1960s Stiles Mandola


The custom musical instrument industry is thriving today, though there are so many small builders that the individual names seem to come and go in the night. The same was true of the early 20th century, when cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia hosted countless small workshops that churned out largely similar instruments. In the middle of the century, however, there was a significant drop in custom luthiers; assembly lines were praised for their consistency, and players preferred the functional new Fenders over the hand-decorated D’Angelicos their parents played.

Still, there were a few people who dreamed of building their own instruments. One was Gilbert Lee Styles, a West Virginia native who settled in Florida. Stiles had no formal training in lutherie, but he was experienced in the lumber and milling industries and had played music since childhood. He built his first guitar, a solidbody electric, in 1960; over the next few decades he would turn out an estimated 1000 electrics and 500 acoustics, including a few banjos and mandolins. The exact number is unknown, as is the date when he stopped building. Stiles serialized some of his instruments, but not all. It is known that he had largely abandoned building instruments in favor of repairing them by the 1990s.

Stiles’ instruments were perhaps a touch less refined than the top products of the 1960s, but they show remarkable independence of design. For example, the inlays on his fretboards were often made of maple rather than pearl. He frequently made his own hardware, but it was still highly functional: the bridge on this mandola has separate height and intonation adjustment for each string. Stiles’ finishes were typically thick, including over the fretboard. His homemade pickups were initially copies of DeArmonds, though he simplified the design in later years. The pickup on this mandola is angled very slightly; I’m not sure if that was deliberate or the result of a poorly-aligned jig. The only parts apparently not built by Stiles are the Kluson tuners.

This particular instrument is something of an enigma. Electric 4-string mandolins were already known in the 1960s (mainly from Fender), but the 15-inch scale suggests this one was designed to be tuned as a mandola or concert ukulele. There is no serial number, and even the potentiometers are devoid of date codes. The checking of the finish indicates that it’s an old instrument, and its similarity to other Stiles guitars of the ‘60s suggests that it was built sometime during that decade. The pickup has been re-wound, but otherwise there are no indications of repairs or replacement parts.