by Benoît Meulle-Stef

(edited by Gregg Miner)

Chapter 2. The First Years of Production: Style U, U1, R and R1

In 1903 Gibson's  harp guitars were expensive and their only guitar to come in four different models.
Common features to all the harp guitars of this period:
Even though the literature of GIBSON in 1903 specifies maple construction the harp guitars that have survived in time to our period usually have walnut sides and back for the style R’s and mahogany for the style U’s. The octagonal harp arm runs beneath the soundboard to the rim at the end of the body, and is attached to the guitar waist with a small wood pyramid. There is another reinforcement arm symmetrical to the harp-arm on the treble side of the instrument making a complete frame inside the body. The company was proud of this and declared in the catalogue: "The only design to resist the immense tension of even six sub-basses." The guitar head is veneered in ebony on both sides, the extended headpiece for the harp strings consisting of four laminated pieces. The top is made of Norwegian spruce. The double scroll bridge, made of East Indian mahogany, is attached to the bottom of the guitar with an extension bridge stay made of steel. All the tuners were the best patent friction keys. French polished throughout. Ebony fingerboard with 21 narrow frets with an oval ebony artist extension.
Oblong soundhole.


On this Gibson workers factory photo you can see a harp guitar frame. The massive neck block and the 3 tail blocks are clearly visible.
(Photo from American Guitars by Tom Wheeler)  

The style R:

This was the plainest harp guitar of the 1903 catalogue listed at $195.03. 6 regular strings and 6 bass strings tuned F, G, A, B, C, D (low to high).
With a total length of 43 ¾ inches, width of 17 7/8 inches and a maximum depth of 5 ¼ inches, this guitar probably seemed a giant in a parlor guitar’s world! The guitar scale was 25 ½ inches and the longest sub bass was 34 inches long. A star and crescent motif was inlaid in the guitar’s headstock as in other Gibson instruments of the era. The tuning recommended for the harp strings was D down to F - F being an octave below the first fret of the E string. The finish was simple, a transparent orange for the top and dark mahogany for the neck and back. Simple celluloid binding on the body and neck, pearl setting in front body scroll and on the head end of the octagonal neck, inlaid bridge pins. The bridge is secured by the “GIBSON” nickel-plated extension bridge stay. The soundhole is inlaid with 2 rings of fancy-colored woods. Simple pearl position marker inlays on fingerboard plus side dots.

This design didn’t last very long and several changes were made: The banjo-like tuners for the guitar strings were replaced by three-on-a-plate open back tuners with ivoroid knobs. The ebonized finish becomes standard on the top. The fret markers were changed to simple dots for the 5th, 7th, 9th and 15th position and double dots for the 12th and 17th position.


Original model but with geared tuners and solid, non-scroll headstock.
(Photo from the net)

Style R from 1907. On these photos the black finish to is the ebonized finish of the time. Note the one-piece walnut back.
(Photo from

On this photo you can see the classic Gibson early neck junction, round, and the lack of binding on this part of the instrument.
(Photo from


The bridge is glued like in the STYLE O guitar from the early 1900’s but has a most peculiar metal reinforcement plate, engraved with “THE GIBSON,” to prevent the bridge from pulling out.
(Photo from

In this image you can see the head construction with cross grain mahogany wood to reinforce the guitar. The sub-bass pegs are visible.
(Photo from  

The R1

The R1 is a fancier version of the R with more decorations, listed at $221.63. The top comes with an ebonized finish highly French polished. Ornamented and veneered headpiece. The bridge is hand-carved and ornamented. Bindings on top have a cord pattern of pearl and ebony. The oval soundhole is inlaid with fancy-colored woods and mother-of-pearl.

After a few years some changes came to the R1; the cord pattern binding was dropped, and like the style R, geared tuners were used on the guitars strings. Actually, it is difficult to determine whether the R1 and R models didn’t became one after a while.

Photo from the 1903 catalogue  

  The U

At $265.96, this harp guitar which Gibson called the "18-string harp guitar" is a true monster with a total length of 48 inches, 21 inches width, guitar scale of 27 ¼ inches like a modern baritone guitar, and a maximum length of 35 ½ inches for the sub-bass strings. The rest of the guitar is very close to the STYLE R1 apart from a strange adjustable extension steel rubber-capped rod, eighteen inches long, enabling the performer to hold the instrument in an upright position (states the catalogue). The twelve sub-bass strings are tuned chromatically starting with the E flat just below the guitar Low E.  The model was basically an 18 string giant.  

Photo from the 1903 catalogue

This is the only known image of an actual Style U specimen from the 1903 catalog! Rope binding, scroll on the headstock with no "The Gibson" logo, 6X2 bass tuners and banjo tuners for the guitar strings. Until I saw this, I wasn't even sure that they ever actually made the 'catalog model.' I wonder if this one had the stand spike?
(Photo courtesy of Michael Wright)  

Orville-built (and/or supervised) harp guitar serial #2502.  This is the earliest known serialized Gibson Company instrument, discovered in 2007.  See Harp Guitar of the Month for a full study.

More early Gibsons with possible Orville construction or involvement include some of those in Gregg's 2016 article: 


This photo shows a slightly later Style U with the original 12 basses. You can clearly see the difference with the tuners in the catalog: They are in three rows instead of two. This instrument already has guitar tuners and normal ivoroïd binding.
(Photo from the net)

On this very bad condition style U you can clearly see the 12 bass tuners in this same original position.
(Photos from Elderly Instruments)

Like the other models, the U suffered several changes; the 12 sub bass strings were tuned too low and the model was changed to less basses. It’s difficult to know if Gibson adopted directly the 10 bass configuration because models with 9 or 11 bass original are known to exist.

 9 sub-bass transitional model

In between the 12 sub-bass model, tuned E’ to D#, and the 10 sub-bass models, tuned A#’ to G#, GIBSON did a batch of 9 sub-bass Style U harp guitars. One might suspect that they were made to match the tuning of the German kontragitarres. The failure of the Style U may have been that people were complaining about the lack of sound of the lowest basses. So Gibson apparently then just removed the low 3 basses E’, F’ and F#’. The 9 sub-bass version was in all ways similar to the 12 sub-bass models, but instead of three rows of 4 tuners they just have three rows of 3 tuners on the sub-bass head.

Gibson player with a 9 sub-basses model 
(from The Cadenza, July 1909)

 You can see in this photo a Style U with moon and crescent inlay, no tension rod and original 9 sub-bass strings.

Style U1 with 9 basses

This is a top of the line Style U1 with 9 sub-basses. Note again that there is no tension rod!

This Style U, owned by Steve Bissell, originally had 9 sub-basses. A 10th sub-bass has been added on the left. Note that the tension rod is in the wrong position – a later addition with the 10th bass?

So what do we know now? Gibson did some 9 basses, while at the same time the catalogs speak of the possibility of using gut strings on their harp guitars. Was it a way to gain the favour of kontragitarre players? German and Austrian immigrants were numerous in the U.S. back in the early 1900s, so it’s interesting to think about.

Shortly after, the decision was made to switch to 10 sub-basses in two rows of 5. Probably at the same time the scale was shifted from 27-¼”to 25-½”. The new tuning was developed by Walter E. Boehm: The E and A strings on the neck were in his opinion good bass strings so he added first from the neck: G#, G, F# and F to fill chromatically the gap between these two strings and then he just needed to add the “missing” notes for the basses: D#, D, C#, C, B and A#. Amazingly this new tuning gave the Gibson harp guitar a full 10 basses but the lowest bass is just an A#! Even a German kontragitarre with 7 basses, or a 4 sub-bass Scherzer, or a modern 10-string are tuned down to A. So except for a 3 sub-bass harp guitar like a Mozzani, the Gibson harp guitar is the most “trebly” harp guitar ever!

The more regular 10 contra bass strings (tuned from high to low: G#, G, F#, F, D#, D, C#, C, B, A# - with the G# unison with the 4th fret of the low E string of the guitar neck) was apparently quickly adopted. The tuning was recommended in Gibson literature of the era. Another change was the use of a reinforcement steel rod on the back of the instrument from the guitar head to the body. Again, like the R1, dots were installed on the fingerboard and the binding was changed to a simple ivoroid. Another change is the left spike on the headstock which started to disappear on the latest models.


A 10 sub-bass U
(Photo from Acoustic Guitars & Other Fretted Instruments by Gruhn & Carter)


Here we have a peculiar 11 basses U with original star and crescent logo.
(Photo from the web)

The U1  

Again, just a more fancy version of the U - $354.60, which was quite a lot of money for the time. The headpiece bound in celluloid is ornamented in rich Sydney pearl with an intricate flowerpot and vine motif. The octagonal neck and the bridge are inlaid in Sydney pearl as well. The metal reinforcement is silver-plated and more engraved. The fingerboard has an elaborate inlay with flowerpots, birds and vine. Even the side marks have different designs. The soundhole has a double ring of fancy-colored wood and mother-of-pearl borders. Pearl again in the top and back scroll. The examples that have survived to today are masterpieces of inlay.

The same changes where done on the U1 as the U and R. 9-string instruments are known to exist.

A  very rare 9-bass Style U1 almost fully original with the transitional 9 basses, rope binding; missing the bridge plate and reinforcement bar. Note delicate head inlay and fingerboard end, disposition of the bass tuners and original banjo tuners.
(Photo from Acoustic Guitars & Other Fretted Instruments by Gruhn & Carter)

Another great example of a U1. Note the peculiar stair bridge and the fantastic inlays. Here you have the bass tuners in new disposition of 2 x 5 rows. 
UPDATE October, 2018 GM: The scale length is 25-13/16".
The Chinery Collection book dated this one (#8544) as 1906. I put it at c.1908 (as opposed to Spann's c.1909).

Another change was done on U models (apparently after the U1’s disappeared); the neck scale was shortened to 25.5” to match the R’s neck scale, though the body remained the gigantic 21”. You can see that the harp head is now more angled to compensate for the shorter neck.

This is my personal Gibson. It has a 25.5” scale; 2 basses were added somewhere down the road…  
(photos by Gregg Miner)

Chapter 3 >

Article by Benoît Meulle-Stef with the help of:

Mr Gruhn for original catalogue material and help.

Gregg Miner for help with English, photos and formatting.

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