Loar Mandolins: The Choice of Famous Fretters

This vintage 1939 Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin F5 sold in 2009 for $47,495.

On the afternoon of Nov. 13,1985, Della Monroe, wife of Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe, came home to find Bill’s cherished 1923 Lloyd Loar Gibson F5 mandolin and his back-up F5 lying in splinters on their fireplace hearth. Someone with a grudge against her husband had broken into their home and beat the mandolins with a fireplace poker, repeatedly stabbing and hammering at them. The vandal had also destroyed portraits of Bill and other artwork.

Bill was devastated. His primary F5 was legendary for its tone, and he had played it almost exclusively for decades. No one was ever arrested for the crime, but analysts and a few acquaintances theorized that it must have been a woman; most likely a spurned lover. A man, they said, would have grabbed the mandolins by their necks and smashed them against the fireplace.

The damaged mandolins were packed up and delivered to the new Gibson factory in Nashville, where they were examined by Gibson craftsman Charles Derrington. Accompanying the mandolins was a paper bag containing hundreds of slivers of wood from both instruments.

No one believed that these instruments could be repaired; even Derrington had his doubts. However, he was willing to try. The first challenge would be to discern which slivers came from which instrument. Closer inspection showed that, miraculously, the poker had missed the primary Loar’s inner braces and tone bar, so the mandolin was salvageable. The second mandolin was less fortunate, as its tone bar had been broken.

Bill Monroe shown with his 1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar F5 mandolin.

Derrington laboriously separated the wood splinters, using a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass. He found that he was able to sort them by color, as the finishes on the two instruments were slightly different.

Using an acoustically transparent epoxy to glue the pieces in place, Derrington worked 40 hours a week for the next three months repairing the primary mandolin.

Ultimately, the mandolin was repaired and put back into service, albeit with a diminished sound. When Derrington handed the repaired mandolin to Monroe, the big man, not known for displays of emotion, cried.

One wonders why it was worth the effort and cost to repair the nearly fatal damage to the mandolin, especially when the final tone was not what it was originally. Why not just buy a new one? Was the tone of the 1923 Lloyd Loar Gibson F5 so good that it would out-play new mandolins even in its diminished condition? Apparently, the Father of Bluegrass believed so, and who is qualified to argue with him?

Though Loar only worked for Gibson for five years, from 1919 to 1924, and produced F5s for fewer than three of those years, the work he accomplished is of historic value. The model F5 mandolins he created—along with his L5 guitar, H5 mandola, K5 mandocello, and A5 mandolin—remain highly sought-after collectible instruments.

Top performing mandolinists such as Chris Thile, David Grisman and Tony Williamson all play signed Lloyd Loar F5s. It’s reported that Thile paid $200,000 for his F5 in 2007.

Monroe bought his famous 1923 F5 second-hand for $150 at a barbershop in Miami in 1945. Upon Monroe’s death, his son James put his father’s Loar F5 up for sale and had an agreement to sell it to a museum for more than $1 million. The museum, however, could not raise the money and reneged on the agreement.

This top view of a Gibson F5 shows a few of Loar’s improvements: F-holes, floating cutaway fingerboard and centered bridge.

In 2005, nearly 10 years after his death, Monroe’s F5 was purchased by philanthropist Robert W. McLean and donated to the museum of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Mandolins—literally “hand violins”—historically belong to the lute family of instruments and have a note range similar to a violin. Mandolins are fretted, have four courses of two strings and are plucked rather than bowed.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were as popular as banjos and guitars. Mandolin orchestras could be found in most cities, and mandolin sales made up a large part of Gibson’s revenue. After the First World War, though, the growing popularity of tenor banjos, gramophones and radios for home entertainment caused a serious decline in the sales of mandolins. To revive the sales of their mandolins, Gibson hired acoustical engineer Lloyd Loar in 1919.

Loar’s improvements to the traditionally stiff-sounding mandolins of his day were significant. Loar pioneered the use of F-shaped holes in the mandolin’s top, as with a violin. In order to increase the vibrating area of a mandolin’s top, Loar designed the end of the neck to “float” over the top rather than having it glued to the top. He also lengthened the neck of the instrument, which then required the bridge closer to the center of the top—the “sweet spot”—to keep the speaking length of the strings the same.

One can see the identification label and serial number inside a vintage F5 mandolin by looking through the F-hole.

A unique but rarely used improvement was the Virzi Tone Producer, a small disc-shaped secondary soundboard placed under the top, inside the tone chamber. Despite Loar’s improvements to the instrument, Gibson’s sales continued to decline and, with the company on the brink of bankruptcy, Loar resigned in 1924.

A desirable subset of collectible Loar F5s is known as “Ferns”—the name refers to the fern inlay on the headstock. Only 20 of these were made; some had the Virzi and some did not.

Darryl Wolfe, curator of the Mandolin Archive, lists 238 Loar-signed-and-dated F5 mandolins as of May 2013. Altogether, it is believed that 326 such instruments were made. Loar’s signature is the definitive provenance marker for this instrument, indicating his personal quality control. Instruments containing his signature are the most valuable to collectors and musicians.

Gibson F5 mandolins have continued to be manufactured at various times and are still popular with working musicians. Newer models of Gibson mandolins have been endorsed by such renowned players as Sam Bush, Doyle Lawson and Alan Bibey. New F5 models range in price from just over $7,000 to around $18,000.

Hall of Fame rocker Duane Eddy holds his prized 1958 Gibson F5 mandolin, which is currently on eBay for $49,999.

Currently, Loar-signed F5 mandolins have sold in the $80,000 to $170,000 range. Vintage F5s not signed by Loar sell for $40,000 to $60,000. A 1958 Gibson F5 owned by Hall of Fame 60s rocker Duane Eddy is currently being offered on eBay for $49,999.

Although, as a group, vintage Gibson F5s are extremely valuable, individual valuations are as varied as the sound. Not only does each instrument have its own distinctive sound, the ear of each collector has certain requirements and preferences. Thus, an F5 that sounds wonderful to one collector might have less appeal to a second collector. Of course, the condition of the instrument plays an important role as well.

The 2012 official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide offers the following guidelines for pricing Loar-signed Gibson F5 mandolins:

• 1922 (no Virzi) $170,000 to $190,000;
• 1923 (Virzi) $180,000 to $210,000;
• 1924 (Virzi) $140,000 to $170,000;
• 1925 Fern (Master Model) $80,000 to $85,000.

F5 model numbers and serial numbers can be found within the tone chamber of the instruments on a paper label, as with a violin. Serial numbers for vintage instruments can be date-checked at the Mandolin Archive.

To get a sense of how Bill Monroe’s 1923 Lloyd Loar Gibson F5 mandolin sounds, take a listen here:

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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