Lloyd Loar – Inventor of the Modern Electric Guitar

Lloyd Loar is credited with the first Gibson electric guitar; the Gibson Mandolin is sought world-wide for its sophistication and sound.

Famous for the design and creation of the Gibson L50 , Lloyd Loar’s designs were known for precise tone, exquisite  resonance, smooth aesthetics – all are the luthiers’  manna. The art and craft of any discipline  can be learned…

…But, invariably, the adept will rise to the top, as Lloyd Allayre Loar did when he began his career at the Gibson-Mandolin Guitar Company, just after the turn of the century. Today, Loar is considered the forefather of the modern electric guitar, and the architect of what was to become the first American family of stringed instruments. But his career as a designer was marked with struggles and perdition of an unrecognized genius, slightly out of cadence with the rest of the world.

One of the great things to come out of the 19th century was  vocational pride. Entrepreneurs had a firm handle on the notion of quality assurance, customer relationships and reputation –  qualities that were not lost on Orville Gibson, luthier and founder  of the Gibson Company. Orville sought out the best in the  business to help bring his line of instruments to the forefront  of the marketplace.

Lloyd Loar’s technical prowess and precise artistry is evident in every guitar he laid his hand to, par-excellence. Gibson L50 guitar’s being in demand world-wide even now.

A native of Lewiston, Illinois, Loar was one of Gibson’s discoveries – a diamond in the rough. It was not long before Loar touched on his gifts. He was still quite young when he began demonstrating a keen interest in  physics, geometry and music.  In 1904, by eighteen, he had become  a student and member of Ohio’s  Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied orchestration, canon, counterpoint,  fugue, and music theory with the anticipation and dedication of a  studying sage.

“Loar’s mind was ablaze with creative  ideas, including his desire to improve  the amplitude and tonal qualities on instruments other than the fretted,  stringed variety.” Loar’s relationship with the Gibson company started early in his musical career. Well before he became an acoustic engineer, Loar worked for the company as a performer and composer.

By 1906, Loar had entrenched himself as lead performer for the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company.

By 1906 he had established a reputation as a professional  concert musician, performing on Gibson Mandolins. It was later that same year when he met vocalist, Sally Fisher Shipp,  of the Fisher Shipp Concert Company, who persuaded Loar to  join their successful ensemble of Gibson sponsored musicians  whose lot it was to demonstrate the pinnacle of Gibson design. By 1914 his passion and commitment  had earned him the distinction of  Concert Master for Gibson.

In 1918 he was hired as acoustic engineer and the following year became a design consultant. Through his critical thinking and problem solving, his drive to improve  and perfect he played a key role in the design and development of the Gibson Master Model instruments developed between 1922  and 1924. These included the H-5 mandola, F-5 mandolin, K-5 mando- cello, style 5 banjos and the L5 Master Model guitar,  possibly the most coveted among Gibson and vintage instrument  collectors. Most instruments Loar crafted from late 1922 through  December 1924 were personally hand-tested by Loar and carried his signature on the label, a mark of quality and  distinction.

“Loar’s patents, letters, and drawings reveal a highly motivated  thought process that never slept. He was always searching for  what lay beyond truth and excellence,” explains Roger Siminoff,  Loar historian, and former Editor of Frets Magazine. The  excellence Loar achieved is parallel to the great violin makers, thelikes of Stradivarius, Amati, Guarneri; and guitar luthiers Christian Martin, Leo Fender and Orville Gibson himself. He did  not as much seek to emulate their mastery in the development of his designs but strive beyond. Using elements of these early  design styles and his knowledge of physics and the science of  music itself, he incorporated fully graduated soundboards,  backboards, and longitudinal tone bars, tuned f-holes, extended  necks, elevated fret boards, increased neck pitch, and brought  the concept of resonance tuning to a level of perfection not  previously, or arguably, since, achieved in his realm of influence.

The excellence Loar achieved is parallel to the great violin  makers, the likes of Stradivarius, Amati, Guarneri; and guitar  luthiers Christian Martin, Leo Fender and Orville Gibson himself.

The excellence Loar achieved is parallel to the great violin  makers, the likes of Stradivarius, Amati, Guarneri; and guitar  luthiers Christian Martin, Leo Fender and Orville Gibson himself.
He believed that a quality instrument should not only have the  strings perfectly tuned, but each structural component should be “tuned” to achieve perfect integration of the instrument as a  whole. He reasoned that because every element was part of an  integrated system, if one were not perfectly aligned, it would  impinge or work contrary to another resulting in undesirable  tones. To achieve this, Loar developed a system of tuning or  adjusting his soundboards, backboards, tone bars, f-holes, and  air chamber sizes so that each component resonated on a scale  using concert pitch as its calibration point. Coupled with exquisite aesthetics, Loar’s structural tuning inspired creations that  continue to stand alone in their class.

“Despite their prominence, the L-5 guitars were not considered a  commercial success,” George Gruhn, of Gruhn Guitars explains,  “The L-5 was ahead of its time. It came out while the banjo boom  was at its pinnacle. The orchestral rhythm guitar had not yet  emerged as an element of popular music.” As a result few were  produced. It did, however, serve as a prototype for the  D’Angelico, Stromberg, and Epiphone F-hole guitars to come in  the early 1930’s that clearly emulated Loar’s L-5.

The signature label was used on the Master Model instruments

Loar’s sleek design accentuated the aesthetic’s – the art of Luthery, while the underlying design caught and held resonance like nothing that had come before it.

until 1924 when Loar left Gibson to strike out on his own, intent  that with the help of  investors he could propel stringed instrument  technology into the future. After years of working with acoustics he believed amplification  was the only reliable way to achieve  consistency. And he was willing to stake his  career on it.

“Loar’s mind was ablaze with creative ideas, including his desire to improve the amplitude  and tonal qualities on other than fretted,  stringed instruments,” writes Siminoff, “His  ambitious nature appears to have been the  greatest motivation for him to leave Gibson and explore other plateaus.”

A string of innovations would soon follow his departure, none of which would bear the  rewards he realized at Gibson. The Gibson  Company was a fertile proving ground, rich in established  tradition and provided both a foundation and a  leaping off point to incorporate his ideas. Like the L-5, many of  his new, post-Gibson era concepts were not well received by  the marketplace.  Not because the ideas weren’t good, but in all  likelihood because he was again ahead of his time. The world  simply wasn’t ready for the direction he was headed.

Despite the reticence of the marketplace to embrace his ideas and the depression of the early 1930’s, Loar forged ahead with his  plans. In 1933, he teamed up with a former co-worker at Gibson,  Lewis Williams, and five local investors, to launch the Vivitone  Company, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Now in a position to fully test  his theory on electric amplification, he set about designing the  Vivitone electric acoustic, a hybrid design that could be played  with either acoustic or electric amplification, or both. With the  advantage of historical perspective, it’s not hard to imagine this  prototype being the predecessor to the modern-day electric  guitar.

The Vivitone line included: mandolins, mandolas, mando-cellos, mando-basses, violins; violas, violin-cellos, double basses,  Vivitone Claviers and Spanish, Hawaiian, tenor, and plectrum  guitars. Most of these instruments were amplified employing  Loar’s coil wound pickup design. On January 23,1934, three months after the formation of Vivitone, Loar, Moon, and Williams  pursued a second round of financing. To accomplish this,  they founded the Acousti-Lectric Company. Nevertheless, well  into his years with Vivitone, the war with Germany had broken  out and the wartime economy presented yet another set of  challenges to the already struggling company.

The years 1927 to 1937 marked his most prolific design period  with many patents being granted for various piano designs and  keyboard actions, stringed instruments, and an electric coil-wound pickup he designed for the viola and string bass. The pick-up worked when the strings were plucked sending the vibrations  through the bridge into the magnet and coil where they were  transmitted via electric signal to an amplifier.

“His earliest instrument that featured this pickup was a solid-body viola that he built 10 years before the introduction of solid-body electric guitars,” Siminoff explains. “Lloyd strove to achieve power and amplitude in the instruments he designed, as a  performing acoustic musician himself, he realized the frustrations of live performance. He was driven to find a solution to the  vagaries of the acoustic performer, having a subjective bias.”

But lacking market vitality and a willing audience, the twilight of  Lloyd Loar’s career was marked by hardship and exigency. “Loar’s contributions to acoustic and electric string music continue to go unrecognized by many,” writes Siminoff. “For the holder of Loar-signed instruments, his work lives on in the voice of the  instrument itself. For luthiers who follow the art of mandolin and  stringed instrument construction, there is nothing so pervasive as the goal of capturing that magical appearance and tone of an  instrument from the Gibson/Loar era.”

Although he was appreciated in his time for his contributions, it  was only through the lens of history and the longevity of his  creations that he has become a legacy. Lloyd Loar revolutionized  the way we think about the dynamics of sound today.




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