Ephemera: Guy Plays the Dola (c.1894)

Could it be that this fellow is playing the elusive bowlback mandola? This eBay grab was inscribed: Guy Wallace Morton, June '94 (1894) and the seller stated it was from Owego, NY. Very cool.


1910s Vracas Bouzouki

A customer sent this in to me for repair and boy it sure was an interesting journey! He was under the impression that it was originally a mandocello. Personally... I don't think so. It has a 1 1/8" nut width (quite narrow to fit heavy gauges), a slender neck, 17th fret neck joint (most bowlback 'cellos are 12 or 10 fret joints to allow for a larger body), and a soundbox hardly larger than a bowlback mandola's. Not to mention... after testing out a pair of low C strings I decided this would simply not have a good response at that low a pitch... so I strung it Celtic bouzouki-style GDAE with very light gauges (32w-9) and even so the neck adds just a touch of relief tuned to pitch. This makes it unsuitable to the gauges required on a proper mandocello.

Aha... and a quick browsing turns up an Epiphone-made (well, pre-Epi) bouzouki from around the same time with a nice writeup at the Nat'l Music Museum. These two are very close in design style. Aha #2.. a bit more browsing turns up this page with plenty of period examples of 8-tuner instruments strung as 6-string (trichordo) bouzoukis... and as 8-stringers. Interesting.

The label in the soundhole declares ours shown here made in the Vracas workshop in New York which dates it somewhere between 1900 and 1920, more than likely. That's what all the hardware and general build style dates it to as well.


1936 Gibson-made Kalamazoo KG-14 00-size Guitar

Gibson-made, ladder-braced, low-brow 30s sunburst looks... there's a reason why these guitars are so extremely popular these days: they're killer for old-time, blues, and folk stylings either fingerpicked or flatpicked and the Gibson build means they're built to last. Can't argue with that!

This is a consignor's instrument and I was pretty excited when this arrived and I found the only work necessary to be cleaning, leveling/dressing the frets, installation of a new bone saddle, and a good setup. It's currently rocking a set of lights (12s) and feels great (1/16" treble, 3/32" bass action). The neck has no warp, the frets are almost full height, there are zero cracks, the original tuners work fine... there's really nothing to complain about. Even the replacement pins (pastic and black) are at least the same color as the originals would've been.

1920s Unis & Co Hawaiian Soprano Ukulele

I hadn't heard of Unis & Co ukes but this one is legitimately a Hawaiian-made instrument. Interestingly enough, it's not made from koa as far as I can tell... this stuff looks like mahogany to me, though it does have some nice light flame and curl to it throughout. Mahogany is curious for a Hawaiian instrument but there are plenty of examples extant from the time. Perhaps it's something like a mainland returns to island connection where the market asked for mahogany...?

In any case this came in for consignment and before putting it up I went over it, leveled and dressed the frets, lightly shaved the (replacement, nicely-made?) bridge, and set it all up for 1/16" action at the 12th fret (and, yes, I replaced the 12th fret which was missing with some vintage fret stock I had in my parts bin). She sounds good! -- and has that distinctly sparkly Hawaiian flavor and feel.

1950s Sorkin-made Bobby Henshaw Baritone Ukulele

Bobby Henshaw baris don't pop up all the time but they are frequent visitors to eBay. This one is owned by a local friend and it's going up on consignment so I got it ready to go: seam reglues, fret level/dress, proper setup, and new strings and... good for the road once again! It plays well and sounds sweet and relaxed.

You can read all you want about Bobby over here but these mysterious ukes were apparently not made by any of the Chicago "Big Three" as one would might assume. At first glance they look a lot like 50s Vega products but the build quality is not the same: it's more on the Harmony level (still good, though, but not as loud or big a tone) but with a nicer aesthetic appeal.

1940s Harmony-made Spruce/Mahogany Soprano Ukulele

This soprano uke conforms to most specifications for a typical Harmony-made instrument from the late 30s through the 40s except that... it's got a spruce top! That's strange in my book as almost all Harmony uke products were either all-birch or all-mahogany in nature. It's also got the cool 40s-style tortoise binding on the top edge which is offset by a fun checker soundhole binding.

I'd set this up for its owner a while ago (very quickly) but this time around it's come in for resale so I cleated the bigger hairline crack below the bridge, leveled and dressed the frets, reseated the frets with a bit of super-glue drizzle and wood dust, checked it all out, and set it up to play on-the-dot with 1/16" action at the 12th fret. It has a sweet, clear, vibrant tone which is very similar to a usual airy-sounding mellow Harmony uke but with added sparkle and chime. I like!

1930s "Mess Kit" Resonator Banjo Ukulele

The owner of this uke calls this a "mess kit" banjo uke because of the big old "dish" chrome resonator attachment. In fact -- the rim is also all-metal and plated as well. It's a weird instrument because the rim and resonator attachment are very much in the vein of old "Maxitone" banjo ukes (right down to the "U-king" tailpiece on this model) but the neck is almost home-made in comparison (but not). It's certainly "home-finished" in a drippy natural finish.

It came in decently setup (I'd done a quick setup for its owner a couple years ago) and cleared up some overtone issues with the head as well as gave it a fresh setup. It's loud, has a good plain sort of tone without a lot of extra ring, and has a thin-but-wide (side to side) neck feel which reminds me of Hawaiian soprano instruments. The only downsides to this little screamer are some inaccurate fret placements (which mean it's not pitch-correct everywhere on the neck) and a very light bit of relief in the neck. Still... it plays at 1/16" action at the 12th fret and cleanly which is "spot on" as far as setup goes.


Up for grabs?

I put a couple "personal collection" instruments up today... the 2009 Einolf I posted on recently (I have a very similar guitar already so I decided it's a bit redundant for the collection) and also my most recent prototype fretted banjo bass (at cost). I'm starting on another secret oddball bass project and so it's up for grabs to offset the costs associated with getting that going!

c.1985 Jim Palmer Acoustic Bass Guitar

This is a friend's bass in for a bit of setup work. At the same time I found a couple loose braces which were vibrating painfully and corrected those as well. It's a strange, curious instrument and bears "Jim Palmer, Lake Wales, Florida, 1985" in pencil on the backstrip. As an acoustic bass guitar sound-wise it's a step up from something like a Martin ABG but it's certainly no competition volume-wise for an upright bass, electric bass, or my recent banjo bass. It does have a good amount of warmth and could carry just fine playing acoustically alongside a couple other flattop guitars but it would struggle in any other situation. Maybe it's best use would be for recording or popped in front of a mic?


c.2011 The Loar LH-300-VS Carved-top Guitar

This guitar came by way of trade and after a fret level/dress, minor bridge work, and setup it's now ready to go back into the world. I wasn't wowed by the factory setup but after work it plays spot-on and has a good, crunchy, creamy carved-top L-48/50 style sound. If clarity and a dark-tinged compressed sound are your thing... this has it. I was suitably impressed once I'd gone through it... as it gets really close to the old-timey Gibson sound (albeit perhaps not as barky and with a bit less complexity).

A funny other bit? It has a feel like a 30s Gibson, too, with a medium V-shaped neck and thinner old-style fretwire. It's a bit like being in bizarro land for me as it has that feel and most of the sound but the finish and style is definitely your average Asian-import glossy standard.

c.2006 Taylor 110E Dreadnought Guitar

A buddy of mine picked this up used over at Blue Mountain Guitar in New Hampshire and brought it to me for a setup. It needed a bit more than that: the frets also frets got leveled and the bridge and saddle got a light shave and new string ramps, too. I then strung it up with 11s (my friend is an electric guy, mostly), tweaked the truss, and out popped a nice player with... dreadnought sound.

It's pretty hard to knock a 110. At about $600 new they're a heck of a guitar and confirm my general opinion that decent tone is generally supplied by a solid top and good build on a light bracing pattern. Who cares that the back and sides are laminate sapele? It sounds... just fine! ...though I'm spoiled by the more individual sound of older, stranger guitars so it's not a tone that I appreciate as much as I used to.


Another Nutty Week

Wow... go away for a couple days on family affairs and the world gets crazy! This is just a note to let folks out there know that fun stuff awaits.

It was raining furiously today so tomorrow morning will get you some pics, reviews and clips of a newer Loar archtop guitar as well as a somewhat recent Taylor 110E. Later on in the day I'll be trying to get a bunch of vintage ukes up and on the inventory consigned by my friend Fran of the VT Uke Society.

What else? Upcoming both in repairs and for sale are a variety of x-braced Kay dreadnoughts, Harmony ladder-braced big boys, an old Vracas mandocello (the nearest to the finish line at the moment on the major repairs side), and a nice selection of old 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s smaller-bodied Martin and Gibson guitars.

Other highlights include a horde of Oscar Schmidt, Harmony, and Regal-made 20s parlor guitars and some fun old German trade violins including some bizarre fractional ones.