Sunday, November 02, 2008

My new hero: Lloyd Loar


From 1919 until 1924, The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Company, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, employed a musician/engineer named Lloyd Loar. He had studied at Oberlin and in Europe, and he'd been building instruments since around 1900. For Gibson, he wrote music and toured, playing on the then-novel Gibson instruments for promotional purposes. But he's best known for the enhancements he made to Gibson instruments while he worked there.

Loar suggested that Gibson use several techniques long employed on violins to enhance their line of mandolins, mandolas, mano-cellos, and guitars. He switched many models over to the f-holes, and started having the luthiers do tap-tuning, basically listening to the resonances of the main soundboards. While he wasn't a full-time luthier, he did build some instruments and did final tunings of some as well. As it happens, one of the instruments he signed (an F-5 mandolin, a top-of-the-line model with all the enhancements he introduced) became the favorite instrument of Bill Monroe, who, beginning in the mid-1930s, had a string of hits that basically created bluegrass.

Monroe's music created a tremendous following and basically canonized the Loar F-5 as the pinnacle of bluegrass mandolins. In the years following, people have hunted down the Loar instruments with a passion and many luthiers have copied them. A good copy will set you back around $10,000 these days. An original, like this one, will go for over $200,000.

There are not too many 20th-century instruments that will fetch six figures.

In his later years, Loar designed an electric piano (too advanced for its time, probably -- it was never a success), wrote and taught acoustics at Northwestern University. He died in 1943, having spent twenty years working on musical innovations. The crowning masterpiece, though, is certainly the F-5 mandolin. If anybody is playing bluegrass in a couple of centuries, he may be remembered as the Stradivarius of the mandolin.
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