In the early 1920’s, as the mandolin craze started to give way to the popularity of the banjo, the Gibson company introduced a new mandolin family instrument they dubbed the “TL” or Tenor Lute. It combined a standard mandola body form (except it had F-holes like the Style H5 mandola), with a 4-string tenor banjo neck. It had a typical banjo peghead and tuners, and was meant to be tuned like a tenor banjo. It was an obvious attempt to attract the growing banjo market. The 1924 Gibson Catalog “O” stated: “A new instrument, with the single stringing scale, tuning and technique of the tenor-banjo, but with the tone of the guitar magnified several hundred per cent’.
The new model with it’s new sound never caught on with players, and in my own experience it only takes a few minutes of playing to understand why. Though they are perfectly fine instruments, made with the usual high quality materials and workmanship Gibson was famous for, they have none of the volume or twang of the banjo, nor any of the deep power or charm of the mandola. I can only imagine them being used as a kind of practice banjo, since the volume of the TL was quite low compared to a typical tenor banjo.
The most interesting thing about the Gibson “TL”s is that they were built during Gibson’s golden age when Lloyd Loar was signing F5s in the next room. They are quite rare, but these days they can generally be had for less money than their mandolin family stablemates. They also tend to be in immaculate shape since they were seldom played. The boon for the vintage mandolin enthusiast is that have a perfectly good 90 year-old Gibson mandola soundbox with a yummy “master model’ label inside..AND!…With the right skillset they can be converted to a wonderful vintage Gibson mandola. Here’s a look at my conversion of a 1924 Gibson TL to a mandola with 16 1/2″ scale. Slightly longer than the typical 15.5” Gibson of the day for a little more string-tension and volume.