The priority Gibson put on mandolins in its early years was reflected in the company’s original name – Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. Ltd. And the fact Gibson strung its guitars with steel strings suggests it may have viewed them as an extension of the mandolin family rather than as an instrument with its own voice. In 1908, the heritage of Gibson’s mandolin approach to guitar design became obvious fact with the introduction of a new Style O model with a scroll body shape.
Style O models had been part of the Gibson line, along with L-series models, from the company’s beginnings in 1902, and although the body shapes were distinctly Gibson, with circular lower bouts, they were symmetrical in shape like any other guitars of the era. But by 1908 the Style O was something altogether different.
Although it was not simply a larger-scale version of Gibson’s F-style mandolins, which featured a scroll and three points on the body, plus a scroll cutout on the headstock, the Style O’s design was nevertheless clearly influenced by the F mandolins – one of Orville Gibson’s original designs dating back to the 1890s. The upper bass bout of the guitar extended into a scroll, as it did on the mandolin, but the design was refined from an artistic standpoint, such that the line from the scroll (where the neck meets the body on the bass side) continued on the opposite side of the fingerboard through the upper treble bout, which extended outward to a point. The lower bout retained the typical Gibson circular shape of earlier models..
Gibson initially called the new Style O “Special Grand Concert,” but it was the only grand-concert-sized guitar (16″ wide) in the line. In 1911, when a more conventional 16″ guitar (the L-4) appeared, catalogs began referring to the Style O by the name most collectors call it today – the Style O Artist.
The Style O had a radical appearance compared to guitars of the era, and that would continue throughout the model’s production period from 1908 to 1925. Not only was it radical in appearance, it was functionally very modernistic and innovative. Whereas most guitars of the period had necks with 12 frets clear of the body, the design of the Style O’s upper treble bout provided 15 frets clear of the body. Although it does not have the circular or cupped shape of the cutaways we are familiar with today, it functions the same, allowing easy access into the higher register.
In other respects, the Style O was a typical Gibson instrument. Like all Gibsons from the time of Orville until Gibson’s first flat-tops appeared in the mid ’20s, the Style O featured a carved spruce top. Although catalogs specified maple back and sides, the Style O, like all the other Gibsons of its period (except the F-4 mandolin), was actually made of birch. Like the L-4 and the earlier O-series guitars, the Style O had an oval soundhole (the smaller models in the L-series had a round soundhole). The O’s mahogany neck with dark centre lamination, ebony fingerboard with white binding, and pearl dot inlays, were all standard Gibson fare for the period. The bound peghead initially sported only a pearl-inlaid fleur de lis. “The Gibson” in pearl was added circa 1915.
The bridges were standard Gibson-style, starting with a non-height-adjustable ebony unit and switching to height-adjustable in 1921. The tailpieces, too, were standard Gibson for the period and changed with the bridge, from a trapeze-style with a crosspiece of tortoiseshell-grain celluloid and strings anchored in the crosspiece by pins (similar to bridge pins), to a more modern trapeze with a metal crosspiece. Early on, the finish was usually black on top with uniform red mahogany stain on the back and sides, becoming shaded mahogany finish in the late 1910s.
From a manufacturing point of view, the Style O had a more complex design than that of a guitar with a symmetrical body shape, and the carved top and back further complicated production. In addition, the model was well-ornamented (compared to other Gibsons), which required more labour. Consequently, the Style O was the most expensive guitar in the Gibson catalogue through most of its existence.
There is certainly no question that the Style O was – and still is – a striking guitar. The body shape, with its bold lines, makes the instrument stand out in any group, and they are seen often in group photographs from the mandolin orchestra era. Their visual appeal and rarity make them highly sought by collectors today.
The serial number on this Style O dates it to 1912, but this could be unreliable. We think it is from after 1920 because it is fitted with Gibson’s patented adjustable truss rod, which came along in late 1921, along with the height-adjustable bridge.
The best known artist to be associated with the Style O is blues singer Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958). And Robbie Robertson played his Style O at the end of The Band’s Last Waltz movie, and is pictured holding it on the cover of The Basement Tapes album.
This Style O is in great shape. It appears to be in very original condition except for the following –
It has had a very light nitrocellulose lacquer overspray on the top, sides, back and rear of the neck. This has preserved its rich deep sunburst colour while still allowing the beautiful natural lacquer checking to show through.
Pro refret long ago
Grover closed back tuners
An under bridge pickup has been installed – brand unknown, but its sounds good
Some cleats have been glued internally along the centre joint on the back. Centre joint may have been re-glued.
Most importantly, this old girl plays beautifully and sounds great. It has a remarkably low action with not a sign of fret buzz anywhere. It is very comfortable to play in all positions and delivers that wonderful vintage acoustic Gibson sound – rich and complex, and acoustically loud.
It is structurally sound, truss rod works perfectly, tuners are strong and stable, almost no apparent fret wear. The neck is super clean and straight, and the ebony fingerboard is unmarked.
This Style O is a wonderful vintage gem with stories to tell and another century of life left in her.
Comes in a later hard shell case in good condition.