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A History of Gibson Guitars

The Story of the Iconic Gibson Brand

For over 100 years, Gibson has been one of the leading guitar makers in the world. The creators of the legendary SG and Les Paul series of guitars among others, Gibson guitars have been played by many of the most renowned players. This article gives a brief history of this famous brand and will touch on their innovations over the years.

The Early Years

In 1898, Orville Gibson patented a single-piece mandolin that was more durable than its competition and could be produced in volume. After selling instruments out of a one-room workshop in Kalamazoo, MI for several years, The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company Ltd was begun in 1902 to market Orville’s product. Following the archtop design of a violin, Gibson made the first archtop guitars. By the 1930s, Gibson was also making flattop guitars, and the company was also one of the pioneers in electric instruments, creating the first “Electric Spanish” guitar, the ES-150 in 1936.

The 1940s-1970s

In the middle of a production slowdown brought on by World War II, Gibson was purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments in 1944. Despite the new ownership, Gibson’s innovations continued. The ES 175, an archtop electric with a cutaway design and an innovative bridge called the Tune-O-Matic, was introduced in 1949, and is a popular model still made today.
In 1952, the company released the first edition of what was to become the most iconic electric guitar in history. Named after the popular jazz guitarist who helped to design it, the Les Paul guitar had a solid body and advanced electronics. Like the earlier ES 175, it had a cutaway design for easier access to the higher frets. Although discontinued in 1961, its popularity with guitarists of the British Invasion era led to its reissue in 1968, and it has been in production ever since.
The SG series was initially intended to replace the Les Paul series. They are lighter and have a double cutaway design. They remain the best-selling guitar series in Gibson’s history and are made in various configurations today.

In 1969, Gibson’s parent company was taken over by South African company ECL. In 1974 this transferred over to Norlin Corporation, which would be Gibson’s owner through 1986. Historians see this as a period of mismanagement and decline for the company.


Beginning in the mid-1970s, domestic production of Gibson guitars was moved gradually from Kalamazoo to Nashville, TN. The Gibson factory in Kalamazoo was used for custom guitar manufacture until 1984. A group of Gibson employees and management purchased the factory upon its closure and reopened it under the name Heritage Guitars.

A group of investors bought the failing company from Norlin in 1986 and has restored the company’s fortunes.  In addition to revamping their own brand, they have purchased numerous other instrument and electronics companies over the last several years. Recent innovations include robotic self-tuners on their higher end models.

Gibson has not rested on its considerable laurels. They continue to innovate, both in production and marketing of their guitars, basses, and other products.  To find out more, go to http://www.gibson.com.

Phone Glenn Sutton at: 619-306-3664.

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