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
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.