Saga of the “Lyre” Label


Gibson Lyre Label

After several iterations of early label designs, The Company settled on this label, often referred to as the “lyre label,” and used it in most of its acoustic stringed instruments up through 1930, except for banjos, and Loar-signed instruments (F5 mandolins, H5 mandolas, L5 guitars, etc.). At first glance, the instrument on the label appears to be a lyre (an early U-shaped instrument, similar to the shape of the instrument in the label, with three to six strings and no fretboard).

Gibson Lyre ClockGibson Lyre Clock (detail)The lyre is one of the earliest known stringed instruments and was often used as a decorative element on early objects. This clock, dating back to 1910, depicts a lyre whose design is very similar to the lyre in Gibson’s label.

What was not clearly visible is that Orville’s photo is blocking the fretboard of this instrument and that it is, in fact, a mandolin, not a lyre. I called Julius Bellson, former employee and historian at Gibson, and the discovery sparked his attention, for Julius had always thought the instrument in the label was a lyre. We were both intrigued by what Orville was trying to do in this design and I told him I “had to build one!”

To resolve my intrigue, I photographed one of these labels and enlarged the image until I arrived at a 13-15/16″ string scale, nut to bridge. Then, I sent one of the photos to Julius and I used the other as a template to build an instrument that resembled the one in the label.

Gibson Lyre Mandolin Roger Siminoff with Gibson Lyre Mandolin To construct the lyre mandolin, I cut the rim from a solid piece, rather than bending it (as specified in Orville’s early patent claims). The rim is 1-1/2″ high, as on most of Orville’s early instruments, the soundboard is Sitka spruce, and the backboard is African mahogany. The severely-arched soundboard offered no flexibility which resulted in the amplitude and tonal qualities being rather poor. The photo of me playing it, was taken in 1976.

Shortly after writing an article about this discovery for Pickin’ Magazine (June 1976), entitled “The Truth About a Lyre,” One of Orville’s original lyre mandolins came back to its home in Kalamazoo. The owner brought it to the Gibson plant for refinishing and to learn about the instrument’s importance and value, if any. Ken Killman, Gibson’s customer service manager at the time, called me and I scurried off to Kalamazoo to touch and photograph the real instrument and see how close I had come to building a replica without ever seeing the original.

Gibson Lyre Original

This version of Orville’s lyre-shaped mandolin (above) was an impressive sight and it was in rather good condition. Orville’s mandolin was built on a 3″ thick rim and there was a support bracket across the back of the peghead connecting to both of the two horns. (That bracket is actually visible on the label and can be seen as a curved line above Orville’s photo, between the peghead and each of the horns. I had no way of knowing from the label, that it was part of the instrument so I didn’t include one on my prototype.) As on Orville’s other early instsruments, the neck was hollow for about half of its length (I assumed that Orville did this for the lyre mandolin, since he did it on his guitars and mandolins, but I didn’t bother hollowing the neck on my clone). Somewhere along the way, it appeared that the original lyre-mandolin was refininished to natural wood, but we weren’t positive. The thought then came to mind that maybe there were two of these instruments.

As we investigated further, and compared this instrument to blow-up photo I sent to Julius, we realized that this instrument was different from the one in the label. It had a pickguard, the one in the label didn’t. The inlays around the soundhole were different on both instruments. The soundhole on this instrument was more oval shaped than the one on the label. And, the most telling clue was that this mandolin had the lyre label. So, it was resolved that Orville built at least two lyre mandolins. But clearly, there were never popular, and aside from being inside almost every acoustic stringed instrument the company made, it never made it to the catalog as a Gibson instrument model.

Gibson Lyre Label DesignFor the label, Orville’s photo was superimposed over the mandolin’s fretboard making it look more like a lyre than a mandolin.

The original photo of Orville for the label can be seen at the very beginning of my introductory page on Orville Gibson (that lead you to this page). A round photo of it was graphically superimposed over a photo of the lyre mandolin to achieve the artwork in the label as shown above.

In June of 2006, the plot thickened. George Gruhn, Gruhn Guitars, Nashville, TN., called to share that he had just come in possession of yet another lyre mandolin. This one featured a larger peghead with star and crescent inlay and no supporting bracket on the back of the neck. The inlay around the soundhole was the herringbone purfling used on the early A and F model oval-hole mandolins, and the fretboard inlay features two dots at the 5th fret. So clearly, there were at least three lyre mandolins produced by Orville or his immediate workers.

Gibson Lyre Mandolin (Photo courtesy George Gruhn)(Photo courtesy George Gruhn)

The above instrument is now in the permanent collection of the University of South Dakota Music Museum in Vermillion, SD. In October, 2007, I was invited to the museum to give a presentation on The Lore of Loar, and had a minute to stop and see Orville’s lyre mandolin.

Gibson Lyre Mandolin at USD (Photo by Rosemary Wagner)(Photo by Rosemary Wagner)

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