Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

Bohmann's Contra Bass Harp Guitars: 
Gargantuan and Groundbreaking!

by Gregg Miner, August, 2016


Introduction

More and more, vintage guitar and mandolin historians are beginning to recognize and appreciate the creativity and genius of Chicago luthier Joseph Bohmann (1848-1928).  Bohmann even has an entry in the latest Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, courtesy of his main biographer, Bruce Hammond. 

Though my main Bohmann page remains a bit out of date, I wanted to address one of his important instrument designs separately here: the "contra bass" size guitar and harp guitar.  This seems to be pretty forward thinking in 1895!  

This then, is a new, detailed examination of the Bohmann catalog entries and the very few historical specimens known.  There are now duplicate copies known of two distinct Bohmann catalogs, one from about 1895 (or slightly before) and one from about 1899.  We have scans of these thanks to (originally) Rich Myers (for the c.1899), and later, historian Bruce Hammond, Bohmann’s dedicated biographer (for both).


History

In order to understand Bohmann’s contra bass harp guitar (or CBHG for the duration of this article), we also need to understand his Grand Concert Contra Bass Guitar (GCCBG), as they go hand and hand.  And it may be best to first investigate them in the later c.1899 Bohmann catalog, then go back and look at the c.1895 catalog, which has some curious inconsistencies.

Bohmann’s self-created model names are fairly confusing – and were and remain rather misleading.  As we can see in the c.1899 catalog (at right), the more elaborately-titled GCCBG is actually only a six-string guitar – named “contra bass guitar” not for any extra strings, nor even a lower pitch, but, as far as we have been able to determine, simply for its enhanced bass response and tonal projection.  With a “normal” scale (Bohmann’s was 25” and thereabouts), its dimensions were never given but are believed to match those of the huge CBHG, which it shares catalog space with, introduced simultaneously.

Here is one of the only fully intact original surviving GCCBG specimens known.  As you can see, it’s huge!  (Its bridge is non-original.)

Both catalogs give the body dimensions (for the CBHG) as 23” in length, 19” in width and 6” in depth. 

In the c.1899 catalog (immediately below), the harp guitar was offered in a 12-string or 18-string version – meaning, with either six or twelve sub-bass strings.  One could ask for any one of Bohmann’s “regular  guitar styles from No. 1 to 14, inclusive.”

Having studied the c.1899 entry above, let’s examine the other (below).  Approximately four years earlier, Bohmann’s c.1895 catalog lists what is certainly the very same two instruments, though appears to be rife with errors – all of them having then been cleared up in the c.1899 catalog above.

See how the 6-string GCCBG is described as “with double neck,” confounding this curious error further by the offer of “Add $8.00 for ea. extra string wanted.”   Clearly, it was the CBHG on the facing page that had two necks (as it states).  And the harp guitar version had its own $8 “additional string” option, where it made sense.  This must have been something equivalent to a simple “copy/paste” error of the typesetters.

On the CBHG page, we find an even more incredible claim: “This guitar is made in 18 to 32 strings.”(!)  Impossible?  Well, no – around 1900 Hopzapfel would build George Dudley his incredible fully-double-course 36-string harp guitar.  Was Bohmann involved in such outrageousness earlier?  Or was this another typesetter’s mistake (mis-read)?  Thirty-two is certainly an odd number, whatever combination of neck and subs we envision, so I believe it is an error.  And of course, in the next catalog, he writes “12 or 18-string,” which makes more sense.  He also fixes the GCCBG information and other errors like correcting to “inclusive,” rather than “1 to 14, exclusive.”

The c.1895 catalog does not picture either instrument (perhaps they were just too new?), but features on the following page the striking photo of Calamara.  Bohmann proclaims that “This cut represents The Contra Bass Harp Guitar and the eminent guitar virtuoso Sig. Emilio Calamara, professor of the first Contra Bass Harp Guitar, made in America by the world’s Greatest Musical Instrument Manufacturer Joseph Bohmann.”

(For those new to the world of Joseph Bohmann, yes, he quickly proclaimed himself as “the World’s Greatest Musical Instrument Manufacturer,” though not entirely unmerited, as he won exhibition prizes year after year – seven, in fact, from 1889 to 1900.)

The same photo of Calamara and his instrument was used again in the second catalog and (at left) on sheet music from 1897 (at right, courtesy of Paul Ruppa). 

This then, would seem to be Bohmann’s CBHG “prototype.”  It has twelve sub-basses and one-of-a-kind headstocks.  It looks narrower in the upper bout and waist, so may not have achieved it’s maximum size until the c.1895 catalog.  Bruce and I conjecture that this was quite possibly the guitar alluded to in Calamara’s personal letter to Bohmann dated December 30, 1892 (at right), even though no details of the guitar were given.  Calamara had been playing an Italian harp guitar of unknown make (illustrated on his business card and seen in a single photograph in the Valisi Orchestra for some time prior to switching to the Bohmann (below).

(The story of how Bruce acquired this incredible material – and how much else is out there – is something I expect he’ll address someday soon himself.)

As wonderful as the Calamara image is, the key image in the c.1899 catalog is of Bohmann himself, complete with his own CBHG (or two):

This is a wonderful and important bit of harp guitar provenance.  However, there are some aggravating conundrums on this page that Bruce and I simply cannot resolve.  Note the subheading that states “From ‘Music Trades,’ January 4, 1896” (there is even a byline – “P. J. M.” – at the close).  We haven’t yet located an easily accessible source for this important periodical (not to be confused with “The Music Trade Review,” which is now online) to see what it reveals.  The article indeed starts out as if reprinting a January, 1896 magazine piece.  In fact, it opens with a report of the Dec. 7, 1895 shop fire “a few weeks ago” that wiped out Bohmann ‘s entire shop and contents.

We speculate that by the third paragraph, however, Bohmann is coaching the writer (or writing this himself), and seemingly at a much later date (1899?).  Surely only the relentlessly egocentric luthier would refer to himself (as the fellow in the photograph) as “Mr. Bohmann’s best working man, who has originated this great American industry.”  This paragraph definitely appears to be referring to the center photograph, with the harp guitar “held between the knees similar to the cello” and “by his side...his son, Joseph Frederick Bohmann...”  Problem is, little Freddie was born in January, 1897.  Barring an error in the Federal Census, this photo would have to be from, when – late 1899 at the earliest? 

Again, this exercise is (for me) simply to date the first historical appearance of these particular instruments, and – not counting Calamara’s prototype – somewhere between the late 1895 fire and the appearance of the c.1899 catalog seems to be it (note the statement about the “Bohmann harp guitar, now published for the first time...”).  Or Bohmann’s instrument could be something that was built before the fire in 1895.  It all boils down to resolving the issues above.

The text  confirms that the twelve  sub-bass strings were tuned chromatically; at what pitch, we don’t know, but Eb down to E is the most logical guess.  I’m still trying to hear in my head the musical effects described by “As a solo instrument, beautiful sweeping arpeggios can be made on the chromatic strings, and also runs in thirds and fifths not possible otherwise.”

This c.1895-1899 CBHG  has six strings on the neck and twelve subs on a neck of the same length (though the bridge lengthens the increasingly lower strings some).  Interestingly, it looks like Bohmann may be color-coding his basses, much like Gibson soon would.  We assume his instrument has his dramatic and groundbreaking sunburst back and sides – judging from the instrument sitting sideways to the camera, which looks like another CBHG.  Surprisingly, neither catalog mentions his dramatic and incredibly groundbreaking sunburst finish option.

This 1898 sheet music (courtesy of Barry Trott) depicts an all-female ensemble from Portland, Oregon.  The accompanist is no delicate flower – she is handling a full size Bohmann contra bass harp guitar!  Hers also has twelve subs, with headstocks different than either Calamara’s or Bohmann’s.  Bohmann made other normal sized harp guitars similar in appearance to the CBHG and with that same bridge, so it’s a little tricky to positively identify these without knowing the size of the performers.  But in this case, the high position of the bridge reveals the much larger soundboard area below it.  

By comparison, Bohmann’s original 14-1/2”-wide harp guitar’s bridge was placed like this:

There are many more historical photos of Bohmann harp guitar players on my original main page, but none include instruments as large as the Contra Bass Harp Guitar.


Surviving Specimens

My Bohmann CBHG is surely the largest flat-top harp guitar I’ve personally encountered.  Lyon & Healy’s Monster Bass is much wider but over 3” shorter.   

As seen above, the catalogs state: “Length of body, 23 inches; across body back of bridge, 19 inches; and depth of body, 6 inches.”  Mine is slightly different – the same 19” wide but with a body over two feet long (24-1/8”)!  

It’s just 5″ deep at the tail block, but about 5-3/4 in the center of the heavily domed back – so is close to Bohmann’s stated 6”.   The upper bout is 14″ wide.  Most significantly, there is an incredible ten inches of soundboard real estate below the bridge alone!  Scale length is exactly 25”.  

Note that for some reason, deliberate or accidental, the two necks and bridge ended up significantly askew on the body.  All Bohmann’s other harp guitars seem perfectly planned out.

This instrument was a prize that came to the attention of Bruce Hammond some years ago.  It was dumb luck that I ended up with it (to Bruce’s everlasting consternation!). 

When received, it had a huge added metal tailpiece support – so huge we wondered what soundboard problems it might have been hiding.  It had also had the name “Linscott” engraved in the third fret position marker.

The family unfortunately had very little information on this fellow.  The instrument’s caretaker, Shelby Norton, told me that Linscott “was my son’s great-grandfather.  I do know his last name was Linscott; his first name may have been William.  He may have lived on the east coast in the New York area, possibly Long Island.  He may have played in some capacity as a professional musician or in a band or orchestra of some type, and may have also played banjo.  He had a son named Elbert William Linscott (known as Scotty), who was also a musician.”

Bruce Hammond looked through all his original Bohmann correspondence letters and came up empty.  Even so, I was somewhat shocked and disappointed that when the instrument arrived, “Linscott” was gone – sanded off by the owner who thought it was diminishing its value. 

It’s sad, because we can easily imagine that there was a wonderful story here – this was some custom instrument!  The headstocks (which I have named “Mutt and Jeff”) look especially bizarre due to the design of this particular configuration – the same as the one Bohmann holds above, with its short length sub-bass neck and squat headstock.  But on the Linscott, this is then coupled with ten neck strings, necessitating Bohmann cobbling together a full set and another two-thirds of tuners, cleverly fitted together.   The tuner buttons are some form of the infamous and still-mysterious “Handel tuners” that appeared around this time.   Note the two different Bohmann tuner patent stamps on the back plates, 427962 and 464912.  The earlier 1890 patent covers his worm gear tuners, the second 1891 patent is for a geared 5th-string banjo tuner (so no idea why he stamped that on the back of his guitar tuners!).

Why ten strings?  Note that the four lowest courses are doubled in octaves as in the standard 12-string guitar, while the top two courses are single.  As outlined in my article “The Birth of the American 12-string Guitar,” this configuration was a “new invention” of 1896 that quickly evolved into the full-blown American 12-string guitar around 1900.  Odds are good that Bohmann may have been aware of this evolutionary “missing link” Grunewald-built 10-string.  If Bohmann subscribed to the Music Trade Review, he would have had to have known about it.  Or perhaps Linscott had learned of this intriguing new stringing option and requested it.

Restoration:

Happily, when restorer Kerry Char removed the added tailpiece, we discovered the top was perfectly intact and visually presentable.  Of course a huge swath of the soundboard has been worn to “washboard condition,” as is the fingerboard – Linscott clearly played the hell out of this thing!

When Kerry removed the back, he found an even bigger surprise: Bohmann’s incredible lattice bracing.  At left is as found – all original, with an added portion to the brace below the soundhole (above).  Note the narrow bits of bridge plate portions with screws poking through, part of Bohmann’s unique pinless bridge (see below).  Below, Kerry has replaced the top three braces and strengthened that compromised area with an extra layer of spruce.  Note also the full width heel block!

bohmann_10stg3-char.jpg (125485 bytes) bohmann_10stg4-char.jpg (124916 bytes) bohmann_10stg5-char.jpg (135466 bytes)
Somehow this elaborate mess keeps the instrument stable without deadening the sound.  This sucker is a monster.  Musicians speak nebulously of “depth of tone” – but here is true tonal depth!

At left is Bohmann’s humongous “label” (really more like an “internal advertisement”!) which seems to date this instrument to 1900 or shortly after.  For some reason, he cut off the upper right corner (nothing was printed there).  He then pasted over this large label a cutting from his tradecard, showing his seven exhibition awards from 1889 to 1900).  At the bottom he also pastes in his then-current address, which he was leasing years earlier.  

The problem with dating Bohmann's instruments is that we have ample evidence of him warehousing unfinished instruments (you'll see one below) – for years or even decades.  So features that appear to be earlier can be seen with features or clues that seem to point to much later (specifically, the patented internal tone rods).  

So he might well have started this instrument in the mid or later 1890's but finished it for Linscott much later.

Bohmann utilized nearly the entire gamut of sub-bass stringing options on his harp guitars, anywhere from 3 to 12.  This instrument was tuned chromatically (probably Eb down to low E), and likely strung with then-common ball end silk & steel strings.  I just love Bohmann’s bridges.  I’m not sure if I’ve strung the neck strings exactly as planned (Bohmann chose to double then up on his standard 6-string layout), but it works!

Other than the custom neck stringing, my Bohmann differs from the other known specimens most significantly in being without Bohmann’s internal “tone rods.”  You’ll see these fascinating, patented devices below.  What remains inexplicable is the timing of the patent for this strange invention.  The patent (1,128,218) was applied for on November 4th, 1912 and granted in 1915 – but the rods themselves show up in instruments that we think were built over a dozen years earlier in the late 1890s (again, that storing away for later question!).  Mine was finished at the end of this same time period (c.1900), so I wonder why the rods weren’t included – perhaps Linscott requested to leave them out.  Or we may learn that the rods didn’t appear until later and our dating is simply that far off.

Mine is also absent the beautiful sunburst finish, due to the fact that it’s made of Brazilian rosewood (a 3-ply sandwich of rosewood/maple/rosewood).  As with future sunburst finishes, Bohmann’s dramatic colors worked with maple but would make little sense with rosewood.

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When Bohmann’s shop was unearthed sometime in the 1960’s, two more, somewhat different, CBHGs were found among the many treasures.

The first appeared almost identical to Bohmann’s own lap-held instrument, but was incomplete.  It had both necks in place on a body complete with sunburst finish and six internal tone rods installed.  It was just missing the bridge and tuners.

Here it is as found, photographed by Bruce Hammond at Ax-In-Hand, whose original owner Larry Henricksen bought up the Bohmann time-capsule inventory a few decades ago.  I’ve yet to learn of any production guitars with a sunburst finish earlier than Bohmann’s 1890’s instruments – surely this is a topic ripe for investigation!

bohmann2-hammond.jpg (156876 bytes)

Interestingly, Bruce Hammond has observed that for early "Era 1" (pre-1910) Bohmann instruments, the striking sunburst finish appeared only on birdseye maple instruments, not flame maple, which received a uniform natural finish.  On Era 2 (post-1910) instruments,  Bohmann applied it to flame maple as well.

 

This Ax-In-Hand CBHG eventually made its way to Mike Anderson of Elkhart, Indiana, who had repairman Ron Koivisto (at right) complete it in 2013.  This short article tells how “the restoration project sent Koivisto on a series of internet investigations to deduce the right size and shape for the bridge, how to affix it, what gauge of strings to use, how to tune it and a dozen other puzzles.”  I was never contacted by Ron, but I hope my site and articles came in handy (perhaps not...the article refers to it as a “guitar harp”).

koivisto-superiortelegram.jpg (253638 bytes)


The other CBHG found in the Bohmann shop discovery was a strange chimera of a thing.  The size and shape appear the same as the previous instruments, though the back is even more heavily domed – which coincides with a later date (the instrument is stamped #1910).  It has flame maple back and sides and a natural  finish .  Though they were missing when discovered, it originally had the same six internal tone rods.  Bridge pins now plug the holes in the butt of the body.

The headstocks, however, are those bizarre futuristic-looking monstrosities with the outrageous handmade tuning machines seen in two later (Era 2) well-known harp guitars (ex-Chinery and the late Bill Camp).  The fretboards, with those creatively-shaped ends, are also from this later period.

The bridge is pure Bohmann from this later period, but appears to have replaced an earlier bridge, likely two separate bridges similar to the harp guitars mentioned above.

Similarly bizarre are the 8 single strings on the neck, the lower two which are actually over "false frets" and are actually meant to pair with the ten sub-basses for a full chromatic octave!

Bruce and I have no idea quite what to make of this one!

Here are the two above specimens taken side by side by Bruce at Ax-In-Hand.  They both have flat spruce tops and similar maple bodies – one birdseye, one flame – with two different finishes.  The presumed 1910 body on the right is more heavily domed than the pre-1900 body on the left.

One question we have is whether Bohmann used maple ply on his maple-bodied instruments, because he always used ply on his rosewood instruments (Brazilian rosewood/maple/Brazilian rosewood).  I don’t know if that was meant for tone, durability or for easier steaming over his giant heated cast iron molds.  His rosewood instruments invariably show the fine cracking and “feathering” of the outer Brazilian rosewood layer.  The unfinished Brazilian rosewood inside weathers better.  Mine had significant back separation near a lower bout so we were able to see the thin maple layer sandwiched therein (regrettably, we didn’t measure or photograph it).

The final surviving Bohmann CBHG is perhaps most amazing of all.

I only learned of this in early 2016 when Dazzo Pickups’ Teddy Randazzo posted this amazing “selfie” on his Facebook page – taken during a visit to Mickie Zekley (Lark in the Morning founder/owner).

Mickie’s had it forever, and kindly sent me a few more photos of it.

The body appears to be the same as the others, with the exact same sunburst finish as the uncompleted instrument above and the same bridge as Bohmann’s and mine for 12 sub-basses.  Surely these are all from the same c.1895-1900 period?

But the bass neck on this one! 

Instead of the usual squat sub-bass neck and head, Bohmann seems to have finally taken a cue from European kontragitarres.  We have yet to find proof, but we believe Bohmann was quite likely aware and perhaps even familiar with these early Austro-German harp guitars, even though he followed a very different muse for his own instruments.  Did he repurpose one of the metal tuner plate arrays from a German instrument or create his own engraved version from scratch?  Kontragitarre expert Benoît Meulle-Stef says "They're absolutely not stock tuners, I have never seen any kontra with that!"  Note that additionally it has Bohmann’s own unique “ring” tuner buttons, just like the second Ax-In-Hand instrument above.

In that sense, this may be another "transitional," or "start-stop-finish or modify" Bohmann creation, with a body, finish and bridge of the late 1890s and 6-string head design and ring tuners , along with the internal rods of the 1910s.

How do we solve the enigmatic riddle of Bohmann features?!


Note that these are just a small sampling of Bohmann’s incredible harp guitars.  I have a few more to add to the main Bohmann page, then clean that original study up – there is more to decipher!

 


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