed and dated July 9 1923. And Monroe single-handedly (well, perhaps with Jethro Burns) breathed life back into the mandolin market.

There is a rabid community of mandolin players and dealers who discuss every detail and rumor of the “Lloyd Loar” instruments. Asking prices hit $250,000 back before the mortgage crisis recession. Currently asking prices are roughly half that. So you too can buy a Lloyd Loar mandolin! There are around a dozen for sale today.

Answer B regarded Orville Gibson’s own instruments that he built himself. They are considered more museum pieces, not really performance quality. For the collectors.

Answer C suggests that post-WWII F-5s and F-12s (both of which use “f” holes”) are hot items. Well, a lot of bluegrassers bought them because they were the only “f” hole mandolins that could be found once bluegrass got rolling. Mandolinists today consider them a bit clunky, heavy, too much finish, not properly designed/built by Loar’s principles any more, etc. At best a stepping stone to a “better” F-5 style mandolin in a young picker’s career. Nowadays luthiers often take these mandolins apart and rework them according to Loar’s principles, and refinish them in much less varnish or lacquer.

Answer D suggests that Bill Monroe’s first “f” hole Gibson, the F-7 of the 1930s is the highest regarded. In Bill’s hands that mandolin sure recorded beautifully — it’s on all his records from 1936 to early 1945 and it sounds GREAT! The late John Duffey pioneered rebuilding original F-7s into an F-5 with good success. You can have this done today if you get your hands on an F-7. But they are relatively rare.

Answer E “flat head” refers to a certain design of Gibson Mastertone BANJO, discussed before here in the Trivia column.

Answer F “herringbone” refers to a certain design period for Martin guitars from 1934 to 1946, using delicate “herringbone” wood marquetry around the front edge of the guitar as decoration.

Answer G – “any signed Gibson” would include all the F-5 mandolins made since the 1980s, with the original run of signed Lloyd Loars. The new reissues are nice mandolins (I own one) but they simply don’t compare to the originals. Plus, they are plentiful.

Answer H mentions “The Gibson” inlaid in the peghead. This brand marker started with Orville Gibson himself, suggesting that “The Gibson” was so far superior to the old bowl-back tater bug Italian style mandolins that they deserved “the definite article”. Use of “The” in the brand continued til the early 1930s, then gave way to a simple script “Gibson” (a bit less pretentious, eh?) until 1947 when the brand changed to block lettering. Lloyd Loars share “The Gibson” in the peghead with almost every other Gibson instrument of the first 3 decades. Not an indicator of value.

Answer I mentions the block letter “Gibson” from 1947 on. Still used today on Gibson guitars. With the redesign of the mandolin line in the 1970s-80s, the recent Gibson mandolins have reverted to “The Gibson” for nostalgia’s sake.

J mentions Lyon & Healy mandolins. While they’re not used at all in bluegrass, they are sometimes PREFERRED by classical mandolinists. They use some of Orville Gibson’s designs, notably carving and a relatively flat back (not a bowl back tater bug), but they have oval holes. They are a bit more conserative looking than the Gibson Style 5 pointed and scrolled outline.

So there you have it, more than you wanted to know about Gibson mandolins! But I can testify from experience there is NOTHING like handling a just-discovered-under-the-bed Gibson Lloyd Loar F-5 Master Model that is being brought to light!

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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