|Industry Leadership Award 2010 - John Gilbert|
John Gilbert was born December 8, 1922, and grew up in slums of Brooklyn, NY. He was introduced to the guitar by his cousin at age of 14, and played chords on a steel string jazz guitar. Gilbert graduated from Brooklyn Metal Trades High School in 1939, and then attended Brooklyn Automotive High School, where he graduated in 1941.
Prior to his career as a world-renowned luthier, Gilbert’s life had many different paths. He worked as a toolmaker and tool designer; served in the Navy in World War II as a machinist; worked various engineering jobs; and from 1965-1974, was a chief tool engineer for Hewlett-Packard Co.
While working at HP, Gilbert ran across a book owned by a colleague, a tutorial on how to build a guitar. This would be the only instruction Gilbert would ever receive on how to build a guitar. He built his first guitar in 1965, and proceeded to build guitars evenings and weekends while still working full-time at HP. Gilbert also did much repair work during this time, and used these as opportunities to study the work of other makers, taking meticulous measurements, and understanding what makes instruments have certain qualities. In May of 1974, Gilbert quit HP to build guitars full time.
It wasn’t long before many of the top players were playing Gilberts, including David Russell, George, Sakellariou, Fred Hand, Raphaella Smits, and others. Word spread, and Gilbert’s waiting list grew. Throughout the course of his career, he moved from making ultra-heavy guitars to making ultra-light guitars; moved from using a bridge to no saddle, instead using pins; and experimented methodically with virtually every aspect of building the instrument. Gilbert used an industrial stethoscope (and tools from HP) to plot all the notes on the instrument, with the goal of eliminating wolf notes and creating the best sound possible. In an interview, Gilbert once said: "I would say it is ninety percent science and ten percent art. It may be even higher than that…maybe as much as ninety-five or even ninety-seven percent science. The art comes in how you use the science.”
John Gilbert built approximately 120 guitars before his son Bill began building with him, extending the number of guitars built in the Gilbert workshop up near 300. John worked with Bill for nearly ten years before leaving the work of building guitars to focus on one of his other passions, and legacies: the Gilbert tuners. Gilbert began making his own tuners in 1990, when he was dissatisfied with the quality of other tuners he was putting on his instruments. Gilbert designed and patented his own significantly improved design, and today, Gilbert tuners as known as some of the finest in the industry.
John Gilbert currently lives in Woodside, CA with his wife of more than sixty years, Alice.