How to Select a Vintage Gibson Mandolin

Copyright © 1995 Dan Beimborn

This guide is inteneded as a starting point in a search for a Gibson A-model mandolin from the years 1907-1935. All of the information within is as accurate as I can personally verify (ie don't bet the farm). Most of this stuff will help you on the business side of the equation only- sort of a "Consumer Reports" for old mandolins. Hopefully, this will help you to determine to what extent the dealer is trying to sell the instrument at a level above what it may merit, and then you must use the market to help determine a price.

For the HTML literate, this page uses background color tags etc that currently are part of the proposed HTML 3.0 spec (configured to work with the Netscape navigator 1.b1 or later). Additionally, this page will stand on its own for the time being- all links but the "return to Misc. page" are internal reference links. This means that you can download it and have it work at home without having to be connected to the net to have it work. Just don't make a profit from it without giving me 87%!!

Index to this Document

Very Brief Historical Notes

The Gibson Company went through several stages of model design for their mandolins in the last 100 years. The early prototype models were hand-built by Orville Gibson himself, and are very thick and chunky looking. The basic "A" and "F" model shapes were developed around the turn of the century, and have become the basis for most serious imitators since. Regular production began in the early years of the 1900's, and continued unbroken until the WWII years, and again afterwards up to the modern times. The most generally trustworthy vintage Gibsons fall into the 1900-1930 years, when the instrument was popular and many were produced.

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

First Impressions

The first good thing to check (before even the price!) is the sound. Strum it, hit chords, open notes, etc. Tune it up, or get the owner to tune it for you. If it doesn't sing, forget it- there are enough of them out there that you will eventually find one that you like. Get a general impression from the instrument how "played in" it is... a nearly unplayed instrument will sound somewhat quiet and muffled (not "Broken in"), where one that has had a lot of service may ring loudly with little effort at all. If it has the "unplayed" sound, it is harder to judge what it will eventually sound like. Instruments can take anywhere from 1-10 years to really break in, depending on how often you play. Sometimes instruments that haven't been played in a while are "sleeping", it can take a month or so to "re-break" them. Mine sat in the shop for 2 years after the first owner died, and it took about 2 weeks of solid playing to get it to have a "wide open" sound again.. The best thing you can possibly do is try several different instruments. You will build a strong knowledge of the variations through experience. Remember, you are looking for an instrument that will have a very strong influence on your enjoyment of playing music!

If you've discovered a well broken-in instrument that you like the sound of, you can move onto the next step- model verification. If the sound is "muffled" or unplayed, check out the following section.

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

What to Look For in a "Mint Condition" Instrument

A vintage mandolin that hasn't really been played much or broken in should be approached like a brand new instrument. The sound will probably mellow over the years (if it isn't abused or mistreated) into a sound that is similar to a broken-in model of the same vintage. The important breakdowns are:

Compare a "Broken in" Gibson from the same period (1900-1907; 1908-1920) for a fairly accurate estimate of how the instrument will eventually sound. For the period of 1921 onward, try to get a near exact analogue becuase there are so many differences.

Unplayed Mandolins Should Have All of the Following:

All of the above are signs of use and wear- they are not really bad in and of themselves, but they do indicate how much an instrument has been played. If your eyes tell you a story that is not compatible with the "mint condition" or "as new" description, be wary.

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

The Gibson Label

The first thing to look at is the label. It should tell you the year, model number, and serial number of the instrument. Some were written in pen, some in pencil. Mine (1921) is nearly illegible, but with a bright light and a lot of patience, I was able to read all of the information from the inside. The serial number (when compared to the ones in Gibson records) will tell you within a few weeks when your instrument was made. Also, with a dental mirror and flashlight, you should be able to see a different factory number up on the block where the neck meets the body inside the instrument.

The label will probably have yellowed somewhat with age, but a nice new-looking piece of whitish-grey speckled paper with crisp, clear writing does not neccessarily indicate a forgery.

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

Model Verification

You will want to make sure that the instrument you are looking at is the model that it is advertized as, becuase those little model numbers do a lot to the price of the instrument. The higher numbers have more fancy decorative features in general, but do not necessarily sound any better than "lower end" models. I personally would be hard pressed to trade my A0 for an A4. So anyway, don't pay A4 prices for an A0!!

The information following is not official as there are so many instruments that break the rules. However, there are a few key identifiers:

A or F model

This one is easy. If it has a curlycue (bluegrass style) on the bass side of the neck next to the fingerboard, it is an F model mandolin. An A model mandolin is symmetrical, and teardrop shaped.


Prior to 1921, the only bridges made for Gibson mandolins (A or F) were made from a single piece of wood, with no adjusting screws. If the instrument has an adjustible bridge and a date prior to 1921, it is most likely a replacement bridge. While the bridge may even come from the Gibson factory, it still is not original to the instrument.


The term "binding" refers to the white band that surrounds the face, back, neck, or headstock of the mandolin. More binding = high model number. The only completely unbound Gibson was the Ajr model, a stripped-down (in decoration) version of the classic A model. Prices should range relative to each other in this fashion:

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

Models and Descriptions


Plain model, with no decoration at all, brown finish. Plain tailpiece cover. Shaped hardshell or canvas case.

A or A0

Brown or black finish, binding only on face and in soundhole. One ring of purfling around the soundhole. Pickguard that is pinned into the fingerboard and bridge, clamped to the side of the instrument. Pearl dots on fingerboard. Dark stained maple (not the best "wavy" or "curly" cut) back and sides. "The Gibson" stamped on tailpiece cover. Shaped hardshell case.


Similar to A0, but can be blonde or reddish color, has some features (double purfling on soundhole) of an A2. "The Gibson" stamped on tailpiece cover. Shaped hardshell case.


Brown, black, blonde, or red finish all possible. Binding on front, back, soundhole, fingerboard; "The Gibson" inlaid into the headstock, closer grained (most of the time!) spruce top then a model A0; pickguard that is pinned into the fingerboard, bridge, and clamps to the sides of the instrument. Double ring of purfling around the soundhole. Pearl dots on the fingerboard. Dark stained maple back sides (still not usually a "Wavy" or "curly" cut). "The Gibson" stamped on tailpiece cover. Headpiece veneered in black on the front. Black inlay along the "keel" in the back of the neck. Shaped hardshell case.


Nearly identical to an A2, but usually a refrigerator-White top (sometimes blonde); and a fleur-de-lis in the headstock under "The Gibson". Bound on top, back, sides, around the fingerboard. These are somewhat rare. Wood quality improving (tighter grain, more "nice looking" features). Mahogany sides and back. Shaped and bound fingerboard extension (the little teeny frets that extend over the soundhole). "The Gibson" hand- etched into the tailpiece cover (though sometimes stamped). Headstock veneered in black front back. Black inlay along the "keel" in the back of the neck. Shaped hardshell case with quilted felt cover for laying over the face of the instrument.


The top of the line. Red sunburst finish (red in the middle fading to black or brown at the sides), fleur-de-lis under "The Gibson"; (sometimes) decorated tuner buttons (a dotted "+" in each button). Thick white ring between the double purfling around the soundhole. Can have "Snakehead peghead" (see below). Shaped fingerboard extension. Black veneered headstock, front back. Black inlay along the "keel" in the back of the neck. Lots of polish in the finish. Shaped hardshell case with quilted felt cover for laying over the face of the instrument.

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

Some Features That Any Model May Have:

"Snakehead" peghead:

This is a peghead that tapers from small to large from the top, rather than the other way around. Conventional wisdom is that these somehow sound better, and prices go up accordingly. These are most commonly found on an A4, but can exist on model numbers A1-A3 (I have never seen an A0 or Ajr with a snakehead, but they could exist).

Longer neck clear of the body:

The standard Gibson A model has 9 frets entirely clear of the body, but some models (usually snakeheads) have 12 frets clear of the body. A longer neck mandolin is desireable if bass sound is favored, or if you play often in high positions and need easy access to the high frets.

Neck Shape:

The standard Gibson A models had a "keel" shaped neck, similar to the letter "v". The "keel" is rounded, but the modern "U" shaped neck is considerably rounder. Anyway, some Gibsons have rounded necks.

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

Final Note

I have been trying to get some help on this guide for some time, with little response from the Net community. If you could help edit this info in any way, point out gross errors, or even write up some detail for F model mandolins, please send me mail here. I would also really love to add a serial number chart to this page!

Back to the Index/menu of this guide

Return to Dan's Miscellany Page

*Back to the Ceolas home page.