Gibson Guitar Corporation

The Gibson Guitar Corporation, of Nashville, Tennessee, USA, is one of the world’s best-known manufacturers of acoustic and electric guitars. The company’s most popular guitar, the Les Paul Standard, a solid-body electric, sells for about $2,300. Gibson also makes guitars under such brands as Epiphone, Kramer, Steinberger, and Kalamazoo. In addition to guitars, the company makes pianos through its Baldwin unit, Slingerland drums, and Trace Elliot amplifiers, as well as many accessory items. Company namesake Orville Gibson began making mandolins in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the late 1890s. Gibson used the same type of carved, arched tops in archtop acoustic guitars, and by the 1930’s was also making flattop acoustic guitars and electric guitars. Charlie Christian, the first well-known electric guitarist, helped to popularize Gibson’s electric guitars with his use of the ES-150 and ES-200. After being bought by the Norlin corporation in the late 1960’s Gibson’s quality and fortunes took a steep decline; by 1985 it was within three weeks of going out of business before it was bought by its present owners. Gibson Guitar is a privately held corporation (its stock is not publicly traded on a stock exchange), owned by chief executive officer Henry Juszkiewicz and president David H. (Dave) Berryman. Its chief operating officer is Charles E. Cuneo.


Orville Gibson (born 1856, Chateaugay, New York) started making mandolins in 1894 in Kalamazoo, Michigan USA. The mandolins were distinctive in that they featured a carved, arched solid wood top and back and bent wood sides. Prior to this mandolins had a flat solid wood top and a bowl-like back (similar to a lute) made of multiple strips of wood. These bowl-back mandolins were very fragile and unstable. Disdainful of the shape, Orville Gibson characterized them as “potato bugs.” Gibson’s innovation made a better-sounding mandolin that was immensely easier to manufacture. Orville Gibson’s mandolin design, with its single-pieced carved sides and a single-pieced neck, was patented in 1898; it would be the only innovation he patented.[2]In 1902, the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co, Ltd. was founded to market the instruments. Within a short period after the company was started, the board passed a motion that “Orville H. Gibson be paid only for the actual time he works for the Company.” After that time, there is no clear indication whether he worked there full-time, or as a consultant. Orville Gibson was considered a bit eccentric and there has been some question over the years as to whether or not he suffered from some sort of mental illness.

Starting in 1908, Orville Gibson was paid a salary of $500 by Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co., Limited (equivalent to $20,000 a year in modern terms). He had a number of stays in hospitals between 1907 and 1911. In 1916, he was again hospitalized, and died on August 21, 1918 in St. Lawrence State Hospital, a psychiatric center in Ogdensburg, New York

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Gibson company was responsible for many innovations in guitar design, and became the leading manufacturer of arch-top guitars, particularly the Gibson L5 model. In 1936 they introduced their first “Electric Spanish” model, the ES-150, generally recognized as the first commercially successful electric guitar.

1996 Gibson Les Paul Studio Limited Edition Gem Series Topaz

1996 Gibson Les Paul Studio Limited Edition Gem Series Topaz

As a result of the strong sales of the Fender Telecaster in 1950 Gibson decided to make a solid-body guitar. This was despite the fact that Gibson, like most other guitar manufacturers, were contemptuous of the concept of a solid-body guitar. Although guitarist Les Paul was one of the pioneers of solid-body electric guitar technology, the guitar that became known as the Les Paul was developed without any input from its namesake. After the guitar was designed, Les Paul was asked to sign a contract to endorse the guitar to be named after him. At that point he asked that the tailpiece be changed, which was his only contribution. (Ironically, this talipiece was changed in 1954.)[3] The Les Paul was released in 1952. The late 1950s saw a number of innovative new designs including the eccentrically-shaped Gibson Explorer and Flying V and the semi-acoustic ES-335, and the introduction of the “humbucker” pickup. The Les Paul was offered in several models, including the Custom, the Standard, the Special and the Junior. In 1961, the body design of the Les Paul was changed, due to the demand for a double-cutaway body design[4]. Les Paul did not care for the new body style and let his endorsement lapse, and the new body design then became known as the Gibson SG. The Les Paul returned to the Gibson catalogue in 1968 due to the influence of players such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green. Both the Les Paul and the SG later became very popular with hard rock and heavy metal guitarists; Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin , Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Slash of Velvet Revolver (formerly of Guns n Roses) and Ace Frehley of KISS are known for their preference for a Les Paul Standard. Pete Townshend of The Who,Angus Young of AC/DC, Frank Zappa of Mothers Of Invention and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath are some of the more well-known SG players.

Between 1974 and 1984, in a move that is still controversial to this day, production of Gibson guitars was shifted from Kalamazoo to Nashville, Tennessee in an effort to reduce the costs associated with high-wage, unionized workers in the Industrialized North. Further production plants were also opened in low-wage Southern and rural areas, such as Memphis, Tennessee as well as Bozeman, Montana, foreshadowing the later opening of production facilities for its subsidiary brands overseas, particuarly the Far East. The Memphis facility is used for semi-hollow and custom shop instruments, while the Bozeman facility is dedicated to acoustic instruments.

Following financial troubles, the Gibson Guitar Corp. was bought by Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman and Gary A. Zebrowski in early 1986. The survival and success of Gibson today is largely attributed to this change in ownership. Currently, Juszkiewicz stands as CEO and Berryman as president of the company.

Authorized copies

Gibson is well-known for making top quality guitars, but at a price beyond the reach of much of the public. Therefore over the years several manufacturers, including their current subsidiary company, Epiphone, have built less expensive variations of their best-selling guitars. These are often made overseas in Indonesia, Japan, South Korea or China. The least expensive Gibson copies are offered through the Baldwin Piano company. These copies are marketed to students, and priced from $99 to $130.

Prior to Gibson’s decision to do all of their more inexpensive versions through Epiphone, another Japanese Gibson subsidiary called Orville by Gibson (after Mr. Gibson himself) did many such copies. These are widely acclaimed to be of a much higher quality than the current Epiphone output. Indeed the better, older Orville copies are now collector pieces in their own right. More mature guitarists will recall Epiphone only took on exclusivity over the cheaper end of the official Gibson copy market relatively recently in the early 1990s. Orville by Gibson ceased as brand after the Epiphone subsidiary was created. Tokai Guitars, also widely acclaimed for the quality of their instruments, continue to make Gibson copies for the Japanese market.

Gibson and Epiphone were originally foes in the guitar industry, with Gibson making their popular Les Paul model, and Epiphone making their popular ES archop guitar models. Gibson eventually bought Epiphone out, so that all Epiphone guitar models would be registered as Gibson models. Ever since, Epiphone has been producing inexpensive versions of Gibson’s famous solid-body electrics, including the Les Paul, SG, Firebird, and Gibson acoustic models.

Unauthorized copies

Gibson has come under fire from many in the music industry as being too defensive of their Les Paul body style. On multiple occasions, they have sought legal action against other guitar manufacturers who implement similar body styles in their designs. The first such action was against Ibanez, which had fabricated near-identical (in looks, if not actual construction) copies of the Les Paul. This 1977 lawsuit was not over Ibanez’s copy of the Les Paul‘s body shape, but instead for their use of Gibson’s ‘open book’ headstock shape (even though Ibanez had redesigned their headstock to be a near-identical copy of a Guild headstock in 1976). More recently, Gibson sued PRS Guitars, forcing them to stop making their Singlecut model, which is much less similar to the Les Paul in both appearance and playability than the earlier Ibanez models. The ruling was later overturned and PRS has resumed production of the Singlecut line. In the early 1970s, a company called ‘ Maya‘ situated in Kobe, Japan copied major brand instruments from the late 70’s – 80’s and produced high-quality imitations reputed to be as good, if not better than, the Ibanez lawsuit models around that time. The company’s motto labeled on some of their instruments was, “We made this for those who love music.” The Maya factory was destroyed in the Kobe earthquake during the 90’s and production ceased.Subsidiary companies

Many other instrument manufacturers are owned by Gibson including Kramer and Steinberger guitars, as well as Tobias which specializes in bass guitars, Baldwin which makes pianos, Oberheim which makes effects processors and MIDI gear, and Slingerland drums. The Gibson company also makes Gibson-branded amplifiers. The Maestro brand was used in the ’60s and ’70 for Gibson-produced stomp boxes, the most famous of which was the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, an early distortion pedal (immortalized by The Rolling Stones on their 1965 hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. It is now a brand used by Gibson-Baldwin Musical Education, which sells various student guitars under different brand names. Another related company is the Heritage Guitars company—an independent guitar company founded by former Gibson employees during Gibson’s move to Nashville. Official website, Gibson Guitar Company

Posted on June 16, 2007, in General information. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Excellent article. Very informative. Thank you.

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