Orville’s Clients

1913 Bistolfi with harpguitar
Joseph Bistolfi and his replacement Gibson harp guitar, 1912.

Joseph Bistolfi, a touring musician born in Italy and living in the United States, was one of Orville’s best clients. He commissioned his first Gibson, an 18 string harp guitar for which he paid $150.00, in November 1900.

The instrument body was made of Brazilian walnut, the top ebonized Washington cedar. It also had intricate mother of pearl inlays. This harp guitar took Orville 30 days of continuous work to complete at his East Main Street studio and was reportedly the seventh of its kind that he had made.

Unfortunately, the harp guitar in the photo is not the one commissioned in 1900. Mr. Bistolfi lost his cache of musical instruments along with all his worldly belongings in a Pennsylvania boarding house fire in 1905. More than likely his Orville made harp guitar was amongst those destroyed. Having returned to his room late at night, he was able to warn all other residents in time to get everyone out safely. The boarding house was reduced to ashes.

Even though the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company had been making instruments for about two years by 1905, I seriously doubt that Mr. Bistolfi would have accepted a replacement piece that wasn’t made exclusively by Orville himself. I feel Orville would have also insisted upon it. Gregg Miner has dated the one in the photo to early 1906.


2 thoughts on “Orville’s Clients

  1. Best client? How many Orville pieces did he commission between his first in 1900 till Orville was done building around 1906? Were they all destroyed?

    My thoughts on the replacement harp guitar are that if was an original Orville built/labeled instrument that it would have been cherished and passed down through the years. It would have been documented and more than likely still around, unless another “act of God” took it out. With the date of the fire and Orville’s career span I’m going with it being a company made instrument.


  2. The reports on the 1905 fire said Bistolfi lost “a number of valuable musical instruments.” I believe he also had an Orville made mandolin. It may have been lost in the fire and replaced or been purchased afterwards, I don’t know. In a 1906 letter to Orville he wrote “Proud and delighted with the instruments he has made for me…” So it was at least three; the original harp guitar, the replacement harp guitar, and a mandolin.

    Bistolfi is the only musician that we have documentation for a jam session at Orville’s studio. I don’t know if Orville took part, but I’m guessing that being the veteran vaudeville performer that Orville was, he probably couldn’t have resisted.

    Bistolfi also sat in as a guest musician with local Kalamazoo mandolin orchestras when he was in town. The only other person that we have documentation of such a close working relationship with Orville is John W. McLouth.
    Others may have purchased Orville’s, hung out and jammed with him, and kept in personal contact with him – I just don’t have documentation of it.

    As far as I know, Bistolfi wasn’t married and didn’t have children up until 1916 when he disappears from the touring circuit (and other records). My guess is that if he passed away at that time, his fellow band mates may have ended up with his Gibson’s.


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