by Ellen Barnes
Without Orville Gibson, none of this Gibson Guitar stuff would have ever happened. He's not only Gibson's namesake and reason for being, but it was Orville's pure creative spirit that has set the bar for the company's unrelenting innovation for well over a hundred years. The first revolutionary in a long line of revolutionaries (figures like Lloyd Loar, Ted McCarty, and Les Paul) in Gibson history, Orville remains the most enigmatic of the bunch; for that reason, he is also the most fascinating.
Born in 1856 in rural New York, Orville was the son of American Amy Nichols and Englishman John Gibson, who was reportedly sent to the United States as a small boy with a note affixed to his blazer for the couple who were to greet him off the boat. John raised Orville, the youngest of his four children, in tiny Chateaugay, New York where Orville lived before moving to a small industrial city called Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Gibson Guitar headquarters would remain there until the 1980s before relocating to Nashville, TN). It is unknown what brought Orville to Kalamazoo.
The serious, mustachioed young man worked odd jobs clerking in a shoe store and a restaurant while nurturing whittling and woodworking hobbies on the side. Also an accomplished musician, Orville played guitar in a local quartet with Thaddeus McHugh, a later Gibson employee who would file the patent for the first trussrod in 1922. Eventually Orville acquired his own woodshop—renting a 10-foot by 12-foot space where the young inventor, who never married, dreamed up his startling designs—designs that would shape musical instrument manufacturing forever. Kalamazoo records list the address of "O.H. Gibson, Manufacturer, Musical Instruments" as 114 South Burdick Street. There, Orville made most of his mandolins and guitars out of scrap furniture.
Orville based the construction of each of his instruments on his conviction that unstressed wood vibrates far better than wood that's been manipulated or bent, thus yielding superior tone. Previous manufacturers built their mandolins from several strips of wood and would press the rim to form its shape, but Orville carved his mandolins from a slab of wood. It was a more expensive and time-consuming process, but the result was total tonal brilliance. Working feverishly and constantly to produce only six or seven instruments annually, Orville was energized by the Industrial Revolution and his own designs. He pioneered the scroll-body F style mandolin and the teardrop-shaped A style mandolin. These solid, hand-carved models remain the most popular mandolins sold today.
Utilizing the same principle with an instrument's top as he did with its sides, Orville painstakingly carved his archtops rather than bending the wood into an arched shape. In this way, he became known as the father of the archtop guitar. (Orville borrowed many of his ideas from violin-making techniques, and later Gibson company models would continue to graft elements of the violin onto guitars and mandolins. However, unlike a violin, Orville used oval soundholes rather than f-holes for his instruments.)
On February 1, 1898, Orville outlined his specifications in the one and only patent he'd file for an "improved mandolin," one whose design could be applied also to "guitars, mandolas, and lutes." The patent described a mandolin that had a hollowed-out neck and was made entirely—back, top, and sides—of a single piece of wood. In the patent, Orville explained: "Heretofore mandolins and like instruments have been constructed of too many separate parts bent or carved and glued or veneered and provided with internal braces, bridges, and splices to the extent that they have not possessed that degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action necessary to produce the power and quality of tone and melody found in the use of the instrument below described."
Orville then outlined the virtues of his design, saying, "The front or sounding-board and the back board are carved in a somewhat convex form to give them the proper stiffness and are preferably the thickest at and near the center. They are attached to the rim by gluing and form an upper and lower closure to the hollow body of the instrument. It will be observed that with the parts thus constructed and put together no braces, splices, blocks, or bridges are necessary in the interior of the body of the instrument, which, if employed, would rob the instrument of much of its volume of tone and the peculiar excellency thereof."
Orville's early designs were far from crude. Advanced both aesthetically and structurally, his instruments were baroque and ornate—marked by highly elaborate inlays, offset by black painted surfaces. With a penchant for making experimental hybrid instruments like the lyre-mandolin and the harp-zither, some of Orville's instruments were just plain odd. These designs brought Orville some ridicule, and in fact the Gibson name and instruments weren't granted much renown until Orville was out of the picture.
In 1902, after orders had begun to come in faster than he could make instruments, Orville was convinced to sell his name and his patent to five Kalamazoo businessmen for $2,500. The Gibson Mandolin – Guitar Co., Ltd was incorporated on October 11, 1902. Curiously, Orville was not appointed as one of the partners and remained relatively on the sidelines, for many years serving only as an ill-paid advisor. Apparently frustrated with this arrangement, he moved back to upstate New York in 1909.
It's often been said that genius and madness go hand in hand—a sentiment that applies to Orville, who appears to have suffered from mental illness. Historical records pertaining to Orville are spotty at best, but during his fifties, he was in and out of hospitals before dying on August 21, 1918, of endocarditis at age 62 at a psychiatric center in Ogdensburg, New York—80 miles west of his Chateaugay birthplace.
Throughout his life, Orville was prolific enough that some of his instruments still surprise collectors by making their way onto the market for the first time. There they can fetch upwards of $50,000. Today Orville's hardworking ideals and his spirit of innovation remain the backbone of Gibson Guitar—a company that has issued a greater variety of acoustic and electric guitars than any other manufacturer. An early sticker fastened to Orville's instruments said, simply, "Superior to all others." More than one hundred years later, that's still what we aim for.