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Thread: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

  1. #26
    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Per Paul Fox's book - Shipping totals 1935 to 1945

    Model A
    1935 - 0
    1936 - 2
    1937 - 1
    1938 - 0
    1941 - 2
    1942 - 1

    A1
    1935 - 230
    1936 - 291
    1937 - 298
    1938 - 179
    1939 - 132
    1940 - 97
    1941 - 118
    1942 - 72
    1943 - 54
    1944 - 29

    A-3
    1935 - 1
    1936 - 1
    1937 - 0
    1938 - 0

    A-4
    1935 - 1
    1936 - 1
    1937 - 0
    1938 - 0

    Unfortunately, this doesn't have shipping numbers prior to 1935. But it does show there were still some being made after the depression started.
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Holy wow! That is what is called a precipitous dropoff. So for that entire decade, 1500 A-1s (exactly - how about that?) and a total of ten all other models. That's in the neighborhood of one year's output during the 20s. Pretty grim.

    Thanks!
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    I might add that technically the snakehead made a reappearance in 1988 as the A5L..

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Funny period of history at Gibson, the Kalamazoo factory made wooden toys during the WWII years and this model was an effort to satisfy the toy and the mandolin market. It never took off and is very rare.
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Paddle Ball Head for Junior?
    Like a built-in live-action metronome.
    That's some Gong Show material.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    A REAL paddlehead!
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Have any of you guys ever worked in a factory?????

    It's not all unicorns and fairy dust.....

    Every instrument factory I have ever been in generally has piles of surplus parts like bodies and necks and such. Smaller shops or those with limited tooling often setup a different time of the year to batch out parts- e.g: setup all the shapers to do a big run of necks, then put 300 on the shelves and retool for the bodies. It plays even more into the process when you go back a century and have much less climate control. Cold winters make it difficult to use hot hide glue for the bodies, but you can make up hundreds of necks and store them on the shelves. Too much humidity in the summers means that it is not optimal time to close up bodies, but you can make a ton of plate carvings or rib garlands or bind.

    I can remember getting paid $30 to fill up my the back of my truck with half completed guitar bodies when the shop dumpster was full and they needed room for the current models. Six weeks later that $30 had made me $3k+ on ebay.....

    My guess is that the shift back to the paddlehead was due to some kind of manufacturing efficiency, along with the increase of Henry Ford's production methodology taking over a lot of industry. Possibly the paddlehead required one less pass on the shaper or production step. For a lower priced instrument, every step eliminated was more time saved = a few pennies more profit that added up on the balance sheet at the end of the year.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Also, picture this scenario: with an average yearly sales history of perhaps 4000 A models in between 1915 and 1920, Gibson runs 4000 necks in 1921 just as the bottom is starting to drop out of the mandolin market, and half those necks end up lying on the shelf. Perhaps they hope for a better year in 1922, so they run a few thousand more, and those also end up lying around. Then in 1923, they change to the snakehead shape, hoping the new design will stimulate sales, but by now they are more wary, and they run a smaller number. When the snakeheads are finally used up 4 years later, they still have a couple of thousand paddlehead necks left over from '21 and '22, and the boss says "change the specs back and use up these necks." That's called survival.

    Yes, I've worked in several factories. In the last one, I watched the constant battles between the production department, the marketing department, the bean counters, and the front office. I'll forego the details, except to say that they didn't establish good relations with their workers and didn't maintain or replace their equipment, ended up selling the rights to their flagship product to their number one competitor, and went out of business a couple of years later.

    And Gibson was often a haphazardly run operation. After their initial success in the 1910's, they nearly went under twice before CMI took over in 1944. I doubt that they were very profitable again until the 1950's, and I won't even mention the Norlin years or Henry J's contortions.

    And now, as electric guitar sales are declining, acoustic instruments are gaining in popularity, and the ukelele is the best selling fretted instrument, Gibson still places most of their emphasis on Les Pauls, and builds only a handful of mandolins and no ukes. The only things they have done right since the recent bankruptcy were to introduce a few more modestly priced electric and acoustic guitars and close the Memphis plant. Those things might have a chance of saving them. But then there's that new multimillion dollar corporate office complex they're building, so that'll eat up the profits . . .

    I think that sooner or later, we'll see Gibson back on the chopping block.

    Instrument manufacturers are no different than car, furniture, or clothing manufacturers. They have to be aware of changing markets, operating costs, the quality of their products, and their public images. They can't stay in business without keeping all of these things in order. And when your product is a piece of art, that gets harder to do.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful, informative and passionate comments on this issue.

    If it's not too late to add another related question - are snakehead A models considered to be superior in tone/volume to '23/'24 F2s and F4s?
    A2Zs routinely hit the market at $4500-5500, and 1924 A4s at $6000-7000.
    I've never played a Snakehead A, so I have no point of reference.
    Just curious if it's their rarity or their sonic power that helps them command a higher price than, say, an F2 from those peak years.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    That question will start a debate.

    In my experience, Gibson oval hole mandolins can vary tremendously in tone quality and projection. The year or model does not seem to be a determining factor to me, except that F's tend to have a slightly different character than A's.

    Over the years, I've owned about a dozen oval hole Gibsons and worked on many more. Only two that I have owned were made in the twenties-- a late '20's F-2, and a 1920 A-4. They were both good mandolins, although I sold them both many years ago. The rest were made in the 1910's. I've never found a snakehead that I liked enough to bring home. Others will have had different experiences.

    I think that a large part of the value of snakeheads is because of their look, which many find to be interesting, the fact that some were made during the years that Loar was an employee, and the fact that they were made in smaller numbers. I hesitate to use the word "rare," though.

    The vintage instrument market is full of examples of values that are based on popularity, association with an artist, theory, and fable. The realities of the various instruments do not always agree with those factors. The bottom line is that one has to judge every instrument with his own ears and hands, and choose what sounds and feels best to them.
    Last edited by rcc56; Apr-13-2021 at 4:07pm.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    "The bottom line is that one has to judge every instrument with his own ears and hands, and choose what sounds and feels best to them."

    I have absolutely found this to be true. I bought a 1917 A4 that has a gaudy 50s/60s Les Paul refinish and a partially sunken top. It's nothing to look at, but it's one of the best sounding, easiest playing Gibson oval hole mandolins I've heard. I've A/B'ed it alongside other beautiful, original Gibson As and even an F4 (that I'd hoped to buy), and ended up going home satisfied with my old A4 in hand.

    If I can find a luthier qualified to do a proper restoration, I'd like to invest in a period-correct refinish and resurrecting the sunken top with an additional brace below the bridge. I just hope it won't diminish its excellent voice. If I don't do it, I worry about the top eventually cracking under the pressure from the bridge. There are certainly plenty of examples of that.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Trust your ears and your hands. They know what's best for you.
    Interestingly enough, the A model that I have kept through the years is also a 1917 A-4.

    Last year, Carter's had a white top A-3 that would have been a keeper for me, but I had taken the pledge [which I've stuck to] and didn't pull the trigger. Boy, that was a good sounding instrument. I think it was a 1919 or 1920. Whoever bought it ended up with a great mandolin.

    You might contact Frank Ford at Gryphon String Instruments in Palo Alto, CA about your A-4. I don't know whether they are taking any outside repair work at this time, but if not, he'll know who else on the west coast is qualified to do the work.


    I'll add one more post 1920 oval hole Gibson to the list of instruments that have gone through my hands, because it reflects the conditions at the factory during that period: a circa 1932 paddlehead A-4, one of the last made. It was quite a good sounding instrument, but the intonation was so bad that it was not playable even in the first position. The reason turned out to be that the frets were so badly misplaced that it should never have left the factory.

    I replaced the fingerboard, which gave it its first chance as a useful instrument. The mandolin eventually ended up in England, where I hope someone is getting plenty of pleasure from it.

    I later found out that at the time it was built, Gibson had laid off most of their more highly skilled workers due to the impact of the Great Depression. That explained the mis-cut fingerboard.
    Last edited by rcc56; Apr-13-2021 at 6:29pm.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    [QUOTE=rcc56;18 ...I later found out that at the time it was built, Gibson had laid off most of their more highly skilled workers due to the impact of the Great Depression. That explained the mis-cut fingerboard.[/QUOTE]

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I'm thinking when an instrument is first designed, a highly skilled worker who understands the math, physics, etc., measures and cuts the first fingerboard from which a template is made. After that, the next 40,000 fingerboards are simply "measured" from the master template and made all the same, requiring no particular skill or understanding of luthiery or instrument design -- just copying, basic woodworking, normal factory work at that point.

    I know when Gibson opened in Memphis, many of the jobs were filled by non-luthiers and non-musicians, for that matter. Some were just people from the neighborhood looking for a job, any job. Binding scraper comes to mind, for example.
    Last edited by Jeff Mando; Apr-14-2021 at 12:28pm.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Yes, I'm sure they had templates or jigs for sawing fingerboards. And yes, most of their employees were not luthiers.
    But put an unskilled worker on a job that requires at least some precision, and they can easily mess things up, jig or no jig.
    They're not used to running the machine, maybe they forget to tighten a clamp, or they don't know how to lean against a fence, or maybe they're just hung over and their hands are shaking. Of course, you don't have to be unskilled to have a hangover.

    Anyway, whatever the cause was on the factory floor, the QC inspector [quality control] should have caught the problem.
    Or maybe he did, and the boss said "ship it anyway, we need every cent we can get."

    If you see enough Gibson instruments from this period, you start noticing all kinds of anomalies.
    Crudely carved braces, scratched out pencil lines on the inside of the tops, misplaced bridge plates, etc.

    BTW, if you start measuring the fingerboards on old Gibsons, you will find that many of them are not accurate by today's standards. The one that I was cited above was an extreme case, though. Not one fret was in an accurate position in relation to any other other fret.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    The intonation issue comes up from time to time. At one point there was an article in The Old Time Herald regarding this. Believe I linked to it years ago (although I can't quickly find it). It does appear that the slotting jig was wrong and folks over the years have had different reasons why.

    It also seems that folks like what they are used to. Since my A Jr. is late '20's that's now my preference for tone. Although my bandmate's 1910 A with the huge neck is also a nice instrument.

    FWIW holding up my 1929 A Jr. to a 1935 Kalamazoo KM-21 the fret placement starts changing noticeably about the 7th fret.

    And finally, yes, Gibson did often have a lot of parts lying around. A buddy has a postwar L-50 archtop guitar that has a pre-war neck, possible wartime body and wartime tailpiece. Yet it wasn't shipped until after 1947 as it has the post war headstock decal.
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Yes. There's the Gibson that people want to believe in, and then there's the real Gibson. They weren't a precision operation even during their best years, or necessarily very conscientious about what they shipped.

    But they managed to make some really good instruments, sometimes in spite of themselves. Some of them need some straightening out to make them structurally sound and playable, though.

    And they set and maintained the standards for sunburst finishes. It's hard to find a poor looking sunburst on any Gibson made before 1970, when Norlin took over. We won't talk about that, though.

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    Post Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    The A 50, A 40 & EM150 were all neo 'paddle heads' . [but guitar-ish peghead shaped]

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    One thing I just thought of last night while playing my Kalamazoo. We are forgetting that Gibson used regular mandolin necks for the off brands (Kalamazoo, Kel Kroyden, etc.). These appear to be regular necks from the line with the tops of the headstock cut off in a different pattern and rosewood instead of ebony fingerboards. The headstocks are shorter than a Gibson label instrument.

    The ones I've owned and handled don't have as much taper to the headstock thickness, but that could be a later finishing process. Or just the way things were done in the 1930's. But it does support the idea there were a lot of extra necks lying around and this was a way to use them up. Easier to just modify stock necks than make new ones.

    One other thought - most of the 1930's Gibson mandolins I've handled have more or less V shaped necks. The 1920's and earlier are round. Wonder if when they finally got around to using them they had someone with a draw knife quickly reshape the profile to make them seem different to the customer?
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    It's my understanding (someone correct me if I'm wrong) that when Gibson went back to the paddlehead shape, it also returned to a wider nut even though the mandolins still had trussrods. I've wondered whether their was some relationship to the nut width and the headstock shape.
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric Platt View Post
    .....We are forgetting that Gibson used regular mandolin necks for the off brands (Kalamazoo, Kel Kroyden, etc.). These appear to be regular necks from the line with the tops of the headstock cut off in a different pattern and rosewood instead of ebony fingerboards. The headstocks are shorter than a Gibson label instrument. ....just the way things were done in the 1930's. But it does support the idea there were a lot of extra necks lying around and this was a way to use them up. Easier to just modify stock necks than make new ones.

    One other thought - most of the 1930's Gibson mandolins I've handled have more or less V shaped necks. The 1920's and earlier are round. Wonder if when they finally got around to using them they had someone with a draw knife quickly reshape the profile to make them seem different to the customer?

    This is very interesting....I did not know this but wondered from time to time. The Kalamazoo logo on the headstock on my KM11s always seemed a bit cramped up there.

    So you think these were stock A necks that where re-profiled and installed without a truss rod? I've never played a 30s era A model by way of comparison.

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  30. #46
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    During WWII Gibson was engaged in defense manufacturing, so even though mandolin numbers were down, their total output and gross receipts could have been higher. Iím speculating here because I donít have the data, but when thereís a war on, mandolins and guitars are a luxury and attention is turned to what is essential.
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    True, but that is a much later period.

    PS: Mandolins are always essential!
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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Quote Originally Posted by brunello97 View Post
    This is very interesting....I did not know this but wondered from time to time. The Kalamazoo logo on the headstock on my KM11s always seemed a bit cramped up there.

    So you think these were stock A necks that where re-profiled and installed without a truss rod? I've never played a 30s era A model by way of comparison.

    Mick
    Yes I do. Here is a quick snap I made this morning of my two Gibsons. The Jr. is 1929 and the Kalamazoo is 1935. The shoulders (area from the nut to the wide part of the headstock) is longer on the Kalamazoo. It also attaches to the body slightly lower, so the heel starts at a different place than the Jr.. This could mean the neck was cut but not shaped until later. I do not know any of this for certain. There are also other possible reasons. Like the Kalamazoo necks were cut down from later necks made for the redesigned A models when they moved to F holes.

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    I personally think that Gibson had a serious load of parts just laying around from say the teens and 20's, so I think in Depression era Gibson's they used whatever was laying around, they didn't waste nothing! They used necks and even bodies be it the tops, backs or complete bodies? That's why you have the F-4 necks on say the F-7's, 10's and 12's from the 30's? Same with the few 30's H mandolas-look closely to the ones that are top and back carved! They are 1924 Tenor Lute bodies! "I think anyway!" There are a few maybe H-O's with the carved top but flat backs. They all have the shorter scale necks so you can see where the bridge on those is farther back below the F-hole points-toward the tailpiece "Like the F-7 and such bridge placement due to the short necks" So maybe after the 20's with the snake heads they just went back to the unused parts they had for the depression?

    I've seen one Loar F-5 that surfaced maybe a year and a half ago that was a floor sweep model! It had parts/hardware from the late 20's-early 30's, it was a very interesting F-5!

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    Default Re: Why did Gibson return to Paddleheads after Snakeheads?

    Dang craftsmen! Doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Working almost willy-nilly, using just their skills and experience to transform haphazardly hoarded parts into instruments that have stood the test of time and still stand as exemplars, among the finest mandolins ever made. Even today, with all the advancements in every aspect of luthiery at their command, builders achieve comparable quality fairly seldom. One would be tempted to think that with the precise manufacturing and measuring equipment and procedures available now this wouldn't be so. And yet ... One pauses and wonders at what they were able to do back then and how they were able to do it.
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