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1959 Gibson s1 Soprano Ukulele Corner
My 1959 S1 Soprano
(repaired bridge)
Orville Gibson started making Mandolins with a carved, arched solid wood top and back, (prior to this, Mandolins had a flat solid wood top and a slatted bowl-like back), in 1894. This design proved to be more robust that the bowl back Mandolins and was easier to mass produce so in 1898 he patented it and in 1902 incorporated his Gibson Mandolin & Guitar Co. in Kalamazoo Michigan. Orville died in 1918 and Lloyd Loar became the chief luthier for the company in his place. In 1944 Gibson was purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments and in 1969 Chicago Musical Instruments, was taken over by E.C.L. In 1974 E.L.C. created a separate entity called Norlin Industries to run it but mismanagement and a move to Nashville lead to Gibson nearly going out of business in 1986. It was rescued by the current owners and is currently an independent Guitar maker.

Gibson don't currently have Ukuleles in their catalogue but from 1926 through to 1967 they made some of the worlds finest Ukuleles and Banjoleles. These are very sought after and command a very high price when they come up for sale. (The exception to the current lack of production, is Gibson currently own the Epiphone brand and they currently do produce a couple of Ukulele's. However since this is already a very long entry I have a made a separate one for them. Epiphone also had a long history of Banjolele manufacture before Gibson took them over so there is another entry for the Epiphone's more historic offerings. And while on the topic of famous historic names Gibson currently own, there is also Dobro and Slingerland but as they are not being used for any Ukulele branding currently, though they were before Gibson took them over, both of these get their own entries too.

Like Martin, (who at one stage Gibson considered buying from and rebranding - but never did), Gibson produced different levels of decoration. Usually there were 3 levels for Ukuleles but this was all much less rigid that Martins with, in some catalogues, the better one just being called "Deluxe". Usually the type 1 just has a ring around the sound hole, the type 2 has some edge binding as well as the sound hole ring , and the type 3 (or deluxe) would have extras like headstock motifs, extended 17 fret fretboards, or fancy fret markers. Due to the infrequent batch nature of building there is a lot of variation in the actual builds of the Ukulele itself. Gibson Ukuleles come in either Soprano or Tenor scale, (I've never seen a Concert Gibson) and are usually mahogany, (there were a very few spruce top examples made). They also produced a few special models over the years like the Poinsettia with flowers painted all over the body and a pearloid fretboard or the Florentine with scenes of Venice(!?) painted on. In 1937 the range was cut back so only the single soundhole ring versions were made but sometime during the 40’s the fretboard length was increased to 13 frets on Sopranos. In 1949 an early attempt at an electric Ukulele was tried by fitting special steel strings and a pickup to a Tenor. In 1961 Gibson brought out a Baritone still in the type 1 style but some had black headstocks too. I have also read but not seen that some cutaway tenors were produced in the 60’s. In 1966 with a change in general manager and business looking bad it was decided to phase out Ukulele production with the last ones being made in 1967.

Unlike Martin, Gibson did produce a number of Banjoleles over the years, starting in 1924 before they made Ukuleles with the "trapdoor" range. These had a flap in the resonator at the rear to vary the sound between open and closed back and a big body for a Banjolele as they were originally based on the Banjo Mandolin but the number of strings was reduced to 4. The neck was still narrow in Banjolin fashion and they were expensive and overcomplicated (a problem with all Gibson Banjos at the time) so in 1925 Gibson started production of the UB1 more purpose designed as a Ukulele banjo with a much smaller and simpler drum and a simple flat back resonator, (that is often lost now). This proved successful straight away so they extended the range in 1926 with the bigger UB2, 3 and 4 models (some say there was the gold plated UB5 too, but from the catalogues it is unclear whether this was supposed to be a extra model number or just the UB4 Deluxe?) the 3 and 4 also got the flanged resonators and an increasing level of decoration. Waning popularity and the depression led to the demise of the bigger Banjoleles though, and by 1937 only the UB1 was still in production. With the US joining WWII and metal shortages production of the UB1 finished in 1942 and Gibson never restarted Banjolele production after the war ended.

Though not very famous for it Gibson did do OEM work for other companies and for those that know this there is a lot of bogus claims of instruments from that distributor possibly being Gibson. As an example, Gibson made Guitars for the British distributor Frances, Day and Hunter, (FDH), but I have seen people trying to suggest on the back of this that George Houghton made Banjoleles branded by FDH were "possibly made by Gibson" and quadrupling the price, despite the fact they still had the golden lion on them! And FDH are famously the only OEM reseller that still had Gibson on all of their Gibson made Guitars! As well as FDH, Gibson did make some Recording King, Studio King, Carlsen Robinson and other brands for Montgomery Ward, some Washburn and Fascinator brand instruments for Tonk Bros; plus many other small distributors The only OEM Ukuleles that are known to exist though are some SS Stewart ones they made between 1926 and 1930 for Buegeleisen & Jacobson, and whilst they did make OEM Banjos for other there are no records of them making OEM Banjoleles for anyone. Gibson did use a number of other brand names themselves for instruments too, especially in the depression years to keep up sales but maintain the prestige of the Gibson name, (they also made wooden toys at this time too so they didn't have to lay off staff). Famously they used Kalamazoo, Cromwell, Oriole, Kel Kroydon and Mastertone, (nothing to do with the J.E.Dallas brand), but it also appears that in the mid to late 1930 they did a "put your name on the headstock" service for most of their US distributors so quite a few other names exist and more are turning up. It is the case with these names though that no Ukuleles or Banjoleles are believed to have used them(?)

One simple way of dating old Gibson's - in the beginning they put "the Gibson" logo on the headstock. After 1929 they just had Gibson. I believe further dating can be done looking at the headstock logo font. As a generalisation pre WWII Gibsons had a very rounded font and post WWII it was much more angular (I think 1947 was the actual change date?) there are lots of other ways of dating them too, too many to list here It you want more information look out for a copy of "GIBSON’S BABIES. UKULELES FROM KALAMAZOO" By Karl Catteeuw and Rufus Yells. this give a very full history.

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