1954 Gibson Florentine Electric

The electric instrument craze of the 1930s went far beyond guitars. Manufacturers (and a few adventurous amateurs) stuck pickups on just about every stringed instrument imaginable, with varying degrees of success. Lap steels, violins, upright basses, ukuleles and tenor guitars were all amplified using the emerging technology, and so were mandolins. By the end of the 1930s, Vega, Rickenbacker and others had introduced electric mandolins, though these were all essentially acoustic instruments with pickups added. Vivitone built a handful of electric mandolins with the backs and sides absent, but their pickup was not particularly effective and the resulting instruments were awkward in a number of respects. Gibson entered the field in 1936 with their EM-150, a carved-top acoustic mandolin with a modified “Charlie Christian” pickup attached to the top.

Gibson was not the first to build a solidbody mandolin – that honor probably goes to Paul Bigsby, who built one at least as early as 1950 – but they were the first company to mass-produce one as a standard model. Introduced in 1954, the Florentine Electric is sometimes considered the mandolin equivalent of the Les Paul guitars although there was no official relationship between the models. Its solid mahogany body and modified P-90 pickup recall the Les Paul Junior or Special, while the carved top and gold-plated hardware recall the Les Paul Custom. Whether Gibson was intentionally following this line of thought is doubtful, but in the instrument was a resounding success from a player’s point of view.

It has a standard neck profile for a ‘50s Gibson mandolin, with a 13 7/8” scale and a 1 3/16” nut. The bridge is unique among all Gibson instruments: a single metal roller saddle (I believe it to be steel) with regular height-adjustment screws. While the lack of compensation suggests that intonation might be a problem, I have never found it to be an issue. The bound rosewood fretboard leads to the unbound scroll headstock with a crown inlay – similar to a contemporary F-12, the mainstay of Gibson’s mandolin line. The body, of course, is the most interesting feature: a solid block of mahogany with two points, it was a unique profile in the Gibson line until the advent of the acoustic A-5 three years later. Two-point mandolins had been in existence for around 40 years, but this was the first time Gibson had created one. The body was routed from the back to create the cavity that housed the volume and tone pots.

The pickup was an unusual if inspired creation. Contemporary EM-150s had dog-ear P-90s that were conventional except that they only had four poles. The Florentine, on the other hand, had a specially-designed narrow soapbar cover that fit nicely under the strings in a more aesthetically-pleasing way. The magnets were made of Alnico V, which produced a stronger signal than the Alnico III then in use on conventional P-90s. With double the number of strings per pole, the mandolin has a very hot output for a 1950s instrument (or even for a modern one). Despite the pickup being placed near the neck, the tone can easily cut through a band with the tone control rolled up. With the tone rolled back, the mandolin takes on a jazzy tone that recalls the warmth of an archtop guitar. The instrument’s sustain is remarkable, not just compared to an acoustic mandolin but also compared to many solidbody electric guitars. The result can be shocking to mandolinists accustomed to the quick staccatos and chops usually associated with bluegrass music.

From a sales standpoint, the Florentine Electric – briefly cataloged with the model number EM-200 but usually listed simply by its name – was not a runaway success. Perhaps that came as no surprise, since the electric mandolin market never expanded to nearly the same degree as the electric guitar market. The primary mandolin players of the time were bluegrass musicians, who tended to be very conservative about their instruments. Gibson discontinued both the Florentine and the EM-150 in 1971, though they could still be seen in the hands of a few musicians up to the present. My musical hero, Levon Helm, was frequently spotted playing his Florentine Electric (identifiable as a 1960s specimen by the pickguard that encircles the pickup) throughout the 1970s.

My Florentine is from the first year of manufacture, 1954. It’s completely original, including the brown Lifton case lined with a hideous shade of pink. There is some wear to the finish along the unbound back edge, as well as some loss of gold plating on the hardware, but there has been no damage or repair. It’s very heavy for a mandolin, but a blast to play – no compressor required for infinite sustain, and no boost pedal required to send an amp into overdrive. There’s no feedback at high volumes, either, which can’t be said for the vast majority of electrified mandolins.

 

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