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Gibson Design & Innovation Retrospective

Below is a picture of Orville Gibson's original "one-man" workshop and a few of the fine instruments he built during the years prior to the formation of the company that would bare his name. As you can see, Gibson and design innovation were synonymous right from the very beginning.


Orville Gibson guitar workbench 1900Orville Gibson guitar designs zither harp mandolin

Above from left to right: Orville Gibson-made A 37-string Harp Zither (5 melody strings and 32 open strings); Very ornate early 18-string harp-guitar; A-style mandolin, 18" guitar with butterfly inlay, and F-style mandolin.


This collection of headstock designs provides not only a history of all the shapes and sizes of various Gibsons and the changes to their logos, but also a testiment to the incredible craftsmanship of Gibson emplyees and those responsible for creating these fabulous works of art.


Gibson peghead head stock design logo












Gibson peghead head stock design logo 












Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo

Gibson peghead head stock design logo


PROTOTYPES AND EXPERIMENTAL MODELS:

One thing you can say about Gibson was they weren't afraid to experiment when designing new instruments and improving on existing models.


Right: From c1919, an innovative design nicknamed the 'cat's eye" special. It had the label of Gibson's Army/Navy GY Special, but that guitar model had a standard round soundhole. For more on this experimental prototype click here

Below: he c1924 L-5 prototype. This version with the oddly-shaped "moustache top" peghead appeared in a few Gibson brochures and catalogs, but was in fact an early prototype including the slightly different body size than the production version. The only known example of this peghead design appears on a 1924 Gibson K-5 mand-cello that was converted from an L-5, possibly the only one ever made (see above peghead pictures - 5th row down, 2nd from the left).

c1924 Gibson L-5 prototype









































Below: A 1924 "prototype" Model K-5 mando-cello with the same moustache-topped peghead as the L-5 above.


Below: A c1929-30 Gibson L-1 protoype with its unusual banjo-style 13-fret neck with volute (angle part protruding from the back of the peghead). Courtesy of Neil Reck




Below: c1930 "sound baffle" guitar design appeared in an advertisement and claimed to have "an amplifying resonator". This design never appeared in any catalog or brochure and apparently never made it past the prototype stage.




Left: Gibson's 1933 pocket catalog featured two models that never appeared in any other full-line catalog. A few surviving examples suggest they abandoned these designs in less than a year.
















 










Below: An unknown prototype possibly from the early 1930s - I like to call the "Mickey Mouse ears" guitar.



Below:
From the front, this guitar below appears to be an ordinary mid-1930's Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe Hawaiian guitar model, but from the back it is clearly a unique custom-made square neck design similar to what you would find on a Weissenborn or similar Hawaiian guitar. Note the transition from the large square neck to the back of the peghead, which owes a lot to Orville Gibson's early guitar designs that featured semi-hollow necks.

Gibson Roy Smeck Stage deluxe customGibson Roy Smeck Stage deluxe custom














































Above: The Jack Pennewell "Twin-Six" custom-made double neck guitar. Date of manufacture unknown, but probably mid-1930s.


Below: The 1936 Gisbon L-10 custom double-neck made for Art Pruneau. In the height of the Great Depression, you could order just about anything from Gibson and this rare double-neck tenor and 6-string guitar is a good example.




Below: c1952 company photo Gibson's management team with Ted McCarty holding what appears to be a "gold top" ES-175 protoype. The "gold top" ES-295 and sunburst ES-175 were both introduced around the same time, but there was no "gold top" version of the ES-175 offered as a production guitar.


Left to right: Walter Fuller, Julius Bellson, Wilbur Marker, Ted McCarty, and John Huis.


Gibson has made many custom guitars throughout its history. In May, 1938, they made a "deluxe small flat-top" model for legendary cowboy singer, Gene Autry. Gene also had a custom made J-200.


The "deluxe flat-top" appears to have a customized L-5 archtop neck with Gene's name inlaid in the fingerboard, and a very fancy L-00 flat-top body. Below is the shipping ledger entry for both "deluxe" guitars. It would have been nice if they spelled his name right.



1937-1940 Gibson Electric Basses

In 1937, Gibson was one of the first guitar manufacturers to develop an electric bass. The design was revolutionary because it combined the neck from a Gibson Style 'J' mando-bass with a hollow body shaped like a guitar. It isn't quite accurate to call it the first electric bass guitar, because it was played like an upright bass. Around the same time, other companies like Regal and Rickenbacker were experimenting with electrified upright-style basses, but they didn't have guitar-shaped bodies. It was also in 1937, that Paul Tutmarc developed the first "electric bass guitar", made out of a solid piece of walnut and played like a conventional guitar while seated. On October 28, 1937 Gibson shipped what they referred to only as an "electric bass", as described in their shipping ledgers, to an F.D. Kettering. There is no additional information about who Kettering was, but it's safe to assume that he got the first electric bass ever made by Gibson.

Below left: The "Electrified Double bass made by the Regal company in Chicago. Below right: Paul Tutmarc's Model 736 electric "bass fiddle", considered the first electric bass guitar.


In October, 1938 there's another entry in Gibson's shipping ledgers for a model "EL J", which likely stands for EL=electric and J=mando-bass, and it was shipped with a custom-made case to Clark Music Co. in Syracuse, NY. It is believed that this bass is now at The National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD (see pictures below). This bass has a flat-top and back, hollow-body made out of flamed maple with a beautiful sunburst finish. It has a similar pickup that Gibson used on their ES-150 electric guitar, nicknamed the "Charlie Christian" model with one volume and one tone control on opposite sides of the fingerboard, and a very unusual foot pedal-operated string mute. The string mute is a piece of felt mounted on a steel plate that raises and lowers via a cable to a foot pedal. Presumably, the string mute was used to get a tone similar to an upright bass. In 1951, Leo Fender, the father of the modern electric bass guitar, used weather stripping as string mutes on his Precision bass. The Gibson electric bass has a solid maple neck, but the frets are actually flush to the fingerboard, thus giving the world the first fretless electric bass. This bass has a long 42 3/8" scale length compared to 34" on a standard Fender bass.

Below: Gibson shipping ledger entry dated 10/28/1937 for an electric bass and "Special" EH-150 amplifier.


Below: Another ledger entry dated 10/21/1938 for Model "EL J" electric bass with case, now housed at the National Music Museum.


Below: The 1938 Gibson electric bass model EL-J. Courtesy of the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD.
http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/PluckedStrings/Guitars/Gibson/10474/GibsonUprightBass.html


Then in 1940, Gibson signed a contract to build a third electric bass for the Honolulu Conservatory of Music, an Hawaiian music school located near Gibson in Kalamazoo, MI and it was commissioned by Ruth Perigo who supposedly bought it for her daughter Betty Perigo-Snow. Betty played the bass with a Kalamazoo-based Hawaiian band called "The Tropical Islanders", a family group that included three ukulele players, an acoustic guitar player, one lap steel guitar player and two Hula dancers. This bass is considerably different than the 1938 version in that it has a larger arched-top body similar to an acoustic bass carved from solid flamed. It also has no string mute and the volume and tone controls are mounted together on the treble wide of the fingerboard. This bass is now a part of the collection of vintage musical instruments at the Experience Music Project or EMP Museum in Seattle, WA. They acquired it from the estate of Mrs. Theodore Snow in 1997. 

Below: The sales contract between Gibson and the Honolulu Conservatory of Music for "One Gibson Electric String Bass", dated May 24, 1940. It was signed by Ruth Perigo and witnessed by H. Moine Root, both members of the Tropical Islanders. Price was $205.00.


Below: The Tropical Islanders with Gibson electric bass player Betty Perigo-Snow (standing in rear). Courtesy of the Kalamazoo Public Library.


Up until recently, it was believed that Gibson had only built two such electric basses, but guitar historian Mike Newton discovered a photo of Carson Robison and his Pleasant Valley Boys with the bass player playing yet another Gibson electric bass. He believes that this electric bass was probably made by Gibson sometime after 1940. Carson Robison was a well-known guitar player and singer who endorsed Gibson guitars for many years. In the 1930s, he also had several different guitar models with his name on them that Gibson manufactured for the Montgomery Ward catalog. Sometime in the late 40s, he started the Pleasant Valley Boys band which was named after Robison's farm in upstate New York. No one knows who his bass player was or how he acquired yet another Gibson-made electric bass, but it certainly appears to be the fourth such instrument to have been made.

Below: c1948 Carson Robison (kneeling with guitar) and his Pleasant Valley Boys with unknown bass player and his Gibson electric bass. Although mostly obscured in this photo, it is believed to be the fourth electric bass known to have been made by Gibson. Courtesy of Mike Newton


The Gibson electric basses of the 30s and 40s were never put into full production and Gibson didn't build another electric bass until they introduced the model EB (electric bass) in 1953 or 1954. This violin-shaped bass would become the model EB-1 and is considered Gibson's first commercially successful electric bass guitar.





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