BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Gibson got a relatively late start in the ukulele business: They’d been building mandolins and guitars since the company’s founding in 1902, but didn’t begin producing ukes until 1926 or 1927—about a decade after the C.F. Martin & Co. had begun manufacturing ukuleles in earnest.
Likely patterning their models after Martins, Gibson’s first line of ukes included three styles of soprano and one tenor: The “Style Uke-1” had no bindings, a marquetry soundhole rosette, and dot fretboard markers at the 5th, 7th, and 10th frets. The “Style Uke-2” had three-ply ivoroid bindings front and back, a marquetry sound hole rosette, and pearl dot fretboard markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 10th frets. The first production “Style Uke-3” had five-ply bindings on top (white-black-white-black-white) on top and three-ply binding on the back, a multi-colored-wood marquetry soundhole rosette, an ivoroid-bound extended fretboard with fancy pearl inlays on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, and 15th frets, and an inlaid pearl torch-like decoration on the headstock. The “Style TU” tenor ukes had the same appointments as Uke-2 sopranos.
“Regardless of what anyone—including Gibson—says, they made whatever they felt like making, including a ton of custom instruments.” —Chuck Fayne
All models featured dark-stained mahogany bodies, bridges and necks, rosewood fretboards with nickel-silver frets, high-quality “Patent” tuners with ivoroid buttons, and headstocks with “The Gibson” silk-screened in silver ink. Unlike Martin, Gibson didn’t produce any koa models, possibly because mahogany was less expensive and easier to source than Hawaiian koa.
By the late 1920s, Gibson’s uke production was in full swing, building instruments that were on par with other quality brands, including Martin and Lyon & Healy. Professional players of the period, including vaudevillian Doc Morris and popular song composer Ray Canfield (called the “Paderewski of the uke” and known for his symphonic ukulele arrangements) were early endorsers of Gibson ukes. Both played Style 3 sopranos. The introductory text in the ukulele section of Gibson’s 1929 instrument catalog gleefully announced: “Like the Pipes of Pan, the Ukulele has drawn thousands of men, women, boys and girls into the land of musical joy and happiness.” Gibson’s price of happiness at that time was $10, $15, and $20 for styles 1, 2, and 3 soprano ukes, respectively. Their TU tenor, referred to as “Grand Concert Size,” sold for $30 (they later expanded the tenor line to include style 1 and style 3 models).
Despite the straightforward style specifications of the ukes described in Gibson’s catalogs, numerous feature changes occurred to each model as ukulele production continued in the 1930s and ’40s. One of the only consistent changes was that the headstock logo “The Gibson” was changed after 1937 to simply read “Gibson.” Beyond that, there’s practically no end to the number of variations for each style of Gibson uke that was built. While Martin made relatively minor feature changes to their various uke models over many decades, Gibson seemed to change models specifications almost randomly. This may be due to the fact that Gibson typically built ukes in small batches at a time, as well as readily building custom ukes to order. According to Australian ukulele guru Chuck Fayne, “Regardless of what anyone—including Gibson—says, they made whatever they felt like making, including a ton of custom instruments. I have seen probably 20 varieties of Style 3.”
Here’s just a sample of some Style 3 variations that Chuck is referring to: After the initial run of “torch headstock” Style 3s, Gibson quickly came up with a less fancy version that was, no doubt, less costly to produce: They replaced the headstock torch and fancy floral fretboard decorations with easier-to-inlay diamonds and snowflakes, also eliminating the marker at the 15th fret. This fretboard was the same one used for Gibson’s UB-3 banjo-ukulele, one of four banjo-uke models they built at the time. In later years, Gibson fitted Style 3s with shorter 13-fret fretboards and reduced the number of top binding plys to three. Some sported spruce tops, stained dark to match the rest of the uke, reinforced with guitar-style X-braces instead of simple traditional cross-braces. Although the majority of Style 3s have silk-screened logos, some examples have the Gibson headstock logo inlaid in pearl.
As the world’s hunger for ukuleles diminished in the 1940s and ’50s, Gibson’s uke production slowed to a crawl, although they did introduce a Style 1 baritone model in the early 1960s. As Gibson kept no comprehensive records of the ukes they produced, it’s unclear exactly when regular production of ukuleles ceased.