Orville Gibson started making mandolins in 1894 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1902 the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co, Ltd. was founded to market his instruments, but he ended his personal involvement in the company a year later.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Gibson company was responsible for many innovations in guitar design, and became the leading manufacturer of arch-top guitars, paticularly the L-5 model. In 1936 they introduced their first "Electric Spanish" model, the ES-150, generally recognized as the first commercially feasible electric guitar.
In 1952, Gibson launched a solid-bodied guitar designed by the popular guitarist Les Paul. The late 1950s saw a number of innovative new designs including the eccentrically-shaped Gibson Explorer and Flying V and the semi-acoustic ES-335, and the introduction of the "humbucker" pickup. The Les Paul was discontinued in favour of the Gibson SG in 1961, but returned in the late 1960s after it was taken up by players such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green. The Les Paul later became very popular with heavy metal guitarists.
Production of Gibson guitars was shifted from Kalamazoo to Nashville, Tennessee during the 1970s, which also spawned the Heritage Guitars company. The company also makes Gibson-branded amplifiers and a number of other musical equipment brands.
Other guitar and bass manufacturers which are owned by Gibson include Epiphone, Kramer, and Steinberger, as well as Tobias which specializes in bass guitars, Baldwin which makes pianos, and Singerland drums.
Today, Gibson guitars are well known for making top quality guitars - but at a quite hefty price. Therefore, their subsidiary company, Epiphone, manufactures less expensive copies of their best-selling guitars, but with lower-quality material and craftsmanship.