by Ted Drozdowski
Lloyd Loar's name is one of the most fabled in American instrument making history, and guitars, mandolins and banjos made during his stewardship of the Gibson Company's shops from 1919 to 1924 are among the most coveted and costly. They also remain the template for many of Gibson's finest acoustic instruments. The reason: Loar revolutionized their design.
An early student of the science of sound and the art of playability, Loar is credited with such important developments as the tonally balanced soundboard and backboard in guitars, the use of in-body tone bars, tuned f-holes in both guitars and mandolins, longer necks, elevated fretboards, body chambers tuned for ideal resonance and a tone chamber for banjos supported by spring-loaded ball bearings. The list runs on, including an early electric keyboard. The latter was found among Loar's effects, still in tune 50 years after the lid of its case was last closed.
Not surprisingly, Loar, who was born in 1886 in Cropsey, Illinois, was first and foremost a musician. During high school, he was also a math wiz, fascinated by physics and geometry, but his conservatory studies were in harmony, music theory, orchestration and piano. Nonetheless, his earliest claim to fame as a performer was for his prowess on the mandolin, violin and, of all things, the musical saw.
Loar met Orville Gibson around 1906. He purchased an oval-hole mandolin from the Gibson Company founder for his performances. That same year, Loar became part of the "Gibsonians," a traveling ensemble that played and promoted Gibson instruments — not that Loar's mandolins and other Gibson instruments were stock. He created an unusual pickguard for his mandolin and commissioned a custom 10-string mando-viola of his own creation from the company's luthiers.
As he toured and performed, Loar was constantly evaluating the tone of his mandolin, in particular, and making suggestions about the instrument's design to Gibson's builders. He was also composing classical and popular music, and building a resume of sheet music credits.
By 1918, he'd also gotten a job at Gibson as an acoustic engineer and manager. He spent six months of the following year on leave, entertaining World War I doughboys, and in 1919 he began his instrument-designing career in earnest.
Charged with reviving fading guitar sales, Loar created the Gibson L-5, part of the "master model" series of instruments that are the cornerstone of his fame. The series includes the H-5 mandola, the F-5 mandolin (Bill Monroe played one of Loar's F-5s), the K-5 mando-cello and the Mastertone line of banjos.
Lloyd was inspired by the designs of great violinmakers — primarily Italy's Stradivari family — and incorporated many of their instruments' features into his mandolin and guitar designs. These included fully graduated soundboards and backs, tone bars running the length of instruments' bodies, sharper pitched necks and fretboard extenders. He was also the first builder to suggest using tuned f-holed and arched tops on mandolins. Today these aspects of the instrument seem banal, and yet in Loar's day they were major volume and tone pumping innovations.
Even while he was radicalizing instrument design, he was developing his own methods of music education, authoring books on banjo and mandolin technique. As his interests expanded beyond the Gibson product line, Loar left the company in 1924. He began experimenting with electrical amplification, focused primarily on keyboards. Among his innovations in that area are coil wound pickups.
Much of the rest of Loar's career was spent in education. Among his curriculum at Evanston, Illinois' Northwestern University was a course on the physics of music. Indeed, he believed physics was a core principal in the creation of the finest acoustic instruments and the key to their tuning. Loar believed that various components of each instrument needed to be constructed to exacting properties in order to resonate and project correctly. These included air chambers, bridges, tone-bars and other parts — each designed to correspond to a point on a scale that used concert pitch as its tonal reference point. Today, that would be the note "A" sounding at 440 hertz per second. That ensured that the most important parts of each instrument responded harmonically to the notes played on its strings.
Today an original Loar mandolin is valued at $175,000 to $200,000 — a true sign of appreciation for the work of this master designer. The result of his years of research and passion for his craft is a legacy of durable instruments and designs that have truly stood the test of time.