The Harp Guitars of Joseph Bohmann
by Gregg Miner

Full rewrite June, 2019

 

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c.1890 c.1889-c.1895 c.1894-c.1896 c.1890s-c.190? c.1916

 

"The 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. Most of his biographical and promotional materials seem to have been authored by himself, and some – like his 1899 Paris “Gold Prize” – may be truth-stretching. 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”!). 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.” Writer Michael Wright mentioned 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).

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 gives 1876-1930. 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.

Much of the above historical information is continually being re-written by Bruce Hammond (my colleague and reigning Bohmann expert, who authored the New Grove Dictionary Bohmann entry). I will leave it to him to publish the definitive biography rather than get any of that wrong here!

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 member’s house." Subsequently, a duplicate of the c.1899 catalog was found, along with a c.1896 version, which is extremely similar (the later version having been corrected or clarified in various ways). The harp guitar entries and images of the later catalog are shown here.

Again, Bruce Hammond has followed numerous leads to ferret out all this more recent history, as he tracks down numerous rare specimens (including many unfinished instruments) and documentation. Two huge lots of Bohmann’s papers – all manner of personal letters, documents, circulars and the like – were auctioned off on eBay around 2000. Bruce managed to acquire the second batch, which has proved historically priceless. The larger lot of historical documents remains private and hidden, a terrible waste.


Bohmann Labels

Sadly, dating of Bohmann instruments from his labels remains problematic. He first used labels with no illustration, then added his own image on “authentic” or guaranteed instruments, while adding awards won at various world’s expositions. Curiously, he didn’t add each award as they happened but jumped from a Paris label to a post-1895 with four awards (shown), then eventually the whole list:

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  • Paris 1889
  • Chicago 1893
  • Antwerp 1894
  • Atlanta 1895
  • Omaha 1898
  • Omaha 1899
  • Paris 1900

1900 seems to be the last year for awards.


Bohmann’s Entry Into the World of Harp Guitars

It’s been over a dozen years since I first wrote about our collective knowledge of Joseph Bohmann and his harp guitars. The specifics still elude me, as does the “elephant in the room” question: Did Bohmann make the first “harp guitar” in America? The simple answer is no – C.F. Martin made a couple of 10-string instruments in 1859/1860 (though he didn’t refer to them as harp guitars).

Not counting Martin’s tiny batch of custom instruments, the bigger question occurs in the mid-1880s. As I proposed in our exhibit and accompanying catalog to Floating Strings: The Remarkable Story of the Harp Guitar in America, the Jenkins Co. of Kansas City, MO likely created both the first production harp guitar in America and the term “harp guitar” that we would forever associate with guitars with extra floating strings. They got the idea, not from an existing European instrument, but from a crude original invention by a traveling salesman named J. Hopkins Flinn.


Bohmann had been building mandolins for almost ten years by this time, in the factory co-founded with his father. Though Joseph’s birthplace and teenage European home remains somewhat nebulous, it is likely that he – and certainly, his father – was aware of guitars with extra bass strings when they emigrated. The question is, when did Bohmann build his first one? We don’t know. All we know is that he almost certainly copied the “harp guitar” name from Jenkins by the early 1890s.

It may well be that he Bohmann simply didn’t get a request for an instrument, or think to build one, until he saw Jenkins’ offerings and/or saw Italian instruments in the hands of some of his customers like Emilio Calamara. The latter is the more likely, as Bohmann’s first instruments were “theorbo-style” harp guitars – meaning that their floating basses were attached to a simple (or elaborate) extension of the neck’s headstock, with no second support arm as in the common “double-neck” harp guitars.

In this site’s double feature on Emilio Calamara, Bohmann’s most famous customer, we explore Calamara’s harp guitars and the time frame. Did Bohmann build Calamara’s first or second instrument? If either, then when? The precise answer is still shrouded in mystery.  

Ironically, one of  the earliest known harp guitars of Bohmann’s is another’s invention – an 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 private advertisement (courtesy of Michael Holmes) depicting one of just two Washburn (L&H’s brand) versions produced.


Bohmann

Shaeffer patent

Washburn ad

Washburn

9-string-russell.jpg (280720 bytes) This early Bohmann harp guitar – a 9-string experiment – is surprising crude. The simple, enlarged slab headstock contains 9 holes – 6 for the standard neck and 3 for sub-bass strings. We can surmise this from the offset neck and bridge with its 9 evenly-spaced holes. What’s missing is the nut, which must have been a robust “extension nut” that protruded off to the left to position the 3 floating bass strings.


Chicago Mandolin Orchestra and Bohmann's Quartett, Signor Ernest Libonati, Director. Harp guitarist Emilio Calamara sits at left.

I don’t believe Calamara’s first harp guitar was built by Bohmann – but this one, his second, may well be. It is still a simple instrument, but has a more shapely head and extension to hold 3 sub-bass strings. It was likely built around or before 1890.

This image is from the important Bohmann catalogs, which I reference throughout this article. Though the catalogs date to c.1896 and c.1899 (the latter a "re-issue" with various corrections), images prior to 1896 – up to a decade earlier – appear in these remarkable “time capsules.” Thus, the images, and therefore, history, are hard to pin down to a precise date.


From there, we jump to his incredible 9-string. Bohmann was building fine violins and mandolins, but still, this elaborate and stunning carved headstock is almost certainly someone else’s work. The solid mother-of-pearl fretboard and decorative rosewood bridge are unique as well. This instrument has the Paris award label, which would date it from c.1889-c.1894.

These are so far the only Bohmann harp guitars that do not have a second “neck” or support arm.



Bohmann Mandolin Club of Elyria, Ohio 

We now progress to Bohmann's "double-neck" harp guitars. Of course, the "bass neck" is not a playing neck, only a support structure. 

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 contra-bass guitar."

However, once again, the sub-bass headstock is unlike any other Bohmann harp guitars.

Happily, one turned up for study:

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I was able to obtain it, eventually selling it, after an imperfect restoration. I will say this – it was one of the most live and sonorous harp guitars I have had the pleasure of hearing. It appears virtually identical to the catalog instrument, other than having the main neck centered on the body, rather than offset. Bohmann seems to have done much experimentation with the engineering of his harp guitars: body proportions, bridge placement, neck placement (both), neck angles (relative to each other) and sub-bass string length and attachment.

The remains of the label show it to be the “Paris award” variant – and, as it also has Bohmann’s Dec 8, 1891 patent tuners, we can assume that this instrument was built within c.1890–c.1894.

Here, Bohmann begins with his classic pre-1900s main 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 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. What is quite strange is that this arrangement pitches the bass strings forward a rather significant amount. This makes it virtually impossible for the player to see the fingers of the left hand on the neck – nearly all other vintage harp guitars avoid this design flaw.

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Compare the level of this typical Bohmann design and carving with the elaborate 9-string example above from the same general time period.

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. Before undergoing restoration, I strung up a couple dummy strings just to figure this out, and it 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!

Reflected off a mirror looking up at the top, the string screws can be seen poking through.  The top is double-X braced, with fairly crude square braces.  Note the seam tape.  Two horizontal braces are used above the soundhole.

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And post-restoration, fully strung.

This instrument is much smaller - 14-1/2" wide - than the huge 19" wide models Bohmann would introduce c. 1895.  The scale (to center of "saddle screws") is about 25". The back and sides are undoubtedly made of Bohmann's trademark 3-ply recipe Brazilian rosewood/Maple/rosewood. This invariably develops micro-cracking in the outer rosewood veneer layer. 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, again darkened with varnish (this restored top turned a little too orange).

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I'm convinced that this specimen was originally virtually identical to the specimen above. The 6-string headstock is the same, while the bass extension 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, later replaced with this modern version.

Unlike my example with its centered playing neck, this one matches the catalog's historical specimen with both necks centered around the soundhole. On all three example, the ebony covering of the sub-bass support neck extends over the body with a (presumably decorative) tapered end.

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Like my instrument above, the label includes only the 1889 Paris award, and also has tuners with a Dec 8, 1891 patent date. While mine has a simple butt joint for the bass "neck," this one has a half-length dovetailed heel.



The Steinway Mandolin Orchestra


The Bohmann catalogs also contain 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 in this case all the harp guitars may be, though the left-most instrument does seem to be a Lyon & Healy by all appearances. 

However, 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 the center one is clearly Bohmann's. So how did these makers share ideas, designs or at least hardware?! Due to their presence in both catalogs, these three harp guitars were made prior to 1896.

The three suspected Bohmann harp guitars. The one on the left could be an original Lyon & Healy, or it could be a Bohmann copy. The middle instrument could likewise be Lyon & Healy copy, this time with a Bohmann-designed bridge. The third instrument is likely a Bohmann due to a distinctive bridge, and the fact that it has an unusual number of sub-bass strings (8). Note that all three necks are placed differently in relationship to the center soundhole.

Here are Lyon & Healy's Washburn and  American Conservatory harp guitars of the same period.


Ah, now we get to Bohmann's incredible "contra bass harp guitars."

We first learned of these instruments from the Bohmann catalogs (both undated, the first discovered pinpointed 1899 pretty accurately; the second discovered appears to be very early 1896). Thus, these pictured instruments are from 1895 or possibly even earlier. The first example 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 a custom instrument with a distinctive headstock. 

Other than a salesman’s exaggerated claims, I’m not sure what Bohmann’s "first in America" boast means, as many "harp guitars" had previously been built, including his own. Perhaps his special name was what he was eluding to? It was certainly little different than the existing large, double-neck Harwood instrument, also with 12 sub-basses, built by this time.

For the full Calamara story, please see Emilio and Emily Calamara:  A Tale of Two Musicians.

The second instrument is presumably a production instrument and would have been built sometime before the December 1895 Chicago fire (as the photo also 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 zither pin tuners for the sub-bass strings, and somewhat blunt, short bass headstocks.

The harp guitars listed in these catalogs 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 body length of two feet, width of nineteen inches and depth of six inches, this was probably true.

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)!

contra5a-ebay.jpg (253874 bytes)  I dedicated an entire Harp Guitar of the Month article to these, now that a few have been found. bohmann-miner.jpg (81341 bytes)

Now things get interesting....

Here is Signor Calamara again, with yet another strange harp guitar - pictured in a May Flower catalog from c.1901. Note "Harp Guitars Made to Order" at page bottom. Is it a May Flower harp guitar? Despite the text, I originally thought it might be another strange Bohmann. I've since changed my mind, with thoughts presented on the updated May Flower Harp Guitars page.

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. 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 May Flower catalog confuses us further by having a second image of the Steinway Mandolin Orchestra that was pictured in the Bohmann catalogs – but now labeled Edgar A. Benson's Celebrated Mandolin Orchestra of Chicago! Though the members have played "musical chairs" and switched places, this was clearly the same photo session in the same studio. 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 & Healy instrument.


I've had this next instrument up on this page from the beginning. I forget the source, but it was presented as a Bohmann. I'm assuming the sellers saw a label or some other clue. With enough experience now under our belts, it's easy to identify Bohmann's unique large custom fretboard inlays - so, despite the non-traditional Bohmann body, I'd say this is another variant of c.1900 vintage.


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!

Perhaps the most famous Bohmann instruments are the “sympathetic string” instruments. Though nearly every owner and writer insists on referring 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 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 multiple examples are now known, including several harp guitars. Most "tone rod" instruments, regardless of type, also include all the features specified 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)

See also Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

The four mystery instruments below were discovered in the mid-2000s by Bohmann researcher Bruce Hammond.  Part of the still-enigmatic "lost Bohmann factory" sale of the 1960s, they are just begging for better photographs and more information. There is also a report of a 5th instrument in a Midwest guitar store.

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This instrument just needs a screwed-on Bohmann bridge. And it finally got one! 

First - note the distinctive sub-bass headstock - this guitar appears to be a duplicate of Bohmann's own personal contra bass harp guitar above! It even has the same way-ahead-of-its-time 1890s sunburst finish on birdseye maple that Bohmanns' almost certainly had (look closely at his instrument in the catalog). Folks, this is an unprecedented early example of a quality sunburst finish - perhaps one of the very first in American guitar history!

But notice something else...it has six 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 - was  this in fact a later retrofit of an older, unsold and uncompleted instrument? As it was missing the bridge, that is the conjecture of Bruce Hammond and I.

The unfinished instrument owned by the Ax-In-Hand guitar store eventually made its way to Mike Anderson of Elkhart, Indiana, who had repairman Ron Koivisto (pictured) complete it in 2013.

And another new Bohmann model discovered!

These two unfinished instruments are identical except for the inlays. The distinctive curl on the sub-bass headstock is broken off on one.  These have slimmer bodies and are interesting in that they have a second neck just to hold three sub-bass strings - a bit overkill.

Like the above, one of these was eventually finished with a modern bridge and (rather jarring) tuners. (Picture at right from Bizarre Guitars)

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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 contra bass harp guitar 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 large and gaudy pearl inlays.  This one has the dots and circles like the three, presumably later, tone-rod instruments above.

bohmann-bertha-3-miner.jpg (242911 bytes) With the unsightly top pattern of the older bridge, a new owner decided to have the top refinished black to hide it. A striking - if ill-advised - choice, it has given the otherwise problematic instrument new life.

See additional images in the Harp Guitar of the Month Bohmann feature.


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 guitar history!

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 include Robert Hartman, Michael Wright, Fine Guitar Consultants, Jeff Nygaard, Jessica Huebner.


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