Two Classic Gibson Sunburst Mandolins

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Richard Johnston-

We see so many sunburst guitars it’s easy to forget that such colored finishes haven’t been around forever. Of course violinmakers made use of shaded varnish way back in the days of Tony Stradivari, but we can trace the earliest sunbursts, both the finish and the name, to Gibson just over 100 years ago. Here are two great examples from those early days, and although Gibson also offered similar sunburst tops on some of its higher guitar models the mandolins were far more popular.

The 1918 F-4 shown here was Gibson’s highest mandolin model at the time and so got their deluxe deep red finish with lighter golden highlights on the back, sides, and neck as well as the center of the soundboard. The elaborate headstock decoration and fancy inlaid tuner buttons were part of the top-of-the-line treatment.

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The 1920 A-4 has what became Gibson’s signature finish only on the top, which the company described as “an exquisite blend from dark mahogany to sunburst.” Gibson was here using “mahogany” to mean its dark red stain, as only the necks on both of these mandolins are made of mahogany wood.

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While Gibson had been making both of these models for years, the sunburst finish was a relatively recent option that had quickly become standard.  A decade earlier, Gibson’s higher mandolin models were more often given a black finish on the face, with a darker reddish brown back and sides.  In coming years as Gibson’s archtop guitars became more and more popular, the vast majority finished in sunburst, other American guitarmakers were compelled to offer a similar finish. Epiphone, which went head-to-head with Gibson’s line of archtop guitars, used the word “sunburst” in describing their finish, but Martin avoided the term, calling their sunbursts “shaded” or “dark top” instead.

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Although a sunburst finish no longer dominates new archtop guitar models the way it once did, sunburst  mandolins, at least those made in the Gibson style, are as popular as ever and here are some great examples.



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