Orville H. Gibson
Born in New York in 1856, Orville Gibson headed west to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1880s. Finding employment as a clerk, he spent every free moment hand-crafting mandolins.
By 1896, Gibson was able to produce mandolins on a full-time basis, and opened his store at 114 South Burdick. Three years later he moved his shop to his residence on the second floor of 104 East Main Street.
Gibson preferred using old furniture wood to make his instruments, believing it to be more durable and of higher quality. This emphasis on quality and craftsmanship limited Gibson’s output to only six or seven instruments a year. This changed in 1902, when Gibson was approached by five men who offered to provide money to establish a manufacturing facility for his instruments. Gibson accepted, and the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1904. Under the agreement, Gibson would serve as a consultant, training workers in the fine art of instrument building. Apparently frustrated by this new arrangement, Gibson moved back to New York in 1909 where he died in 1918.
With an aggressive sales policy, the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company flourished despite the absence of its founder. First it moved to a larger facility at 523 E. Harrison Court. In 1917, the company moved to its permanent location, 225 Parsons Street, where it remained for nearly seven decades. Over the years, the Parsons Street plant expanded five times into a 120,000 square foot building spread out over an entire city block.
Until the 1920s, Gibson had specialized almost exclusively in mandolins. But as America’s musical tastes evolved during the 1920s and 1930s, so did Gibson’s. Banjos, ukuleles, and guitars became increasingly popular. In the early '20s, the company introduced a truss rod neck construction which streamlined a guitar’s neck. Now standard on most guitars, this innovation allowed easier fingering and faster playing. During the 1920s, Gibson was also one of the first manufacturers to experiment with the electric guitar, twenty years before it found popular success. In 1934, Gibson introduced the “Super 400” guitar, which revolutionized standards for tone and volume. Unfortunately, the consumer’s buying power had been drastically reduced during the Depression. To remedy this, Gibson produced a lower-cost “Kalamazoo” line of guitars that helped keep the company afloat during the lean years.
During World War II, Gibson contributed to the war effort bymanufacturing electrical and mechanical radar assemblies, glider skids, and precision machine-gun rods. The company was even awarded three Army/Navy “E” awards for production excellence.
Growth and Decline
Gibson experienced remarkable growth in the 1950s, aided in part by the introduction of the famous Les Paul guitar in 1952. Named after the famous guitarist, it was designed to his specifications. The company’s success continued during the 1960s, when it manufactured over 1,000 guitars a day and employed nearly 1,000 workers, but a sharp nationwide decline in guitar sales contributed to Gibson’s difficulties during the 1970s and 1980s. The company moved its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1981, and three years later it closed the Kalamazoo plant.
Four former Gibson employees soon formed a new company, Heritage Guitar, Inc., and set up shop in part of the old Gibson plant. With Gibson’s retreat to Tennessee, the success of Heritage Guitar guarantees that Orville Gibson’s trade will continue in Kalamazoo indefinitely.
On March 11, 2009, local musician Mark Sahlgren, along with friends and family, performed at Central Library as part of KPL’s Live Music series and Reading Together. The program also featured a discussion of vintage instruments made in Kalamazoo by the Gibson Company.
Video: Mark Sahlgren talks about his collection of Gibson guitars with performance highlights: Part 1 | Part 2
The Gibson Story
- Bellson, Julius
- H 338.8 B448
Gibson Guitars: 100 Years of an American Icon
- Carter, Walter
- Los Angeles: General Publishing Group, 1994
- H 787.6 C325
American Guitars: An Illustrated History
- Wheeler, Tom
- New York: Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 94-197
- H 787.6 W564.1
Gibson’s Fabulous Flat-top Guitars: An Illustrated History and Guide
- Whitford, Eldon, David Vinopal, and Dan Erlewine
- San Francisco: GPI Books, 1994
- H 787.6 W595
The Gibson Les Paul Book
- Bacon, Tony and Paul Day
- San Francisco: GPI Books, 1993
- H 787.6 B129
The Gibson Super 400: Art of the Fine Guitar
- VanHoose, Thomas
- San Francisco: GPI Books, 1991
- H 787.6 V256
“A Heritage of Craftsmanship: Gibson Guitars”
- Kalamazoo Review, Nov. 1976, vol. 2, p. 21
“Guitar Town: Kalamazoo and the Gibson Heritage”
- Encore, Nov/Dec 1989, vol. 17, p. 36
“Gibson: Landmark week celebrates history of music company and Kalamazoo’s first Blues Festival”
- Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 July 1994, page B1