10/08/2011

c.1920 Oscar Schmidt Chitarra Battente Italian Guitar





Rare bird alert! I've only seen (personally) one other example of this instrument.

This is what's called a chitarra battente ("beating guitar") and it's a folk guitar from southern Italy. Typically these are pounded on behind singers and strung in a re-entrant higher register tuning of ADGBE... which is guitar minus a low E. I believe all plain strings are typically used, yielding a lower B or G course than the D&A courses.

....however... I've strung it as a 12 string guitar minus the low E, with octaves on the first 3 courses. This makes it conveniently useful for folks walking into the shop to try it out and also means I can retune it to GDGBD which is an old blues open G tuning that Mr. Keith Richards has borrowed for the length of his career. It's also the same as 5-string banjo tuning (essentially) and as Mr. Richards would tell you, kicks butt.

The story on this particular guitar is that it was made in Jersey City, NJ in the Oscar Schmidt factory around 1920 or so. There were tons of Italian immigrants working at OS so it's not that far-fetched that they'd make a guitar like this. It's built in the traditional style with a ribbed, bent-arched back (sort of like some Mexican folk instruments, some flat-back lutes, and many Renaissance guitar-like instruments) and a mandolin-style, canted flat top -- with a bend right behind the bridge which adds tremendous strength.


Like most OS products from the time, the build is very lightweight but also very sturdy and workmanly, and produces a beautiful mellow and sweet tone though with a good amount of volume. The top is solid spruce and the back, sides, and neck look like dark-stained solid birch to me, with strips of rosewood or ebony between the back ribs. The fretboard is thin and rosewood and bears nickel-silver frets.


Original rosewood nut as well.


Only 10 frets on this instrument and the fretboard is flush with the top.

My work on this instrument included: gluing up most of the back/side seams as well as recutting the side/back overlap to fit flush and masking that alteration, a neck reset, fret dress, replacement bridge (original was too low after the reset), cleaning, and setup.


It's a darn cool looking instrument. It's a shame the center rose is missing, though!


The two smaller soundhole roses are still intact -- after re-gluing them -- and these are made out of paper and recessed in lute fashion. The rosettes are decals in true Oscar Schmidt tradition!


New rosewood mando-style bridge. Fun decal below the cant!



See how pretty that arched ribbed back is? I love it. It also makes this instrument unusually deep in its mid-section, but it's still quite comfortable to hold.


Original tuners, all lubed and ready to go.


Neck join is good and sturdy.

Also regarding the neck -- it's a nice D-shaped neck with a sort of gentle wideness at the nut. The neck is actually quite a bit more comfortable (though deeper as you go up the neck) to my hands than more modern Martin 12 strings. It just fits nicely under the fingers methinks.










Simple mando-style tailpiece.

Sound on this is full, lush, and warm. Very sweet and inspiring for instrumental pieces. I'm very curious to hear what it'd sound like in traditional stringing with all plain strings -- probably super jangly. If one searches "chitarra battente" on YouTube you can pull up some good videos of a more traditional stringing.

I think of the tone of this instrument as very similar to mandolin-ish richness with a sort of subdued presence.

1 comment:

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