World-renowned luthier John Gilbert passed away at his home in Woodside, CA on February 28, 2012. John was the recipient of the GFA Hall of Fame Industry Leadership Award in 2010. He will be remembered for the meticulous and innovative work with which both Gilbert guitars and tuners were created.
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 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. 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 are known as some of the finest in the industry.
A memorial service will be held on March 10, 2012 in Menlo Park. Further details regarding a Celebration of Life event are forthcoming.