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Vintage Vault: 1923 Gibson Master Model F-5 Mandolin

Vintage Vault: 1923 Gibson Master Model F-5 Mandolin
Gibson’s Master Model F-5 is probably the most coveted mandolin of all time.

The holy grail of vintage mandolins.

Orville Gibson’s mandolins and guitars of the late 1890s were the first to incorporate ideas borrowed from violin construction, such as carved solid tops and backs. His A- and F-style mandolin shapes are still used today.

The rear side of this F-5 boasts gloriously figured wood.

Gibson mandolins became the instrument of choice for the mandolin orchestras popular in the early 1900s. But by World War I, interest in mandolins was waning as the banjo became all the rage in early jazz ensembles. Gibson was in financial trouble after the war (even after introducing their own banjos in 1918), so the company decided to create the ultimate mandolin, guitar, and banjo line. These instruments became known as “Master Models.”

Lloyd Loar inspected and signed each instrument before it left the factory.

In 1919 Gibson hired Lloyd Loar, an established performer, composer, and acoustic engineer. He was in charge of designing what became the Style 5 group of Master Models. These included the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola, the K-5 mandocello, and the L-5 guitar. Loar took Orville Gibson’s idea of violin-influenced design even further by introducing f-shaped soundholes (rather than one oval soundhole in the center), graduated carving of tops and backs, and the tap-tuning of various components to particular scale degrees to make each section contribute to the instrument’s timbre (a technique used by Antonio Stradivari and his family on their 17th- and 18th-century violins). To guarantee the quality of these superior instruments, Loar tested each one and signed the label before it left the factory. Loar signed these Master Models from 1922 until he left Gibson in late 1924.

A striking asymmetric headstock with beautiful inlay work crowns the F-5.

While the Style 5 Master Models were some of the finest fretted instruments yet made, they did not revive the popularity of the mandolin orchestra as Gibson had hoped. The L-5 guitar gradually became accepted, and it eventually replaced the banjo as a jazz rhythm and solo instrument, leading to the Super 400 and beyond. It took the F-5 mandolin many more years to be recognized, helped by bluegrass originator Bill Monroe finding a 1923 model in a barber shop and using it as his main instrument from the late 1940s through the end of his career. A Loar-signed F-5 is now considered the holy grail for bluegrass mandolinists, much like a Stradivarius for a classical violinist, or a 1959 Les Paul Standard for a rock guitarist.

The 1923 list price was $250. The current value for one in excellent all-original condition is $225,000.

Sources for this article include: Gibson Guitars: 100 Years of an American Icon by Walter Carter, The Gibson L5: Its History and Its Players by Adrian Ingram, The Gibson Story by Julius Bellson, Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941 by Joseph E. Spann, and an online article by Roger Siminoff (“Lloyd Allayre Loar, 1886-1943”).