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Gibson Mandolin "Orchestra"
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
|Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
- Gibson F-4, ca. 1920
I must confess that I'm among the many who are infatuated with old Gibson instruments, particularly those made between 1900 and 1930, heyday of the mandolin and banjo. The Gibson story began with Orville Gibson, who, among other things, revolutionized the mandolin in the year 1898. Dissatisfied with the sound of the traditional Italian-style bowl-back mandolin (not to mention how to hold the slippery thing!), he completely redesigned it -- giving it a relatively flat, shallow profile, and applying such violin principals as an arched, carved top and back. His basic design was refined by the Gibson Company over the years and reached its zenith in 1922 with the immortal F-5 mandolin. Unfortunately, the mandolin craze had just ended and comparatively few of these were sold. But then in the mid-forties, Bill Monroe discovered an old F-5, single-handedly invented bluegrass music, and the rest, as they say, is history. The mandolin is now as popular as ever, and to this day, Gibsons remain the standard by which all others are judged.
Now, no one knows exactly who came up with the idea of a mandolin "orchestra" (or when), but it was ingenious. Apparently, someone finally noticed that a mandolin (with eight strings in four double-courses) was tuned exactly like a violin and could therefore play violin music. It was even possible to play sustained notes with a tremolo technique. Then, around the turn of the century somebody further reasoned that if larger mandolins were built to correspond to the viola, cello, and even bass, an entire string orchestra could be duplicated with mandolinists. Reasonable enough, but where does one find mandolinists? Gibson's answer was brilliantly simple and diabolical. It initiated a systematic nation-wide marketing scheme wherein a network of music teacher-dealers was cajoled into organizing local mandolin "clubs" whose eager participants would just happen to require (A) lessons and (B) instruments -- both happily provided by the teacher. Between 1910 and 1920 there were literally hundreds of these "All-Gibson orchestras" across the country -- a phenomenon not unnoticed by several other companies who were scurrying to produce their own versions of this new family of instruments. But even though Gibson mandolins were the most expensive, their craftsmanship, sound, aesthetic beauty, and grandiose hype captured the majority of hearts and pocketbooks than as now. And this was just the beginning of Gibson's tremendous success story. Ironically, Orville Gibson himself missed out on all the fun since he had sold the rights to his name and inventions in 1902 for $2500.
Gibson made all but the bass in two body styles: a round, teardrop shape and the "florentine" with scroll and points. Florentine mandolas and mandocellos are now especially rare, and surprisingly popular and costly collector's items. Some, like this 1924 mandocello, have the short-lived "Virzi tone-producer," a wooden disc suspended inside the body to supposedly improve the sound.
Despite what I've written, a mandolin orchestra can't be fully explained -- it must be experienced. So I personally did my time with the Los Angeles Mandolin Orchestra for several years, one of the few such clubs still in existence. Let me try to recall the scene: First of all, trying to get a couple of hundred strings in tune for each rehearsal (with all but the bass double-strung) was a disastrous free-for-all with no one the lucky winner, and in the end, it didn't much matter anyway. Sheet music arranged for string orchestra was then passed out, though some of the more senior members had trouble just focusing on the notes on our photocopies. There was a professional conductor, but he was largely ignored, as it seemed more important to find one's own rhythm and stick with it, impressing it upon one's neighbors if possible. And, yet, given enough rehearsal and any amount of luck, the "miracle of the mandolin orchestra" would occur -- wherein a couple dozen madly tremoloed mandolins blended together to give the illusion of a bowed string orchestra. Alas, my "quartet" just begins to hint at this.