1932 Gibson F-2

If anyone in the history of lutherie deserves to be called a mad genius, it’s Orville Gibson. Many of his ideas about instrument construction seem to have appeared out of nowhere, and, while not all of them proved successful, some of them would completely redefine how guitars and mandolins are built. His creations were hand-crafted at the height of Victorian fascination with automation, when it was a matter of pride for companies to advertise the use of machinery in the construction of their instruments. His cosmetic styling represented a new paradigm in how mandolins and guitars are supposed to look. Perhaps most important of all, he revolutionized how they are supposed to sound.

Orville Gibson’s most prominent contribution, which affected both sound and appearance, was the introduction of carved bodies. In the 19th century, mandolins had bent tops and bowl-shaped backs. This added strength to the top and created a substantial vibrating chamber from which sound could emanate. Gibson’s earliest instruments used one piece of wood for the back and sides, with the body shape and sound chamber carved by hand. The backs were nearly flat and featured less of an arch than a German carve around the edges. The tops were carved separately – into something nearing a modern arch – and then glued down. To increase the resonant chamber, even the necks were hollowed out on some instruments. The result was a mandolin with a large vibrating surface that was easier to play than a bowl-back. Increasing the scale from the traditional 13” to nearly 14” gave the instrument some extra punch and sustain, and the overall design produced a sound that was clear and elegant.

Not all of Gibson’s ideas were runaway successes, however. These early instruments weren’t considerably louder than the bowl-backs of his day, and his successors at the company he founded would redesign numerous elements to increase the instruments’ volume and improve their tone. The first designs also featured minimal bracing, which lead to structural failures on some of Gibson’s early instruments. Gibson founded the company that bears his name in 1902, though he appears to have had little input and left shortly after; by 1908 the carve shapes, bridge height and overall shape of Gibson mandolins had changed significantly into the forms that would dominate the instrument for the next 30 years.

The F-2 was one of the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company’s charter models, introduced in 1902 with the very first catalog. Originally featuring a 3-point body with a black finish and ornate pearl and ebony binding, by 1910 it strongly resembled the instrument pictured above. The most significant subsequent change was the introduction of the adjustable truss rod in 1922; this allowed for the simultaneous slimming-down of the neck as the steel rod took the brunt of the string tension. Second in line only to the F-4 (the only difference was some extra binding and headstock inlay), by the 1930s, the F-2 was a staple of Gibson’s upmarket “Florentine” mandolin line. Constructed with birch backs until the late 1920s, it finally matched the catalog description of maple in its last few years. The model was discontinued in 1934.

My mandolin is of the last version, with a serial dating to 1932. With a red sunburst finish, body scroll and matching headstock, it remained one of the most visually striking mandolins three decades after its introduction. It’s very clean and original (while shown with replacement tuners, I do have the originals), and still has its original case. Some initials have been engraved into the tailpiece, and the same letters are stamped into the side of the case. The sound is loud, round and sweet, with more bass and gentler treble than the F-5 and its variants.