Orville’s work should still resonate
Gibson Guitar bankruptcy, part 1 of 2
Orville H. Gibson was a world-class innovator during a time (the late 1800s and early 1900s) of rapid-fire inventions that ushered in the modern age. He was a tasteful designer and a meticulous craftsman. He was a northern New York native — and onetime Saranac Lake resident — we can be proud of, even if he may not have been much of businessman.
It required more capable commercial operators than him to take over and build his musical instruments into the towering brand known today as Gibson Guitar Corporation. Now the company needs another such group to bring it back from the brink.
I was not surprised by the news last week that Gibson Guitar’s parent company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I had been hearing for years — from friends, guitar dealers and internet commenters — that the maker of my favorite musical instruments was a mess.
There’s a long list of things the Gibson company must improve as it restructures to stay in business, but I hope one of the things is to connect more with the man whose name is on its headstocks.
Orville Gibson was born in the northeast corner of the town of Chateaugay, right near the Canadian border. He died in the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, and he’s buried in Malone’s lovely Morningside Cemetery. It’s not easy to find his grave; it has a very small marker that says merely, “O.H. Gibson, 1856-1918.”
As a teenager Orville moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he eventually started making stringed instruments out of scrap furniture. The trendy instrument of the time was the mandolin, but the mandolins we would recognize today didn’t exist back then — until Orville invented them.
The Italian-styled mandolins of that era had round, bowl-shaped backs made with strips of thin wood that luthiers (people who make stringed instruments) bent by heating them. Orville believed bending wood with heat detracted from its musical tone, so he started carving out mandolins and guitars, kind of like the way violins are made.
He received a patent for two new types of mandolin: the teardrop-shaped A style and the F style, which had a spiral scroll of hollow wood curling forward from the body. As with violins, the backs and tops of these instruments were gently arched, with the neck, back and sides all carved from a single piece of wood.
He did the same with guitars, essentially inventing the arch-top instrument that would, decades later with some major changes, become the standard for jazz players and hollow-body electric guitars.
This was completely original; no one had done it before. The American mandolin and arch-top guitar are his inventions. Arched tops were “a radical departure from previous guitar and mandolin building techniques,” wrote Nashville guitar store owner and authority George Gruhn. While Orville said he was adopting violin construction, in practice, Orville’s techniques were unlike those of violin makers, according to Gruhn. “Although Orville’s total personal output of instruments was very low, it would appear that he was one of the most innovative luthiers in history.”
Aesthetically, too, his instruments are tasteful, anticipating mid-century modernism: distinctive shapes still seen in instruments today, black or dark brown stain and big mother-of-pearl emblems — he favored a crescent moon with a star in the headstock and a butterfly between the bridge and sound hole.
Making instruments the way Orville did was extremely slow, and he couldn’t keep up with his orders. In 1902 he sold the company to a group of Kalamazoo lawyers and retailers who kept his styles but soon changed his one-piece construction to facilitate mass manufacturing. Yes, they dared to bend wood. They kept Orville on salary, but he left within months.
It’s sad to say, but the company was probably better off without him. Not only did it expand to national reach, but it made better instruments. It turned out Orville had been wrong about bent wood sounding bad. While his instruments are beautiful and entirely original, Gruhn has said they sound dull by modern standards. The Gibson company built its stellar reputation by making improvements on Orville’s work, especially when it employed master luthier Lloyd Loar in the 1920s. In the late ’20s and ’30s it started making some of the world’s best flat-top acoustic guitars — it still does — and since the 1950s, the most famous Gibson guitars have been electrics such as the iconic Les Paul. Gibson also started making top-tier banjos in the 20th century, favored by bluegrass aces. None of these things had anything to do with Orville.
As Orville’s physical and mental health began to fail, he moved home to northern New York. He lived for a couple of years in Saranac Lake (from 1909 to 1911, roughly) with his niece Minnie and her husband Merton Drury at 296 (then 24) Ampersand Ave. After that he lived largely in Malone. He required some stays in the state hospital in Ogdensburg — which then wasn’t a specialized psychiatric hospital, as it is now — and in 1918, after a final five-month stay there, he died of endocarditis (a heart condition) at the age of 62.
Gruhn wrote several years ago that the last of Orville’s instruments he had seen was made in 1906, but he may have made more in the North Country afterward — although these have not surfaced.
“He still continued to be wrapped up in music and made here several beautiful instruments by hand, exquisitely inlaid and ornamented which were greatly admired by all who saw them,” his obituary in the Malone Farmer said. His death certificate lists his occupation as “musician.”
People who love Gibson’s guitars love its history, yet the company doesn’t pay much attention to Orville. The official history on its website is all about electric guitars and only mentions Orville in a backhanded way, saying the Les Paul’s “carved contoured top harkened back to the very first Orville Gibson instruments of the late 1800s.” With a little Googling I did find a nice bio of Orville buried in a back corner of the company’s website, but you can’t find it by searching Gibson.com.
Dick Decosse, the longtime owner of Dick’s Country Store, Gun City and Music Oasis in Churubusco, led research into Orville’s North Country roots in the 1980s and ’90s. With help from a friend who worked with property abstracts, he nailed down Orville’s birthplace, a few miles northwest of his store. Dick and his wife now own the site. He said he couldn’t get Gibson Guitar to take an interest in it except once, in 1994 for the company’s 100th anniversary, when it hosted a reception and put up a sign, which fell down years ago.
“If [the Gibson company] was a handcart going downhill, he’s the one who started pushing it,” Dick told me. “Why shouldn’t he get the credit?”
Orville clearly was not the guy to move his company forward after the initial push, but still, the company ought to be a little more proud of him.
Tomorrow’s part 2 will focus on Dick Decosse’s frustration with the modern Gibson Guitar company, which prompted him to drop the brand as a dealer in 2014.
Barnes, Ellen, “Profiles in Revolution: Orville Gibson,” Gibson Guitars, http://www.gibson.com/Products/Electric-Guitars/Firebird/Gibson-USA/Firebird-X/Orville-Gibson.aspx
Corwin, Robert, “A Virtual Museum of Vintage Gibson Acoustic Guitars and Mandolins,” http://www.oldgibson.com
Gibson.com, “History,” http://www.gibson.com/Gibson/History.aspx
Gruhn, George, “Orville Gibson’s last mandolin,” Mandolin Archive, http://www.mandolinarchive.com/articles/orville_f.shtml
Malone Farmer (Aug. 21, 1918), Orville H. Gibson obituary, p.4, accessed via NYS Historic Newspapers, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org
Ogdensburg Republican-Journal (Aug. 21, 1918), O.H. Gibson obituary, p.9, accessed via NYS Historic Newspapers, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org
“Orville Gibson,” Historic Saranac Lake, https://localwiki.org/hsl/Orville_Gibson
Siminoff, Roger (2007), “Orville H. Gibson, 1856-1918,” http://siminoff.net/gibson-background/