100 Years Ago: Country Music’s Most Iconic Instrument is Born

photo: c/o Country Music Hall of Fame

There are many iconic instruments that just like their players, have gone on to define the very meaning of country music. Most all of them are on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in a collection they affectionately call the “Precious Jewels.” This includes the Martin D-28 of Hank Williams, the Martin 00-18 of the “Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers, the Gibson L-5 of “Mother” Maybelle Carter, along with the fiddle of Charlie Daniels, the banjo of Earl Scruggs, and other legendary instruments.

But if there was a crown jewel of the Hall of Fame’s “Precious Jewels” collection, it would arguably be the Gibson F-5 mandolin that was owned by the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Forget country music, it might be one of the most iconic instruments ever, regardless of genre or nationality. The last time the Master F-5 was auctioned in 2001 by Bill Monroe’s son James, it fetched an incredible $1.125 million, which was the highest price ever offered for an American-made instrument at that time. It was purchased by a group of investors who then loaned it indefinitely to the Hall of Fame.

It happens to be that today, July 9th 2023, is the 100-year-old birthday of this iconic, historic instrument. It was on July 9th, 1923 that Gibson master luthier Lloyd Loar singed his name on the tag of the instrument, certifying that it was complete. Now 100 years later, the mandolin is still infinitely cherished by all in bluegrass and country music, along with instrument lovers from around the world.

Bill Monroe did not buy the instrument new, though. And it has enjoyed quite the colorful life to say the least. Beyond accompanying Bill Monroe on his quest to create an entirely new genre of music based off of old-time fiddle and string music, the F-5 mandolin had already been around for over 20 years before Monroe got his fingers on it. He purchased it from a barbershop in Miami, Florida for $150 after seeing it in the window, probably in 1944 or 1945 (Monroe can’t remember, and has quoted multiple years).

The Gibson Loar F-5 played so fine, it immediately became Monroe’s favorite, and basically the one he played all of his life. This one instrument became synonymous with Bill and bluegrass, and that is the reason it is so valued. That’s also the reason that in 1951, Bill Monroe got in a spat with Gibson, pulled out a pocketknife, and whittled the “Gibson” name right out of the head stock, leaving “The” still in tact. The decorative scroll on the head stock was also broken off, though there is a good chance that happened previously.

The story goes that Monroe had sent the mandolin to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan where it was built for a neck reset, new frets and fingerboard, new tuning pegs, a new bridge, and refinishing. It was a tall order for a mandolin that was already well on the way to becoming iconic, and it took the company four months to return it. But when Monroe finally got it back and found some of the work still unfinished after such a lengthy separation, he swore off Gibson, even if he didn’t swear off his favorite mandolin.

Everything was made right by Gibson later though, and Monroe replaced the head stock with a new one. The old head stock itself sold at auction for $37,500 many years later, beating an estimated value of $7,000. But the self-vandalism of the head stock was the least of the trauma the Bill Monroe Gibson F-5 would suffer.

In November of 1985, Bill Monroe enjoyed a dinner at Mason’s Restaurant near his Goodlettsville, Tennessee ranch with his wife at the time, Della. When they returned home, they found the iconic 1923 mandolin smashed into multiple pieces, with a fireplace poker nearby as the offending weapon. Another mandolin in the house and some photos of Monroe had also been damaged. But no items were missing from the house.

Though the culprit was never caught, it was believed that the attack on the F-5 was perpetrated by a previous Bill Monroe lover who was jilted. She knew what would hurt him the most, and that was destroying the Gibson F-5. But it wasn’t so badly damaged that Gibson wasn’t able to repair it once again, and put it back into commission where the mandolin remained until Bill Monroe passed away on September 9th, 1996 at the age of 84.

Bill Monroe is gone, but the mandolin and the memories he made with it still remain. When you have an instrument such as Bill Monroe’s Gibson F-5 mandolin that acted like an extension of himself in physical form, it helps ensure the memory of the man will never go away.

Yes, there are many other iconic instruments in country music history—the Martin D-28 of Hank Williams, Willie Nelson’s “Trigger.” But there is only one instrument that built and entirely new genre. And that’s Bill Monroe’s Master Loar F-5 mandolin.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ricky Skaggs played the legendary Gibson F-5 for charity.

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