1907 Gibson A-3

The mandolin’s extraordinary popularity in at the turn of the 20th century was reflected in the work of Orville Gibson and the company that bears his name. Both built considerably more mandolins than guitars, and when the company was founded in 1902 it adopted the full title of the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company – with the order of the instruments deliberately chosen. It would be more than twenty years before the company sold guitars in large numbers.

The Gibson company’s early mandolin lineup was derived in large part from Orville Gibson’s designs. Both the A (“Artist”) and F (“Florentine”) styles had carved tops and backs, but the profiles of those carves were more akin to a “German” carve than the now-standard mandolin shape: the centers were entirely flat, while the edges curved sharply down to meet the rims. The bracing was also minimal at this time, and the result was an enlarged sound box but not enhanced volume or tone. The backs, sides and necks were also constructed out of walnut (despite the catalogs’ specification of maple, which wouldn’t be found on most models until the late 1920s).

The transition to the classic oval-hole mandolins of the 1910s and 1920s took place gradually between 1904 and 1908. Birch was substituted for walnut around 1905, probably because it could pass for unfigured maple without costing nearly as much. The shape of the carve was changed about this time to a slightly gentler curve, still retaining the flat top and back, and the bracing was beefed up to provide better structural integrity. Around 1906, the back ceased to cover the heel and a separate heel cover was introduced. Between 1907 and 1908, the carve of the top achieved the profile it would retain for decades to come. For the first time, the neck was angled back slightly to raise the string height above the top; this required heightening the bridge as well. About the same time, Gibson replaced the inlayed pickguard with ones that floated above the body.

Most of the structural changes were driven by the desire to increase the volume and enhance the tone of the mandolins, and overall the designers were successful in this. Gibson mandolins from 1908 tend to have noticeably deeper voices than their predecessors from just a few years prior, and they also tend to be slightly louder. However, there was considerable variation in the sound of Gibson mandolins into the 1930s so any broad description of their tone should not be taken as gospel.

While the differences between the A and F bodies are obvious, the distinctions between different levels of trim are more subtle. Changes to the rosette and the finish are easy to spot, but it usually isn’t obvious which finish should denote a more expensive instrument unless you’ve done a lot of reading. Changes to the binding and headstock inlay tend to be more telling at first glance. This mandolin is an A-3, which came with binding on the top, back and fretboard and a decorative pearl squiggle in the headstock. It also came with a pearl-inlayed pickguard, pumpkin finish on the top, and inlayed Handel tuners.

My mandolin was started in 1906 and shipped in 1907; within a few years, the inlayed tuners and pickguard would both be removed from this model. The top and back have the transitional profile with a gentle curve and flat center, and the neck is set parallel to the top and back. The pickguard features a pearl shell, one of several designs used apparently at random on this model. The instrument is overall in excellent condition, with no structural damage and barely any cosmetic wear. When I purchased it, the neck was angled slightly upward which made playing difficult on the higher frets. An attempt was made to shim the fretboard, but the original board began to crumble during removal. The board (and headstock veneer) is made of pearwood dyed to resemble ebony, and the dye can weaken the wood over time resulting in situations like this. A replacement board was made from ebony and raised with a shim camouflaged against the top finish. While the original board is gone, the instrument is now an excellent player and sounds as good as it looks.