Friday, February 12, 2016

Lloyd Loar - Master Luthier - Creator of The Gibson L-5 and Vivitone Instruments and Electric Instruments..In 1923!!!

Lloyd Loar

When we talk about luthiers that changed the guitar, as we know it today, while improving upon it only a handful of names come up. One of the most prominent men is Lloyd Loar. He was a master luthier that is probably best known for his modern mandolin designs, but he applied that skill to the guitar and made one of the Gibson Guitar Companies most famous guitars and paved the way that they manufactured guitars for years to come.

This was all done despite the fact that he only worked for Gibson for five years.

Not only was Loar a luthier, he was also one of the first sound engineers and he was a performer. He paved the way for the archtop guitar and mandolin to be built in a similar fashion to the violin.

Loar had studied music while in high school and went on to attend the Oberlin Conservatory where he became proficient in mandolin, mandola, mandolin cello, violin, viola and piano performance.

In 1918 he worked as an entertainer for the troops during the war. While in Europe he studied at the Conservatory of Paris. Later he attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Due to illness while in the service, he was honorably discharged within a year.

If you see vintage Gibson mandolin advertisements many of these will show a mandolin orchestra know as the Fisher-Shipp Concert Company. The players used Gibson instruments in their performances.

Loar was a member of this consortium and he was married to Sally Fisher-Shipp.

Perhaps the biggest take-away that Loar received for his participation was it allowed him to show Gibson that he could improve the products they were making. He showed them his ideas for mandolin and banjo construction, which led to him being hired by one of Gibson’s original and largest investor, Lewis Williams, who saw the potential in this young man. At first Loar was hired only on a six month contractual basis.

Loar had invented the Virzi Tone Producer prior to working for Gibson. This device was a spruce disc suspended from the instruments top that acted as a second soundboard. Mario Maccaferri had a similar idea with his internal resonator on the guitar he designed for Selmer.

After the six months were up, Lloyd Loar continued to work for Gibson from 1919, a year after Orville Gibson left the company, to 1924.

Loar working at Gibson
Under Loar’s direction the tops and back of all instrument were carved to allow the perimeter to be thick and carefully graduated to a thinner surface, he called “the minimum area.

During his tenure at Gibson he was referred to as "Master Loar" by those that worked with him.

Modern tap tuning 
Loar spent a great deal of time and research to create this improvement for his stringed creations. He learned and spoke of Stradivari’s tuning process. Some hail this as his greatest achievement. 

He would tune the wooden tops and back so the front of the instrument was a quarter tone higher than the backboard. Gibson still utilizes this principal as do many other luthiers of the day.

Due to his perfectionism regarding attuning the wood for each instrument the final result would be different for each mandolin, mandola or guitar that he made. This created a diverse and unique array of instruments.

Tap-tuning was (and is) a tedious process and under his supervision no instrument would be sold unless it was hand tuned. Only then Loar would allow his signature to be attached to the interior label.

After working at Gibson for almost five years Lloyd Loar envisioned electrified instruments and this led him to start his own company that allowed him to build electric guitars, electric violins and electric mandolins. He improved the arched the tops and backs to give them added strength as the bracing was very minimal on arched instruments.

From the Siminof mandolin site
As mentioned before the technique he employed is referred to as Stradivarius Arching. This allowed the sound waves emitted from the instrument greater movement and amplitude.

Loar Mandolins
Lloyd Loars mandolins contained tone bars. Unlike violins, the mandolins utilized two movable bars, that could be placed differently to alter the tone and provide stability. He also understood that placement of the F-holes would affect the instruments sound.

Master F5
Most stringed instrument players are aware of his designs for the famous Master F5 mandolin, the Master A5 mandolin, the Master H5 mandola, and the Master K5 mandocello (which resembles an eight string archtop guitar), but Loar’s work also was applied to banjo design. His version featured a tubal tone chamber and spring loaded ball bearings. This design became the basis of Gibson’s most popular banjos, the Mastertone.

Loar signed L-5
It was Lloyd Loar who designed and built the original Gibson L-5 guitar. This was the first guitar to feature F-holes.

1924 Loar Gibson L-5
Loar designed it in the manner of a cello. He designed the body to be 16” wide at the lower bout and this size remained until 1934, long after Loar ended his relationship with Gibson.

Two 1924 L-5 guitars
The L-5 remained Gibson’s top-of-the-line guitar for years, until the larger Super 400 was introduced. Prior to this Gibson’s best guitar was the Style O which had been designed by Orville Gibson and bore a resemblance to the style F mandolin as it has a scroll-like upper bout.

Skip Maggoria with Gibson electric harp guitar
As early as 1923 Lloyd Loar began experimenting on electrifying stringed instruments. Harp guitars were popular during these day. It was this year that Loar built a prototype electric Gibson harp guitar.

This instrument is one of a kind. It had ten bass string and the usual six guitar strings. The body is carved with a scroll pattern between the two necks.

Drawer on upper bout that housed the pickup (with closeup of the pickup)
The electric pickup is housed in a drawer that comes out of the upper side of the body and pickups up the sound from the guitars interior. This drawer also housed the cord that would attach to the amplifier. This harp guitar is the possession of Skip Maggoria, the owner of Skip's Music in Sacramento California. Skip states that when plugged into an amplifier the guitar is not loud, like today's instruments, but it gives a very mellow and beautiful sound.

Loar's personal viola - Siminof page
In 1924 Loar attached a crude electrostatic pickup to a viola. This prompted him to begin work on other electrified instruments. Unfortunately the heads at Gibson do not feel this is the direction they want the company to go, so Loar resigned.

ViVi-Tone guitars
Loar formed a partnership with Lewis William, the Gibson investor and Walter Moon to start up the ViVi-Tone Guitar Company. The company produced acoustic archtop guitars and allowed Loar the freedom to pursue building electrified instruments, which in time were produced.

ViVi-Tone acoustic mandolin

The Vivitone guitar and his other Vivitone instruments were unique because Loar took his idea for the Virzi-Tone a step father.

Note the pickup "drawer"

The backs were recessed with a rigid laminated rim. The solid wood that stood away from the rim was actually a secondary soundboard that had an additional set of F-holes.

The object was for the player to hold the Vivitone guitar or mandolin away from his body in the manner of a classical guitarist to permit the back soundboard to vibrate. These guitars featured tone bars and backs and tops that were hand tuned. The F-holes were strategically placed for maximum sound projection and a secondary set of F-holes were carved into the guitars back.

ViVi-Tone Electric Violin

Loar produced a Vivtone pear-shaped electric mandolin and an electric violin that had no back or sides. The electronic pick was house it a rectangular piece of wood that was parallel to the instruments body.

ViviTone solid electric Tenor guitar 
One of Loar’s most radical creations was perhaps the first solidbody electric guitar. This instrument was essentially a guitar top that resembled an archtop guitar, only it did not have a back or sides.

1930's ViviTone Electric guitar
It had a solid wooded block across the back that housed the pickup and electronics

A strip of metal ran the length of the body and neck. All the sound came from the pickup beneath its bridge. The cord was different than modern ones. It featured two prongs and was covered in cloth wrapping.

Loar Amplifer with parts
Loar also improved amplifiers for his electric instruments. He added a motorized system of moving baffles in front of the speakers.

Loar speaker with paddles
He also created another system of moving paddles in front of the speaker that could be turned off and on.

Around the same time period, radio engineer Donald Leslie took this a step further than the version Loar was utilizing. Leslie made his first speaker cabinet in 1941 as an add-on to the Hammond Organ as well as other organs.

Loar's personal electric piano
Finally Loar created the first ever electric piano that utilized small sound bars that would chime when tapped by the piano keys. The bars had coil pickups. He called his electric piano the Vivitone Clavier.

This is the same principal that both Rhodes/Fender and Wurlitzer used when they designed their electric pianos decades later.

The Depression hit the United States in 1929. Investors were hard to find. Loar’s partner Lewis Williams continued to sell Vivitone Guitars through 1940. Loar concentrated on his electrified piano but was not able to keep the dream alive. He took a job teaching music theory at Northwestern University until his death in 1943.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


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