Gibson and the Master Model Instruments – A Financial Disaster with a Silver Lining

By George Gruhn and Joe Spann

Today the Gibson L-5 guitar and F-5 mandolin are both recognized as visionary innovations in stringed instrument design. But in 1922 when Gibson first introduced their line of “Master Models” they were a financial disaster, requiring increased production costs and lacking a viable market with the public. Changing tastes in music would bring them to world-wide prominence later in the 20th century, but at the time of their creation they were an enormous fiscal drag on the Gibson company and difficult to sell.

Most historians associate the creation of Gibson’s “Master Model” instruments with Lloyd A. Loar (1886-1943) who was perhaps the first acoustical engineer to work at a musical instrument manufacturing company. During his tenure as a Gibson employee (June 1919 to December 1924) Loar was indeed a catalyst for the “Master Model” instruments, bringing design innovations which changed the future of stringed instruments. However, it should be noted that it was the influence and support of his boss, Gibson general manager Lewis A. Williams (1878-1951) whose vision for the company and support of Loar brought the Master Model designs to fruition. 

Beginning in 1902, Lewis Williams led the Gibson company to success through innovative marketing of Orville Gibson’s innovative mandolin design, with shallower bodies made possible through violin-like carved tops and backs. These mandolins were easier to hold, had a radical new look, and produced more volume, projection and better tone than their bowl-back predecessors. The mandolin was also relatively easy to learn to play and because it is tuned to the same notes as a violin, a ready supply of classical and popular sheet music already existed which could be used for mandolin without any re-arrangement or transposition.

During the first two decades of the 20th century the popularity of the mandolin soared and Gibson sales increased proportionally. Gibson promoted the creation of mandolin “orchestras” with the addition of other mandolin family instruments like the mandola, mando-cello and mando-bass to reproduce the viola, cello and bass viol parts of a regular orchestra.  As the result of these factors and with aggressive inspired marketing, Lewis Williams and the Gibson company dominated the mandolin market for as long as the bull market lasted.

But the boom in mandolin popularity did not last. The American psyche underwent tremendous change at the end of the second decade of the 20th century. American participation in World War I began in 1917 and produced casualties on a scale which was previously unimaginable. American soldiers returned home with their bodies and minds maimed in ways which were unlike anything in the previous history of war. While the war raged in Europe the influenza pandemic of 1918 struck, killing over half a million Americans at home, and 3% of the population worldwide, making it the deadliest recorded natural disaster in human history. Men, women and children died indiscriminately. By 1920 the genteel Edwardian era which had embraced the mandolin was a thing of the past. The coming decade would bring a harder, faster American society, one in which life was lived in the moment, because tomorrow was not guaranteed. It was to be the age of Dixieland and Jazz music, a time in which the mandolin would play a radically diminished role.

The sharp decline in mandolin interest can be graphically demonstrated by looking at Gibson’s total production. Exact Gibson production figures for this period do not exist, but we can estimate them from reconstructed serial number lists. In the final year of the war (1919) Gibson manufactured about 7,000 mandolin family instruments. In 1920 production dropped to around 6,000 and by 1921 only 3,800 instruments shipped. The rapid decline continued, finally dropping below 2,000 mandolins shipped by 1925. The mandolin would never again be produced by Gibson in large numbers. 

Gibson F-5 mandolin from 1923 Catalog N. Image courtesy of Paul Fox (fox-guitars.com)

But Williams didn’t get the message or even worse deliberately chose to ignore the obvious signs. Instead, he hired his friend Lloyd Loar in June of 1919 to help Gibson produce a line of newer, better “Master Model” instruments, based on Loar’s ideas about tap-tuning and air-chamber resonances. They decided to begin with the mandolin and in 1922, after three years of development the Gibson workforce produced a truly superior instrument, built with parallel bracing, tuned top and back, and F-holes instead of a single oval soundhole. The first Master Model F-5 mandolins probably reached the shipping department about mid-year 1922 and first appear on the Gibson dealer price list in August. 

Unlike other Gibson instruments, the Master Models had a Loar signature label stating that “the top, back, tone-bars and air-chamber of this instrument were tested, tuned and the assembled instrument tried and approved.”  Loar dated the labels and signed his name as the “Acoustic Engineer.” It would be tempting to think that Loar did personally try and approve each Master Model instrument, however this seems unlikely. Loar’s experimental research work alone was not enough to justify his salary. He was also required to serve as credit manager, production manager, purchasing officer and had supervision of the repair department at Gibson. During July and August of each year he toured as a concert performer and it was also during this time that he received his master’s degree in music. He could not possibly have had time to personally test every Master Model. 

If the F-5 had been introduced before 1917 there is little doubt it would have been a triumph, but by 1922 there was simply no economically viable market for it, especially when the cost of development is factored into the equation. At an initial list price of $200 in 1922 (raised to $250 in 1923) they were far too expensive for entry-level and amateur musicians, leaving only a small number of professional classical players as a possible niche-market.  After the initial 1922 orders were filled Gibson had a very difficult time selling them.  Eventually they resorted to placing instruments with their teacher-agents on a trial basis, hoping that the teacher or one of their students would be impressed enough to make a purchase. This strategy had little success and many of them were later returned to the factory. 

Between 1922 and 1924 an estimated 250 “Loar-signed” Master Model F-5 mandolins were produced, a number which represents only a small fraction of Gibson production during the same period. Even so, the last of the “Loar-signed” models were not cleared from inventory until 1926. An indication of their lacklustre reception and public disinterest may be gleaned from an ad placed in the October 1931 issue of The Crescendo magazine which offered “Gibson F-5 artist mandolin and square case, cannot be told from new, cost new with case $288, sell for $110.” Even at 62% off list price this ad remained in place for many months afterwards.

Like the F-5 mandolin, the new Master Model L-5 guitar had a carved and tuned top, f-holes like a violin and parallel top bracing.  It also had 14 frets clear of the body. It has often been said that Martin was the first to bring the 14 fret neck to production guitars in 1929 at the specific behest of banjoist Perry Bechtel. But Gibson had been producing L-5 guitars with 14 frets clear of the body from 1923 onward.  To be absolutely inclusive it should also be stated that the Gibson style O guitar had 15 frets clear of the body even earlier. There can be little doubt that Perry Bechtel had seen a Gibson L-5 before 1929, so at best he simply made a suggestion to Martin in 1929 regarding something he had already seen on a Gibson.

The L-5 guitar first appears in Gibson dealer price lists in January of 1924 and in the following eight years of production only about 200 L-5 model guitars were built, accounting for less than two tenths of one percent of Gibson’s total output over the same period. It did not help that the L-5 had a big price tag. Introduced at $275 (without a case), it was prohibitively expensive. When compared to the Martin 000-45 ($170 in 1926) or the OM-45 ($180 in 1930) the price seems outrageous. To get a feel for these prices, it is reasonable to multiply them by an inflation adjustment factor of 50 or 60. Using that method today the L-5 would sell in the $14,000 – $16,000 range.

Gibson L-5 from Catalog O (issued in either late 1924 or early 1925)

One indicator of success for any high-quality instrument is the length of time required before the manufacturer releases a less-expensive version. In the case of the L-5 it took seven years for Gibson to create the model L-10 (released in November of 1931) as a more financially accessible archtop f-hole guitar. It would be tempting to say that the creation of the L-10 (priced at $175 without the case) and then the other models which followed in 1932; the L-12 (priced at $200), and the L-50 ($50) were a response to increasing popularity of the L-5 or even an attempt to bring lesser priced product to market in a drastically failing economy.  However, it is far more likely that the advent of the L-10 and the other models was a response to the threat of competition. In June 1931 Epiphone brought out nine new archtop guitar models. The largest of these guitars was 16 3/8” wide, bigger even than a Gibson L-5. Gibson countered with three new models in late 1931-early 1932 and then just to be certain they had market control in 1934 they “advanced” their 16-inch archtop models by making them a whole inch wider. By 1934 Gibson had built over 100 L-10’s, about 60 L-12’s and more than 300 L-5’s, trampling the previous ten years of Gibson archtop f-hole guitar production in a fraction of the time.

The change in public attitudes concerning archtop guitars may well be attributable to the rising popularity of musician Salvatore Massaro, known professionally as “Eddie Lang.” Today he is considered one of the prototype jazz guitarists and his compositions are still widely studied. As early as 1927 Lang was recording jazz guitar solos with Bix Beiderbecke and by 1929 was performing in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra with singer (and future superstar) Bing Crosby.  He made audio recordings with jazz violinist Joe Venuti, bluesman Lonnie Johnson and fellow jazz guitarist Carl Kress which were very popular at the time and remain today as early archetypes of what jazz guitar could be. Later players like Django Reinhardt and Les Paul were strongly influenced by him. 

At first Lang played a round soundhole, short-necked Gibson L-4, but in the mid-to-late 1920’s switched to the L-5, raising the profile of the instrument through his artistry and high visibility on records, radio, movies and personal appearances. Lang owned and performed on at least two different Gibson L-5 guitars before his untimely and unfortunate death on March 23, 1933 after a tonsillectomy at Park Central Hospital in New York City. No matter how brief his career, his choice of a Gibson L-5 influenced many musicians, then and now.

While the popularity of archtop guitars steadily increased during the 1930’s, the same could not be said for the mandolin. Gibson produced fewer and fewer mandolins during the 1930’s and F-5 production ceased altogether during World War II.  In the late 40’s and early 50’s a limited number of models were produced, including a substantially modified F-5.  These F-5 instruments somewhat superficially resembled the first Master Models, but were not highly regarded by musicians. It remained for country musician Bill Monroe to bring the pre-war Master Model F-5 mandolin to prominence in the mid-to-late 1940’s.  

Early in his career Monroe played a pre-war Gibson F-7 mandolin, a model with F-holes, but also a shorter neck. About 1940 Monroe was performing in Miami, Florida and spotted a 1923 Gibson F-5 in a barber shop and purchased it for $125. While it is certain that Monroe did not know he was purchasing a Loar-signed instrument, he did notice that the volume of the F-5 allowed him to take solos which could be heard in a group which featured the five-string banjo. The F-5 longer neck also changed the way he approached rhythm, allowing him to create a closed-chord “chop-style” rhythm, not unlike the chord comping technique used by jazz guitarists on the L-5 guitar in orchestral situations. The capabilities of the instrument literally changed Monroe’s playing style. Had Monroe found an F-5 from the later 1930’s or 40’s it is questionable as to whether his style would have evolved as it did. F-5’s from the later period do not sound like the Loar-signed or mid 30’s models, lacking what would come to be known as the “bluegrass bark.” As the popularity of Monroe’s bluegrass music increased in the 1960’s, so did the demand for “Loar-signed” Gibson F-5 mandolins. While today there are numerous makers producing fine quality excellent sounding F-5 derived models suitable for bluegrass music, when Monroe bought his mandolin there were no other mandolins capable of producing his signature sound except for F-5 mandolins made no later than the mid 1930’s.

There were other Master Model instruments which did not find commercial success. The H-5 mandola, K-5 mando-cello and TL tenor lute guitar were all created at the same time as the F-5 mandolin and L-5 guitar, but these instruments never found a niche in popular music and so have been relegated to obscurity. Loar also worked on the development of the Gibson banjo, but most of his ideas eventually proved to be impractical. The name “Mastertone” was first applied to Gibson banjos during this time and it is thought that the origin of this word is linked to the Gibson employees respect for “Master” Loar.

Neither of the men responsible for creating the “Master Models” at Gibson lived to see the full success of their ideas. Following months of poor financial performance Lewis A. Williams tendered his resignation to the Gibson board in October 1923 and it was summarily accepted. He died in Los Angeles, California in 1951 following a string of failed business attempts. Late in 1923 new manager Harry Ferris began to correct the financial problems at Gibson, but acoustic engineer Lloyd A. Loar struggled to find a place in the new regime. In December of 1924 he accepted a teaching position at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and left Gibson behind. Loar briefly partnered with Lewis Williams again in November of 1933 to create their own instrument manufacturing company (Vivi-Tone), but the business was not a success. Loar died in Chicago in 1943. 

Because of musicians Eddie Lang and Bill Monroe, the L-5 and F-5 Master Models would find larger audiences and wider acceptance in the last half of the 20th century. Today, both instruments are considered archetypes and have seen the development of many derivative models and imitators. The F-5 and L-5 “Master Model” instruments were created too late to be part of the mandolin orchestra and too early for the role they would play in forming jazz and bluegrass music. For Williams, Loar, and the Gibson workforce vindication of their ideas was delayed for many years, but their influence changed music forever.

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