The Harp Guitars of Joseph
by Gregg Miner
This page will endeavor to shed some light on the little-known Bohmann, but in particular, the wide array of harp guitars he produced.
Worlds Greatest Musical Instrument Manufacturer"
This is how Joseph H. Bohmann described himself, and repeatedly. How much of it was hype, ego or truth is difficult to say. There aren’t many people today comparing his guitars and mandolins directly against the Bohmann competitors of the period, especially the other Chicago firms, such as Lyon & Healy. But compare directly Bohmann did, and he constantly offered “challenges” to all other manufacturers to prove him wrong (one such offer specifies $125,000 as a “reward” – for such “proof,” I suppose!). He does provide a lengthy list of international awards he received for his instruments – which instruments are unclear, though he states “violins, mandolins, guitars and zithers” (has anyone ever seen a Bohmann zither?). Writer Michael Wright mentions that Bohmann’s “Perfect Artist violins won a number of international honors.”
Little is known of Bohmann’s career,
and much of it is conflicting. It is thought by many that he was one of
the first, if not the first, to build
mandolins in America, or at least, Chicago. These were the
Neapolitan-style bowlback mandolins, which Bohmann made in many grades. Most
examples known today are rather pedestrian, but high-end and
“presentation” Bohmann mandolins and guitars also exist. Michael
Wright states that Bohmann was an early mandolin supplier for both Wards
and Sears (1894). As is the case with nearly every Chicago musical
instrument maker, there are rumors and clues about the Larson brothers
building instruments for Bohmann, but so far, nothing conclusive.
According to Wright, Bohmann
“was born in Neumarkt (Bohemia), Czechoslovakia in 1848. He later
emigrated to America, and then founded Bohmann´s American Musical
Industry in 1878.” Wright gives Bohmann’s instrument building
dates as “1878 to the late 1920s,” while Michael Holmes of Mugwumps
Regardless, it’s unclear exactly when Bohmann died, or what happened
to the business when he did. He would have been 68 when the last patent
was issued in 1916 – a ripe old age for a guitar maker at that time.
Even more unclear is the fate of the factory and instruments after Bohmann’s death. Stories abound from many different sources, but the facts are inconsistent. Apparently, the building was locked up for forty or so years! Eventually, in the ‘70s or ‘80s (again, unclear), the factory was opened by the inheritors – by some accounts, a Bohmann grandson. There are tales of instruments “discovered in the attic of the old factory building in Chicago where (Bohmann) had his shop…several instruments in completed and near completed stages, wrapped up in World War II newspapers.” The fellow who obtained the catalog featured below originally said that “the catalog came from the factory in the early 1970s, where I saw all of the old instruments, and also high end Bohmanns at a Bohmann family members house." This person has a much more detailed, remarkable story that I'm attempting to sort out.
So far, the catalog seems to be about the only history salvaged from the incredible "time-capsule" resource. Hopefully, others with additional material and clues may discover this page and write in to share them.
UPDATE! March, 2006: Another researcher friend managed to locate some of the unfinished guitars, including four new harp guitars! See page bottom.
|This Bohmann label includes all the awards he won up through 1895. A later advertisement yields this list:|
1900 seems to be the last year for awards.
|The earliest harp guitar of Bohmann’s is this unusual Form 4 instrument, with harp strings only on the body. They are strung on both sides to form two banks of chordal arpeggiated strings – nominally the I and IV chords. The instrument is an exact interpretation of an 1890 patent by one Arling Shaeffer, of Denver, Colorado. Shaeffer apparently granted license to both Bohmann and Lyon & Healy to build them, as evident from the label inside the Bohmann and this ad (graciously provided by Michael Holmes) depicting a seemingly identical instrument as a Washburn (L&H) brand.|
|Bohmann||Shaeffer patent||Washburn ad||Washburn|
The next two instruments are pictured in a rare Bohmann catalog from 1899, graciously shared by Bohmann collector and historian Rich Myers. The undated catalog contains several clues that pinpoint 1899 accurately. However, the instruments are from 1895 (or possibly even earlier). The first is claimed to be “the first contra bass harp guitar made in America,” built for “the eminent Guitar Virtuoso, Sig. Emilio Calamara, of Chicago.” It is clearly a custom instrument, with a distinctive headstock and bridge. Other than a salesman’s exaggerated claims, I’m not sure what Bohmann’s boast means. Three earlier harp guitars had been patented in America - Hansen and Dahlman in 1891, and Almcrantz in July 1895 (though Bohmann may have beat Almcrantz). Perhaps Bohmann is referring to it as the first contra bass harp guitar, because it had 12 sub-bass strings (the previous three instruments had only 4), or perhaps because of the double neck design. Ignoring “contra bass” for a moment (and readers know by now how I abhor that term), it’s important to note that Bohmann is calling it a harp guitar (Hansen was the first, in his 1891 patent).
|Bohmann's first harp guitar had 12
chromatic sub-bass strings and was built for Signor Emilio Calamara, a
Chicago guitar virtuoso. The image is a page from the 1899 catalog, but
the guitar would have been built in 1895 or earlier. Note that Calamara appears to have removed the
lowest two bass strings – could he be anticipating Gibson’s switch
from 12 to 10 chromatic strings?!
Here is a better image of Calamara and his Bohmann from an 1897 sheet music cover.
The second instrument is presumably a production
instrument and would have been built sometime before the December 1895
Chicago fire (as the photo appeared in Music Trades magazine on
Jan 4, 1896). It is also a 12 sub-bass model, with a simpler headstock
(though with elaborately inlaid neck!), and similar bridge. Bohmann
himself is holding the instrument. Both instruments have “harp” pin
tuners for the sub-bass strings, and somewhat blunt, unappealing bass
The harp guitars listed in this 1899 catalog were all offered as “made to order,” in a variety of models (degrees of quality), in both 12 bass and 6 bass versions. They were advertised as “positively the largest guitar ever made.” With a width of 19 inches and body depth of six inches, this may not have been a false claim!
As so often happens with harp guitars, the tone is
inevitably compared to an actual harp (presumably orchestral) – in
this case, Bohmann claims that Calamara directly compared his instrument
to two harps played at once (winning the contest, of course)!
|Now things get interesting....
Here is Signor Calamara again, with yet another strange harp guitar - pictured in a May Flower catalog from c.1901 (this equally rare catalog, kindly submitted by Jim Garber, came to light a few months after the Bohmann). Note "Harp Guitars Made to Order" at page bottom. Is it a May Flower harp guitar? Read the confusing text and see what you think. As I read it, Calamara, also a mandolin teacher, is simply endorsing the company's mandolins, which he recommends to his students. They just happened to use a publicity shot of him with one of his harp guitars (unlikely the harp guitarist would have in his press kit a pose with a mandolin) - in this case, what I would definitely peg as yet another strange Bohmann.
|Note the strange shortened bass peghead, which is similar (perhaps identical) to Bohmann's own above. Most builders did not provide a full 12 sub-basses - here we see that Calamara has it now fully strung with sub-basses, unlike his previous specimen.||But the most interesting feature is the body! It sure looks like an early precursor to the sloped shoulder design Bohmann would patent 15 years later (see final specimens below). We don't know when he actually introduced the slope shoulders.|
The Steinway Mandolin Orchestra
Chicago Mandolin Orchestra and Bohmann's Quartett, Signor Ernest Libonati, Director
|The 1899 Bohmann catalog also contains images of several other harp guitars that share features with Chicago’s Lyon & Healy instruments. Invariably, they are pictured in mandolin groups with the caption “Bohmann instruments” – so one never knows specifically which instruments in the photo are truly Bohmann’s. However, I suspect that they all may be, though the left-most instrument does seem to be a Lyon & Healy by all appearances. But the catalog gives specific reference to a rivalry between Bohmann and Lyon & Healy (a "blind test" comparing their bowlback mandolins, with Bohmann's the "winner by a mile"). I can't imagine the egotistical Bohmann claiming in his catalog that the pictured instruments are all his, if one of them were a Lyon & Healy. And yet two clearly have Lyon & Healy’s early American Conservatory metal bracket/bass tuner arrangement, though the bridge on one is very "Bohmann-esque.” So how did these makers share ideas, designs or at least hardware? What a puzzle for guitar historians! Due to their presence in the 1899 catalog, the five harp guitars in these three photographs were obviously made in, or prior to, 1899.|
|Suspected Bohmann harp guitars. The one on the left may an original Lyon & Healy, or it could be Bohamnn copy. The middle instrument could likewise be Lyon & Healy copy, this time with a Bohmann-designed bridge. The third instrument likely a Bohmann due to a distinctive bridge, and the fact that it ahs an unuual number of sub-bass strings (8).||Lyon & Healy (Washburn / American Conservatory)||Bohmann?|
|The bridge was a dead give-away that this was also a
Bohmann, but it is still nice to have corroboration. The letter to Mr.
Bohmann from the group specifically mentions their "Bohmann
Once again, the sub-bass headstock is unlike any other Bohmann harp guitars....
|...or it was until this specimen showed up on eBay in August, 2006!
I'm convinced that this specimen was originally very similar to the specimen above. When you look at the close-ups, you'll see that the 6-string headstock is the same. The bass extension on the surviving specimen looks like it may have had chunks broken off of it, then later smoothed and painted at these breaks. Note the same 8 pin tuner configuration, and how the bass block is a carved piece that lays on top of the 6-string headstock (in order to access the tuners). You can also see what looks like the mark from the original angled bridge.
The label in this second image mentions only the 1889 Paris award. This is a good clue to dating, but not precise. Bohmann's next award was in Chicago in 1893, so it is tempting to think that this guitar was thus built in or before 1893, or surely Bohmann would have advertisied it. However, until we find additional label examples, we can only assume it predates the next known label of post-1895. In other words, so far, no label listing the 1893 award in addition, or the 1893 and 1894 awards in addition to the 1899 has been seen. Bohmann may simply have been using up the old post-1899 labels until he printed another batch that included every award from 1899 through 1895. This instrument also has tuners with a Dec 8, 1891 patent date, so odds are it was built after that. Thus, at this point we can deduce that the guitar was built within the 1892 to 1895 timeframe.
|No sooner did I finish posting the previous specimen, than this
one turned up in a flea market, and I was able to obtain it for
study (thanks to the previous owner, Jeff Nygaard).
It appears virtually identical to the above instrument, except that the main neck is centered on the body, rather than offset as in the other two.
The remains of the label show it to be exactly the same as the previous instrument's, and it also has the Dec 8, 1891 patent tuners - thus, we can assume that this instrument was built within the same four years.
Before I have this fascinating historical instrument restored, I want to make sure to document its present condition, which appears to be completely original and in surprisingly good shape.
Let's begin with the headstock Bohmann begins with his classic pre-1900s headstock shape, and then glues to it - onto the front - an elaborate carved bass extension affair. This piece, contiguous with the neck, consists of three laminated pieces of maple, with an Brazilian rosewood veneer. It appears to be exactly the same as the specimen in the historical photo. The eight sub-bass strings are tuned with zither pins, and pass over a slotted screw to act as nut and spacing/height guide. The neck attaches to the body with a shallow butt joint, rather than a heel (as in the previous specimen). What is quite strange is that this arrangement pitches the bass strings forward a rather significant amount. This makes it virtually impossible to see the fingers of the left hand on the neck - something nearly all harp guitars manage to avoid pretty well.
From the back, we can see why Bohmann had to pitch his bass neck so far forward. Rather than come up with variations to the standard headstock or tuners to accommodate a bass extension, he was obviously committed to using his patented tuners. Note the carved-out area so that one has room to turn them!
|The bridge design is ingenious and simplicity itself. It appears to be what he used on most of his early instruments, until a new design appeared in his 1899 catalog. The (rosewood) bridge is glued down to the finished top with the two sets of screws holding it in place. Strangely, on this instrument there is no bridge plate whatsoever! The screws are then adjusted to handle the strings. I strung up a couple dummy strings just to figure this out, but it sure works! The top row of screws are positioned directly above and slightly to the right of the slots cut into the bottom of the bridge, and spaced as in a normal guitar saddle. The lower row is offset slightly. Ball end steel strings are used, as can be seen in many of the above historical photos (does this mean Bohmann was one of the first to build for and champion steel strings? Yes, almost certainly!). The mechanics are that the lip of the round-head screw catches the string to hold it down within the slot of the upper screw, which acts as the saddle. Why not? Think about it - you'd never have problems with string action again - you can raise or lower each individual string as needed!|
|This version of label states "Joseph Bohmann was the only one who received first prize at Exposition in Paris, France, in 1889 on his Violins, - Zithers, Guitars & Mandolins, 306 State St. Chicago" This instrument is much smaller - 14-1/2" wide - than the huge 19" wide models Bohmann would offer in 1899. The scale (to center of "saddle screws") is about 25". In the third image in the composite shot above, you can easily see how far the bass neck is angled forward. The back and sides are made of Brazilian rosewood, yet the back also has an additional layer of rosewood veener over it. The specific varnish he used has turned the wood very dark. The fingerboard is Brazilian rosewood, while the bass maple neck is covered with ebony (or possibly grenadillo?). The top is spruce.|
|And now back to the May Flower catalog...|
|In it, I was amazed to find a second image
of the Steinway Mandolin Orchestra pictured in the Bohmann catalog - now
A. Benson's Celebrated Mandolin Orchestra of Chicago (apparently, the group
changed their name during the photo shoot, after some of them switched
places)! Our same three harp guitarists hold the same three
instruments, the photo showing somewhat better resolution, especially of
the interesting 4-on-a-plate tuners for the unique 8 sub-bass neck.
Unfortunately, we have no more detail on the questionable Lyon &
|The next two instruments are suspect. They were presented as Bohmanns, and I'm assuming the sellers saw a label or some other clue - but I have no way of verifying either. If true, the first instrument could have been another generic model patterned after the many Chicago maker’s double necks, and built anywhere from 1900 to 1920.||
|Perhaps the most famous Bohmann instruments are
the “sympathetic string” instruments. Though most owners or writers
have referred to these internal sympathetics as "strings," I'm
positive that they
are all, in fact, the metal rods specified in Bohmann’s patent # 1,128,217 of
1915. The rods were stiff, made out of specific materials (for each
described note!) and tuned with wing nuts to these specific pitches just
like a string. There was also a damping bar, activated via a push button
in the guitar top. This invention was applied to mandolins and standard
guitars, of which some examples are known. Three harp guitars of this
type are known, which all appear to be from the 1914-1916 timeframe,
as they include all the features included in Bohmann's next
patent, # 1,179,499 of 1916. These include the sloped shoulders to provide “cutaway”
access to higher frets, a bizarre hand rest, and the incredibly
thick convex top and back (part of the earlier patent also).
Frank Ford has presented one rare example (far left) on Frets.com. And of course, many of us remember the outrageous double necks - the first from Tom Wheeler's American Guitars, the second from the book of Scott Chinery’s collection. Again, although c.1910 has been given as a date (and not impossible), I suspect they coincided more with the final patent date, thus c.1915. Or do they? (see below)
This harp guitar has 8 strings - the lowest 2 lie off the frets. It has/had 6 sympathetic metal rods.
See the rest of Frank Ford's great photos and comments - including a look inside! - at Frets.com.
|This example has 7 strings on the neck, 12 sub-bass strings, and 7 sympathetic internal rods.||This monster has 10 strings on the neck (the low 4 are doubled, so it is a standard 6-course neck) and 12 sub-bass strings, with 7 sympathetic rods inside!|
|See also Featured Harp Guitar of the Month!|
|UPDATE! March, 2006: The 4 instruments below were finally located last Fall by Bohmann researcher, Bruce Hammond. Part of the "lost factory" sale, they are just begging for better photographs and more information. There is also a report of a 5th instrument in a Midwest guitar store.|
|This instrument just needs a screwed-on Bohmann
bridge. Note the distinctive sub-bass headstock - this guitar
appears to be a duplicate of Bohmann's own personal harp guitar
above! But notice something else...it has 6 internal sound
rods! A couple early mandolins have also been seen with the rods -
so it seems they were used well before the 1915 patent. Or this
might be a later retrofit of an older, unsold and uncompleted
A extremely curious feature is the dramatic sunburst on the back and sides (click on image). Was Bohmann doing this well before Gibson or anyone else? If you think it's because it's a later instrument, look again at the second harp guitar in the 1895 Joseph Bohmann photo above. It looks like the exact same sunburst! Folks, this is an unprecedented early example of a quality sunburst finish - perhaps one of the very first.
And another new Bohmann model discovered!
|And this one takes the cake. The "gothic
torture device" tuners of the later tone-rod instruments above, on
an early flat-top jumbo body like Bohmann's instrument. And what's
with that bridge? An original (later) Bohmann bridge for sure, but
replacing something that was previously there below for the bass
strings. This specimen has no internal tone rods.
Note that the first three "lost" instruments have the early, gaudy (I would say "crude) pearl inlays. This one has the dots and circles like the three, presumably later, tone-rod instruments above.
UPDATE! August,2016: New Feature:
Bohmann's Contra Bass Harp Guitars: Gargantuan and Groundbreaking!
|As with all articles within Harpguitars.net, I consider
this a “work in progress” and encourage all to submit photos,
information or theories, to continually update and improve our harp
I am indebted to Rich Myers, Bruce Hammond, Michael Holmes at Mugwumps, Frank Ford at Frets.com, Jim Garber, The Chinery Collection, 150 Years of American Guitars, and Tom Wheeler's American Guitars. Other sources: Robert Hartman, Michael Wright, Fine Guitar Consultants, Jeff Nygaard.
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