Gibson Guitars: Fascinating Stories Behind an American Icon Serving a Century of Musicians

It was Ray Whitley who started the excitement. Throughout the 1930s, Whitley traveled with the World’s Championship Rodeo, providing musical entertainment with his band, the Six Bar Cowboys. In 1937, he prodded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. to develop a “super jumbo” instrument, one that could go lick for lick with the nearly 16-inch-wide, rosewood-and-mahogany Dreadnought guitar issued by C.F. Martin & Co.

A Gibson L-4 CES, fit for jazz players. (Heath Brandon CC BY 2.0, licenses/by/2.0)

“Of course, what somebody at Martin saw, and what no one at Gibson apparently did, was that players were forsaking banjos for guitars and demanding louder instruments,” wrote Walter Carter in his history of the Gibson company. There was no other way to match the volume of the singer and microphone. Playing live dates, Gene Autry, a star at Chicago’s WLS radio station, was already strumming an elaborately ornamented Martin D-45, which replaced the smaller Martin that had been stolen along with his Buick the year before. Whitley’s demands of Gibson resulted in a 17-inch-wide body with a mosaic pickguard and the slogan “Custom Built for Ray Whitley” inscribed on the headstock. The Super Jumbo 200 took its name from its generous size and steep list price: $200 (a 1938 Ford could be purchased for just over three times that amount). After World War II, the model would be known simply as the SJ-200, and Elvis Presley cradled one when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.

“The Gibson-made instruments were louder and more durable than the competitive, contemporary fretted instruments, and were the go-to instruments demanded by players of the day,” explained ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons in an email.

Elvis Presley’s Gibson J200 on display at his home, the Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn. (Mr. Littlehand CC BY 2.0, licenses/by/2.0)

Whitley carried his SJ-200 to Hollywood, where he wrote “Back in the Saddle Again” for the cinematic mystery-romance “Border G-Man.” Meanwhile, Gibson made a dozen more SJs for key influencers. Autry bought two at the discounted price of $150 each, and his biographer, Holly George-Warren, wrote of one guitar that it was “embellished with a two-tone mother of pearl border; horses and bucking broncos inlaid with pearl; and his name writ large alongside horseshoes inset on the fingerboard.” It was a spectacular instrument and showpiece, indeed, making a lasting impact.

In 1939, Autry recorded his version of Whitley’s tune and adopted “Back in the Saddle Again” as his enduring theme song. Heard today, the lyrics still evoke feelings of truth and triumph, but cowboy singers would soon fall out of fashion. The music made by electric guitars took over radio airwaves. Autry finished his career with landmark recordings of holiday songs, namely “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Peter Cottontail.”

The integration of Gibson guitars into the upper echelons of popular music deserves some explanation. The company’s founder, Orville Gibson, had migrated from his native New York state to Kalamazoo, Michigan, by 1881, when he was 25 years old. After more than a dozen years as a clerk in a shoe store and a restaurant, he started manufacturing musical instruments. In his small workshop, he made mandolins from a patented design. The patent application of 1895 said existing instruments were made of too many parts, “to the extent that they have not possessed that degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action necessary to produce the power and quality of tone and melody.” He boasted of having achieved “a sound entirely new to this class of musical instruments.” The first Gibson catalog offered a family of mandolins for the popular mandolin orchestras, as well as round- or oval-hole guitars and harp guitars with 12 or 18 strings. Five stages of ornamentation, from plain to fancy, were available.

A 1964 Gibson Country Western acoustic guitar (L) and a 1963 Southern Jumbo SJ. (Tony 1212 CC BY-SA 4.0, licenses/by-sa/4.0)
A Gibson magazine advertisement from around 1939 to 1940. (Public Domain)

By 1902, an investor group took over Gibson’s enterprise, and the next year the founder—who had become a consultant for the company—quit, in order to teach music and collect royalties. Eventually, Gibson returned to New York; he died in 1918. His namesake company adopted an innovative marketing approach, turning music teachers into salesmen and letting customers pay small monthly installments. The Gibson banjo was introduced, but the 1911 L-4 and 1923 L-5 guitars were better fits with Jazz Age outfits like Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians at a time when people were losing their heads dancing the Charleston. With the finest materials and craftsmanship, the 1934 Super 400 extended the trend of successful rhythm instruments. Gibson’s first electric, the hollow-body ES-150, made its debut in 1936 and was popularized by the ill-fated jazz player Charlie Christian. Extolling “electrical amplification,” Christian showed the world how to perform a proper solo, before he died—too young at 25—of tuberculosis.

Singers Ray Whitley and Redd Harper, and actor Frank Seeley (far R), with fellow musicians at the Armed Forces Radio Service studio. (Public Domain)
An Orville by Gibson guitar, a line of instruments made for the Japanese market. (Public Domain)

While worthy competition came from the 1950 Fender Telecaster and 1954 Stratocaster—solid-body electrics made in Southern California—Gibson made a wily move in advance of the era of rock ’n’ roll and electric blues: In order to avoid the disdainful label of “plank” guitar, the solid-body 1952 Gibson Les Paul was developed with collaboration from Les Paul (Lester Polsfuss), who was a master player and something of a mad scientist. The guitar that bore his name had a carved maple top with no sound holes, and the gold color was intended to disguise a trade secret: the mahogany back. Like Orville Gibson’s mandolins, the new guitar was an innovative departure and an instant classic. The challenge was to figure out what to do with it, but players stepped to the fore. Bluesman John Lee Hooker, to name one, extracted grit and passion from his Les Paul. Billy Gibbons dubbed his own 1959 example “Pearly Gates,” explaining that the guitar “possesses those rare qualities found in a precise combination of elements which miraculously came together on that fateful day of fabrication.”

Renamed Gibson Guitar Corp., and now Gibson Brands, Inc., the company moved operations from Kalamazoo to Nashville by 1985, with acoustic guitars produced in Bozeman, Montana, since 1989. The company has experienced ups and downs in conjunction with fickleness in the national economy and the guitar industry—even restructuring in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018. However, the pandemic has brought about a surge in guitar sales—“Did Everyone Buy a Guitar in Quarantine or What?” asked Rolling Stone—putting the company in a good position to capitalize on the upswing. Gibson guitars continue to lend their great sound and seriousness of intent to new musical acts. And it all started with Orville Gibson and his carving tools in Kalamazoo.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

A Love of Learning Lifelong Learning

Life After Facebook

Timing is a funny thing. It’s good to be aware of it. As my young adult children left home, I took up new interests; joined a new magazine blog, took art and design courses, and since it was the new way college kids were communicating, joined Facebook to keep up with mine. In light of my empty nest, visiting online was uplifting and fun. I loved connecting with friends, sharing photos and ideas, giving and receiving inspiration. It was refreshing. There’s no doubt that Facebook helped me through that tough adjustment.

But, as the Bible reminds us, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” What worked for yesterday doesn’t always work for today. My season with Facebook was over. My children had left it years earlier … they’re parents now. But I’d been checking in habitually for something no longer there. Overall, the tone of Facebook had changed radically, in a way that didn’t suit my temperament. Online manners were appalling, and thus affected my mood and well-being. I wasn’t living my best life.

One morning I found myself talking with my brother-in-law’s twin, Matt, on an unrelated issue, but the subject came up. “I deactivated,” he said. “I didn’t delete; I want my pictures one day. I use the time for audiobooks and other things. I’ve found it therapeutic to remove myself from social media. Facebook makes money manipulating feeds and emotions, and it’s not healthy.”

Having experienced it, I couldn’t disagree. When I asked if he missed the connection with his friends, he said, “It’s much better to pick up the phone or go see people.”

So simple—so like it used to be when I felt happier. My time on Facebook was over; so without regret, I deactivated and deleted the app. A calm silence took its place initially, until I experienced my first withdrawal symptom—going back with embarrassing frequency to the app’s old site on my iPad, as if it were still there. Sure, that was to be expected, old habits die hard.

But old habits can be used to develop new habits. By the second day, I knew I needed to replace Facebook’s vacant spot with something I wanted to pursue … Bible reading. As long as I was going to repeatedly return to the same spot, it was helpful to have a new behavior to engage in. So I relocated my bible app to the newly vacated location, and instead of coming up empty in each ‘seeking’ journey, I found something substantial and helpful instead. My outlook and sense of self brightened—that was a good move. I highly suspect it was not really my idea and most likely divine intervention, a call to something better. In addition to the time I had reclaimed, I regained energy.

Soon I experienced a popcorn effect of change. The Bible app was the first ‘pop,’ and a day or two later, I started listening to more audiobooks. ‘Pop, pop, pop,’ more ideas awakened. It was time to learn to make banana cream pie—which, it turns out, wasn’t hard. Why had I waited so long?

Inspiration greeted me as I emerged from my stupor, and pretty soon the popcorn was at full pop. Possibilities abounded. I rediscovered the joy in practicing my instruments and in my needlework. My kitchen beckoned. I was taking new joy in the simple pleasures of cooking and baking. Soon my increased cooking drew my recent-bachelor neighbor over, and my husband and I would sit outside with him at the patio table to share a meal. That began a ripple effect: His children and our grandchildren would gather around us, and soon they became friends.

Tactile activities gave me new pleasure. I loved the sounds involved in playing ping-pong, loved the sound of my knitting needles in action, cooking sounds, and just silence. My husband, Michael, and I started using our outdoor fire pit at unusual times, like at morning coffee.

As a byproduct of enjoying more peace, I sleep better. Sleeping works wonders on your nervous system and cognitive function. My concentration increased, as did my ability to become engrossed in an activity. After a few weeks of being more rested, I conquered a very difficult passage in a piano piece that used to frustrate me, and began learning new songs.

At lunch, my daughter-in-law, Rebekah, talked about exiting Facebook. “At first, I felt guilty,” she said, “like I was keeping secrets. But then it felt wonderful to not put my business out there for everyone to know.” Sweet privacy. We need connection, but we don’t need to share our current lives with everyone we’ve ever known.

Friends and family members have, at times, been triggered into anxiety by being misunderstood or by something hurtful somebody said online. Try as they might, overcoming quickly enough to enjoy their evening or to sleep well was easier said than done. I don’t miss the triggers. Once an emotional fire is put out, sufferers vow to stop playing with matches, but somehow fires will always flare up.

My friend, Carla, often thinks of quitting. “I don’t like ‘quickly checking into my account’ and then realizing two hours have gone by and I have nothing to show for them. I hate wasting my time like that. Before bed, I regret how I spent my day. There was so much I could have done instead.”

Karthi, a friend who helped me realize the vast difference in my post-Facebook life said, “The real value in your quitting is that you’ve discovered newfound peace and freedom. You’re knitting, sewing, reading, learning the cello, cooking, sleeping better. You’re doing what you want. Social media can be so addictive, and we don’t realize what we’re missing out on. Please write an article about it!”

Matt’s sage words he spoke the day I quit are still with me. “Don’t be a victim of social media manipulation; it’s way more powerful than you realize.”

Chicago-born, Boston University-educated, first-generation American, and freelance writer Evelyn Glover has traveled the world with her college-sweetheart husband of 34 years. They live near their grandchildren in Franklin, Tennessee, where they pursue and teach many varied arts: writing, cooking, painting, needlework, piano, and cello.

Arts & Letters Features

Why Music Reminds Us We Are Human, Even in the Darkest Places

There was a gang member who had been in prison all his life, who said he’d never once cried in all his years. He’d buried his mother, he’d buried his father, and he saw the door to his future close when he was sentenced to be locked up for decades, maybe the rest of his life. But then, in prison, he heard a chamber music concert, and he cried.

“This one man stood up after the show, covered in tattoos, the whole nine yards, and he said: ‘I’m overcome with emotion. I’ve had no control over my tears for the last two hours during the show. I’ve never cried in my life. Never. My mom died, my father died, I was sad but I never cried. What is it?'” said Eric Genuis, the composer of the music that man heard.

“I remember being really taken by this,” said Genuis, a pianist and composer. “Here’s a man who spent his whole life in prison, tried and convicted as a teen, and is now close to 60. Well, what is it? It’s the human heart.”

Genuis has seen countless such reactions. In Massachusetts, another prisoner said: “I’ve killed a lot of people in my life. After hearing this, I’ve had a higher encounter with my humanity. I’ll never hurt another person again.”

“Now, that was really beautiful, but why did a prisoner stand up in front of other prisoners and demonstrate a certain vulnerability? That’s a no-no, right? He comes up after the show and he starts talking about it: ‘This is how cold I became in life, I was able to do this and it didn’t affect me, I was able to do that,'” Genuis said.

“There was another man, 90 years old, in a walker. He said, ‘I’ve lived with the pain and suffering that I’ve caused when I was a 19-year-old man.”

“My concert invites deep emotion,” Genuis said. “But it’s the music that invites that. It’s not just me walking in and talking to them, and they feel comfortable with me. You’ve broken down a barrier—music is very disarming. It allows them to have an encounter with their own humanity, maybe things that have been buried forever that they’ve been invited to sort of resurrect and rethink and ponder and heal from.”

Early in his career, Genuis decided he would go wherever there was a demand for his music. He’s played private concerts for movie stars, and he’s played under a bridge for homeless veterans. His guiding philosophy is to write beautiful music, music that communicates hope, and he works tirelessly to bring it to other people because he has seen the need.

“There is something mysterious about beauty, and it’s why everybody should be immersed in beauty,” he said.

eric genuis
His guiding philosophy is to write beautiful music, music that communicates hope, and he works tirelessly to bring it to other people because he has seen the need. (Kirsten Butler Photography)

Starved of Beauty

For nearly three decades, Genuis brought his music to places without hope—rehab centers, prisons, inner-city schools—on his own time and out of his own pocket, using the proceeds from his regular concerts. A few years ago, Genuis realized that wouldn’t be enough and started his foundation Concerts for Hope to further the mission.

Genuis says he’s played nearly 1,000 concerts in prisons since he started. This meant he’s also played in hundreds of youth prisons.

In one room of 300 prisoners, all tried and convicted as teens with sentences of several decades, Genuis remembered a young gang leader who sat right up front. He wasn’t interested in being required to attend a classical concert, but when the music began, he became entranced by the violin.

“He put his hand over his heart, threw his head back, and said, ‘That is the most beautiful thing,'” Genuis said. “He said: ‘Why have I never heard that before?'”

“Now, we live in the age of the internet so this boy can hear anything he wants, whenever he wants. We as parents, and as adults, and as schoolteachers and educators, as church leaders—all the leaders of the community have access to this boy, and what did we give him? He knows everything about gangster rap,” he said. “But never did anyone introduce him to something that goes in and moves his heart and uplifts his humanity, and stirs the awe and wonder and creativity in life and elevates him, and realizes the beautiful dignity he has as a person. And that’s the effect of beauty.”

In the United States, there are about 2.3 million people in prison. Across the country, there are pockets of culture that revolve around prison. These young people tell Genuis no one would care if they went to prison; one told Genuis if he ever landed in prison, people would only ask him why it hadn’t happened earlier. He’s spoken to young adults about to get out of prison, asking about their plans, and they’ve told him that they’ll be back in prison in no time. And if they do some serious damage to a rival gang, maybe kill one of their members, it’ll elevate their status once they do get sent back to prison.

“They’re not cared for, nobody cares for this person,” Genuis said. “There’s this whole population that is forgotten, that is abandoned, that has no mentorship, no love, no guidance, nothing.”

He once met a 23-year-old who joked about getting sentenced to three lifetimes. Genuis asked, “Are you OK?” But the young man wasn’t at all bothered.

“It was so familiar to him, so non-devastating, so nonchalant, that I thought, a good part of the population doesn’t look at throwing their life away as devastating, because maybe emotionally and internally, they’ve thrown theirs away a long time ago,” he said. In these places of forgotten people and of no hope, people have forgotten their humanity, and it has little worth for them.

“So what I want to do is elevate, I want to go and bring them hope,” Genuis said. In December 2019, a young woman in South Carolina stood up after one of his prison concerts and said: ‘I’m at the lowest point in my life, I was here, I forgot what it was like to feel human. I feel human right now.’ So yes, beauty can uplift humanity.”

After she got out of prison, she wrote him a letter about her renewed hope and added, “This is a turning point.”

He said, “That’s what I want, I want to go and elevate people’s humanity, remind them of their humanity.”

After the pandemic, Genuis plans to focus more of his work on playing in schools and to set up a program called Project Detour for children, in hopes of changing the culture.

“I want to detour them from the idea that prison is just part of life,” Genuis said.

eric genuis
After the pandemic, Genuis plans to set up a program for children called Project Detour “to detour them from the idea that prison is just part of life,” he says.

To Elevate the Soul

Confucius said if one wants to know the morals of a nation, “the quality of its music will furnish the answer.” And Plato said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

“I believe these men were right,” Genuis said. “I believe music is a language that speaks to the heart, mind, and soul in ways words will never touch. Music and beauty have the ability—it is a language, it communicates—to elevate the mystery behind the person, to elevate that essence, to elevate that which animates them—the soul, if you will—but to elevate them and move them.”

“Music can create such awe and wonder in the imagination of people, so I think it is critical in the formation of our young to immerse them in beauty,” he said. There’s a place for fun music, too, Genuis added, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of beauty, which so many in our civilization are starved for.

In another life, Genuis might have stayed a physics teacher, happily on his way to retirement with a good pension by now.

“But when I was in class, I’d often be writing melodies, and then after class, I’d be in the library listening to Beethoven,” he said. Genuis is a talented pianist, but unlike most musicians who pursue music, he was driven to compose.

“I would just write and write and write,” he said. “I never thought I’d do this for a living, or that anyone would ever hear a performance, I’d just write for the sheer love of writing music.”

Genuis knew it was a gift. He believed he had been given this great thing, and it was meant to be shared, so he followed the audience. He found there was such a need for beautiful music and felt compelled to do it full time.

“It’s not about fame or any of that, it’s just about connecting with people. I started to play everywhere,” he said. Then he got invited to a prison, and thought, why not?

“And then when I saw broken people react so strongly, I thought, wow.”

Genuis has gone through a lot of trouble to bring his music to people.

A day’s schedule might begin with packing up from the evening concert at midnight, driving three hours to the next city over, where a prison has invited Genuis to perform, taking a nap mid-trip at a rest stop, going through prison security early in the morning to get all of his equipment in, playing three concerts at the prison and wrapping up by late afternoon, and then getting prepared for his evening concert in that city almost straight away.

“I’m in a lot of dark places in the world,” he said. “It’s very tough, I cannot tell you how many times at 3 a.m. in the morning I’m driving from one location to another, and I’m exhausted, and I think: ‘What am I doing? I should be home sleeping!’ And you start questioning everything. Is there purpose? What is this?”

But Genuis is positive by intention, and he says it really does come down to the music. He believes in it wholly.

“This is the greatest thing I have to offer, and I am going to move mountains to offer it.”

“Through this music, I was able to live what I really believe,” he said. “I feel like it has been a gift to me and my humanity to provide this, I feel very lucky. Life is short, and for a short window, I can share this music.”

When Genuis composes, he reaches for hope. It’s this combination of awe and wonder, like a child picking up a block and seeing a castle, he explained. “That’s hope, because the awe and wonder for life, ‘Oh I wonder what I can build with this Lego,’ leads to ‘Oh, I wonder what life has in store for me.”

“All this awe and wonder and hope, it’s humanity, it’s life. When that gets squashed in someone at 10 years old and nothing matters, like this 23-year-old [talking about his three life sentences], his hope was dead a long time ago,” Genuis said. But if you can show people hope, you can remind them of their humanity, and music—just ephemeral wavelengths—does it in a way words can’t.

“You bring them hope and you help them realize, you are human,” he said. “And even if you have to spend the rest of your life in prison, you can read books, you can discover things, you can always elevate your humanity. It may not turn into a big paying job but it can challenge you intellectually, it can challenge you spiritually, emotionally.”

“We all recognize beauty when we see it, and it’s not something you can discuss or you can describe or you can comment on. Really it’s a language beyond,” he said. “A language beyond words that reaches and connects with us and we know it.”

“When we’re in a vulnerable situation like suffering and pain and we have an encounter with something beautiful, and we’re not distracted with other things—if we’re happy and joyful and running around busy with other things, maybe beauty doesn’t really knock us between the eyes—but when we’re poised and we’re reflective and it sort of elevates us, we know it, and it’s sort of involuntary,” he said. “It’s not even controllable.”

“Like this boy [moved by the violin], if he is starved for beauty so much, so is everybody else. The question is, why aren’t we giving it to them? I go in and play at universities, they don’t even know what a cello is,” he said. “[Music] has always had an entertainment quality but it’s never just been what it’s supposed to be.”

“There is this whole world, like a cave full of diamonds, a whole world that we’ve not explored, in our children’s education … and the result of that is this boy puts his hand over his heart and says, ‘Why have I never been exposed to that?’ It’s like he was begging for his humanity. ‘Why have I not been able to feel like who I am?'”

After a concert Genuis gave at a PTSD clinic, a man who went from running fearlessly into battle to not being able to even set foot in a drugstore came up to Genuis and hugged him fiercely.

“He said: ‘I’ve done a lot of terrible things in war that I fear I’m going to have to pay for. I don’t feel like I can ever be forgiven or I can forgive myself. I don’t even remember what it’s like to feel human or to feel myself,'” Genuis said. “And then he says: ‘I remember who I am right now. I don’t want to let go. I fear if I let go, I’ll forget who I am again.'”

“It’s a story of suffering, but it’s a story of redemption. And who’s not in need of redemption? We all are, and we all should seek truth to do all we can to bring hope and to bring redemption to other people’s lives,” Genuis said.

Pianist and composer Eric Genuis on his world tour.  (Courtesy of Eric Genuis)
(Kirsten Butler Photography)