100 Years of the Gibson F-5 Mandolin by Paul Alcantara

The Mandolin Orchestra

The early years of the 20th century saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of the mandolin orchestra, which Gibson was quick to exploit. The superiority of the company’s product, together with a teacher-agent arrangement that cut out the distributor and retailer, helped to put a Gibson instrument in the hands of both amateurs and professionals alike. It was a golden period for the Gibson Company but one that ended abruptly with the First World War. The dawning of what would become known as the ‘Jazz Age’ saw the marches and light classics that had been a staple of the mandolin orchestra replaced by a new style of music that reflected the heady mood of the times. Bands now featured a line-up of raucous brass instruments and in order to be heard – and continue to work – mandolin players switched to the louder, tenor banjo.

The Buffalo Symphonic Mandolin Orchestra 1909.
Image courtesy of The Mandolin Cafe

The Master Models

In an attempt to reverse this trend and revive interest in the mandolin orchestra, Gibson’s General Manager, Lewis Williams, initiated the development of a new line of ‘Master Model’ instruments that included the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola, the K-5 mandocello and the L-5 guitar.

Acoustical engineer and musician Lloyd Loar – whose signature appears on an interior label that is visible through the treble-side f hole – is often credited with the design and development of the ‘Master Model’ family but acknowledgment should also be made of the contributions made by Gibson’s Plant Manager, Theodore ‘Ted’ McHugh, who was patent holder for the adjustable height bridge and truss rod, both features of the F-5 and other Master Models. Loar was also not responsible for the elevated fingerboard or the Cremona brown sunburst finish.

The F-5

First shipped in 1922, the F-5 was the first Master Model to make it into production (the earliest documented Loar signed F-5 is serial number 70281). The H-5 mandola and L-5 guitar followed in 1923 and the K-5 mandocello a year later. Between 1922 and 1924 – when Loar left Gibson – around 250 F-5 mandolins with a Loar-signed label were shipped and, according to Darryl’s Wolfe’s F-5 Journal (www.f5journal.com), 237 Gibson Loar-signed F-5 mandolins have been accounted for today.

Like the F-4, which it replaced as Gibson’s top-of-the-line model, the F-5 had a two-point body, a similar asymmetrical headstock profile and the same 13-15/16 inch scale length. In most other respects however, the new mandolin was significantly different to the Gibson F style mandolins that had preceded it.

In place of the oval soundhole, which had been a feature of all earlier Gibson mandolins, the F-5 sported a pair of violin style f-holes. Its neck was longer, joining the body at the 15th fret and the fingerboard was raised above the front, violin fashion, thus allowing the soundboard to vibrate more freely. Besides providing better access to top end of the fingerboard, the longer neck moved the bridge closer to the centre of the top, where it transferred string vibration more efficiently.

The F-5 as it appeared in Gibson’s 1923 catalogue

The top, back and internal tone bars were ‘tap-tuned’ and the whole package was wrapped in a classy shaded ‘Cremona brown’ sunburst finish, the name itself an oblique reference to the town where Stradivari, the Amatis and the Guarneris had built their violins. From its inception the F-5 incorporated Gibson’s new height adjustable bridge and adjustable truss rod (features introduced in 1921 and 1922 respectively) and in keeping with its $200 price tag (raised to $250 in 1923) it boasted multiple body binding, silver plated hardware and a pearl ‘flowerpot’ headstock inlay. Until the mid 1920s, all F-5s were fitted with both a Master Model label and a label signed by Gibson’s acoustical engineer, Lloyd Loar.

Over the next few years, the F-5 evolved, switching from a ‘three piece neck’ comprising two sections of maple with a dark centre lamination, to a simpler one-piece construction in late 1922.

By the mid-1920s many examples were equipped with a Virzi Tone Producer – a small spruce disc suspended within the instrument’s body that was intended to enhance its overall tonal characteristics.

The Fern F-5

Following Lloyd Loar’s departure from Gibson in 1924, the Virzi Tone Producer was dropped and the pearl flowerpot motif was replaced by a ‘Fern’ headstock inlay. From this point on the F-5’s hardware was gold-plated.

Bill Monroe

The Master Model line was not the success that Gibson had hoped for and both the F-5 mandolin and the L-5 guitar might have been forgotten had they not been adopted by two highly influential musicians, jazz guitarist Eddie Lang and bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

The ‘Father of Bluegrass’. Bill Monroe with his iconic F-5 mandolin

Though designed to be part of the mandolin orchestra, the L-5 guitar provided Lang with the tone and projection that he had been looking for and, strung with suitably heavy gauge strings, he could (just about!) make himself heard above the blaring horns of the popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Lang’s influence was such that the L-5 was soon established as the jazz guitar of choice and before long competing companies like Epiphone were offering similar models. 

The F-5 was less fortunate and had to wait until the mid 1940s when Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe came across a used 1923 example in a Florida barber shop. Having bought it for $150, Bill put away the Gibson F-7 mandolin that he had been playing up to this point and the rest, as they say, is history. The Loar F-5 had a ‘bark’ that can be heard in both Monroe’s rhythm work and solos and though designed as a classical instrument, the model found a new role, along with the herringbone Martin D-28, as a cornerstone of the emerging Bluegrass sound.

Monroe’s Iconic F-5

As far as bluegrass players are concerned, Bill Monroe’s F-5 represents the holy grail. Signed by Loar on July 9, 1923, it has three-ply binding that is visible from the side of the instrument, rather than from the front. Though the signature date and binding have little bearing on the instrument’s sound or performance, a 1920s F-5 signed on the same day as Bill’s and one that has ‘side binding’ is likely to be viewed as more desirable than other Loar-signed examples.

In Summary

Over the years, the Gibson F-5 has been the instrument of choice of numerous players including Dave Apollon, Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Sam Bush, John Paul Jones and Chris Thile. Today, a hundred years after the first F-5 left Kalamazoo, it remains an inspiration for musicians and luthiers alike, a gold standard by which all other mandolins are judged.

Chris Thile with his Gibson F-5 mandolin


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