The history of Gibson, simply put, is one of the great stories of American enterprise. From its humble beginnings more than a century ago, to its “golden age” in the ‘50s and ‘60s, to its phoenix-like return to glory in the late ‘80s, the company’s iconic reputation and inventive spirit have made it an American institution. Today, Gibson moves forward into 2014 with its eyes trained firmly on the future while also paying homage to its illustrious past.

Celebrating its 120th Anniversary, the company’s 2014 guitar and bass lineup is striking in its variety, its beauty and its host of updated and upgraded features. Below, we trace the evolution of Gibson, from its beginnings in a small shop in Michigan to its current roll out of new models that will appeal to musicians of every stripe.

1894 Working at his woodshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Orville Gibson produces the earliest documented Gibson instrument. The gifted craftsman goes on to produce a vibrant new family of acoustic guitars and mandolins, based on the arch-top design of the violin.

1902 Demand for Orville Gibson's instruments outpace the talented luthier’s ability to meet it. In response, he enters into an agreement with five Kalamazoo financiers to form the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company. Gibson receives a few shares of stock and a lump sum of $2,500 for his patent and the right to use his name. He remains at the company as a consultant until 1904, and receives a monthly pension until his death in 1918.


1921 Two of the most significant innovations in guitar history are developed by Gibson employee Ted McHugh—specifically, the adjustable truss rod and the height-adjustable bridge. To this day, all Gibson instruments are equipped with truss rods based on McHugh’s design. Traditional jazz guitars continue to feature the bridge he designed as well.

1922 Gibson sound engineer Lloyd Loar designs the legendary F-5 mandolin. The company also responds to the growing demand for acoustic guitars by introducing several new models. Chief among these is the L-5, also designed by Loar and considered by many to be the first “modern” acoustic. By the end of the decade, Gibson is producing several flattop models and an economy series known as the Kalamazoo line.

1935 Gibson introduces its first electric guitar, a Hawaiian style instrument called the EH-150. The legendary ES-150 quickly follows in 1936. Jazz great Charlie Christian adopts the ES-150 as his primary instrument, forever enshrining it unofficially as the iconic “Charlie Christian” model. To this day, many jazz players regard the ES-150’s “Charlie Christian” pickups as the finest jazz pickup ever produced.

1937-45 Cowboy film star Ray Whitley orders a super-large acoustic guitar from Gibson, thus paving the way for the J-200, or Super Jumbo. Two cutaway models, the Super 400 Premier and the L-5 Premier, are subsequently introduced, as is the legendary J-45 and Southern Jumbo. In 1944, as World War II nears conclusion, the Chicago Musical Instrument Company purchases Gibson and prepares to meet the pent-up postwar demand for guitars.

1946-54 The postwar years at Gibson are marked by major innovations. Under the leadership of Ted McCarty, who serves as company president from 1950 to 1966, the company perfects the P-90 single coil pickup and introduces such classic arch tops as the ES-5 (the first triple-pickup guitar) and the ES-175. In 1952, Gibson enlists Les Paul—the most popular recording artist of the era—in the launch of the company’s first solid body electric. Dubbed, appropriately, the “Les Paul Model,” the instrument becomes the most successful “signature” guitar in history. The Les Paul quickly grows into a family of four models—the Junior, the Special, the Standard and the Custom. In 1954, McCarty himself invents the tune-o-matic bridge, featuring individually adjustable saddles.
1957-63 In 1957, Gibson engineer Seth Lover perfects the humbucker, a double-coil designed pickup that quickly becomes an industry standard. The following year, the company debuts two radical new ideas. The first is the ES-335, a semi-hollow-body electric that ushers in one of the most successful concepts in electric guitar history. The second is the introduction of three futuristic solid bodies: the Flying V, the Explorer and the Moderne. Though deemed commercial failures in their day, these models go on to rank among guitar history’s most valued and sought-after instruments. Gibson pushes into the ‘60s with two more classic solid body designs—the double-cutaway SG models of 1961, and the reverse-body Firebirds of 1963.
1966-82 McCarty’s departure in the mid ‘60s marks a troubled period for Gibson. Parent company CMI merges with FCL, an Ecuadoran brewery, in 1969. The merged companies form Norlin, a music division comprised of Gibson guitars, Moog synthesizers and Lowrey organs and pianos. In 1974, Gibson’s Nashville plant opens and operations are split between the new facility and the plant in Kalamazoo. Despite falling sales, the creative spark at Gibson remains intact. The company introduces its first true reissues: the F-SL in 1978, the Les Paul Heritage 80 in 1980, and the Heritage Korinas in 1982. New instrument innovations include the first B.B. King models in 1980, and the first Chet Atkins solid body acoustics, in 1982.

1983-86 In 1983, Norlin is bought by Rooney Pace and Piezo Electric Products, and the new owners put the Gibson music division up for sale. Meanwhile, the Kalamazoo plant is shut down and the Nashville facility becomes Gibson’s headquarters. Guitar enthusiasts Henry Juszkiewicz and David Berryman purchase the company in January 1986, and immediately set about restoring Gibson’s financial viability and reviving its reputation as manufacturer of the best stringed instruments in the world. The company begins a period of renewed growth characterized by further emphasis on innovation and the acquisition of other instrument companies.

1993-2013 Tradition and innovation are blended as Gibson moves forward into the next century. Growing interest in vintage instruments triggers detailed replicas of the ’59 and ’60 flametop Les Paul. To mark its centennial in 1994, Gibson introduces the Nighthawk, a new model that wins an award for Most Innovative Guitar at the January NAMM show. In 2002, Gibson celebrates
the 50th anniversary of the Les Paul Model by introducing the world’s first digital guitar. The following year, Time magazine names Gibson’s digital guitar one of the “Coolest Inventions” of 2003. That same year, Gibson opens a plant in China dedicated to manufacturing Epiphones, and forms the Gibson Foundation, the official charitable arm of the company. Further innovations and technological breakthroughs, including the world’s first guitar with robotic technology, ensure Gibson’s ongoing preeminence in the world of stringed instruments.
2014 —— To commemorate its 120th Anniversary, Gibson rolls out new electric guitar and bass models, pushing forward with dazzling innovations while keeping an eye on tradition. Among the new features are the widespread implementation of the Min-ETune™ automatic tuning unit, four new types of pickups (including the new Sidewinder™ humbucker), Supreme Grip speed knobs, undercut fret over binding (allowing players to fly over the fingerboard), a TekToid™ nut, and cryogenic-treated fret wire for longer life and corrosion resistance. A host of brilliant new colors and finishes—along with a 120th Anniversary banner inlay at the 12th fret on all the new models—make this one of the most spectacular roll outs in Gibson’s history.