Johnny Gimble’s fiddle and bow

A legendary fiddle for a legendary fiddle player

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by Tom Wancho, Exhibit Planner

Western swing icon Johnny Gimble played this fiddle for over 60 years. His contributions to country music earned him countless accolades and the undying devotion of musicians and fans alike.  

Johnny Gimble (1926–2015) was born in Tyler, Texas and learned how to play the fiddle and mandolin at a young age, beginning his professional music career while still a teenager. His musical repertoire was one suited for country dances — waltzes and reels with a touch of rag. When Gimble heard the improvisational jazz-tinged style known as western swing, he found his musical calling.

Gimble acquired this fiddle in Germany while serving in WWII, where he used his off hours to continue honing his musical skills. Before joining the army, a mentor taught Gimble how to improvise music. He was told to practice until he could play whatever he could hum. In the evenings, stationed in Salzburg, he would practice by playing whatever he heard on the radio or could hum in his head. In 1949, after returning from the war, Gimble joined Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys, the predominate western swing band of the era. Gimble played mandolin and fiddle in Wills’s band. After hearing a viola used in western swing music, Gimble was drawn to the lower sounds made possible by the viola’s lower range. He had a violin maker in Dallas add a low 'C' string to the fiddle — the first of its kind. The extra chord created a lower, rounder, louder sound.

"He loved the sound and feel of that fiddle," said his son, Dick Gimble. "When he lived in Tennessee he was late for a session gig in Nashville and forgot his car keys in the house. He set the fiddle and speaker down near the back of the car, ran inside, grabbed his keys and without thinking, backed over both of them in his Pontiac. Dad was crushed."

Though he was soon sent fiddles from around the country by loyal fans who had heard of his loss, Gimble located a Nashville craftsman who mended his fiddle together, piece by piece. Not visible to visitors, the phrase "Repaired by Joe Red Hayes, 2/13/70" is etched inside. Hayes’s work enabled hundreds of thousands of fans to continue enjoying the sounds of Johnny Gimble. Because of his remarkable ability, he performed with the very best in country music, including stars like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Dolly Parton, and George Strait.

Gimble made his first appearance on Austin City Limits in 1979 playing this fiddle and bow with the Nashville Super Pickers, one of Nashville's most sought after session bands. He appeared on the show numerous times in the following decades and currently holds the record as second-most frequent musician on ACL. Terry Likona, the show’s executive producer, exclaimed, "Aside from being a [Bob Wills] Texas Playboy, he was the most renowned country and western swing fiddler – ever! He played with heart and soul and had an infectious spirit and sense of adventure – in both his music and personality."

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Johnny Gimble’s fiddle and bow Artifact from Austin
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