Dyer Harp Mandolins and the Harp Plectral Quartet

by Gregg Miner, as part of

- with assistance from Robert Hartman


Major Rewrite January, 2010
Last Update: February, 2015

Dyer Harp Mandolins  and the Harp Plectral Quartet:
An Updated Overview

Dyer Harp Mandolin Family from 1911-1918 Cadenza ads.

Dyer extant specimen composite

This is the mandolin section of the completely revamped and rewritten Dyer section of Harpguitars.net.  I have left it tied in to the Knutsen Archives as established in 2002, as the Dyer instruments evolved directly out of the Knutsen instruments and remain inextricably linked.  In fact, the harp mandolins visually more so.  Like the harp guitars, I have completely revamped the serial number lists for Dyer's harp mandolin family, and tried to clarify the timeline.  

For the purposes of discussion the shorthand term "Dyer" will be used throughout these pages, and should be taken to mean either the company "W. J. Dyer & Bro." (which was William J. and one brother and later three brothers), or more likely, some unnamed company representative.  I will also refer to Larson author and expert Robert Hartman as "Bob" (normally "Hartman" would be used, but we're too friendly for that).

As always, the books - both the Noe/Most Knutsen book and the assorted Larson Brothers books should be considered a prerequisite before reading these articles.  I will update and clarify certain things while bringing my own perspective to the subject but I don't duplicate too much of the book material here.

In this update, I'll focus on three things: the timeline of the Dyer harp mandolin family, the topic of design (Knutsen or Larsons?) and new options for serial number dates.  There is a lot of new material here.

The most important thing is to note is that I am tossing out the old Dating Timeline for the harp mandolin family, so you may need to forget for a moment what Bob has written in the books regarding serial numbers.  What he has included from the first edition regarding introduction of the instruments has been correct.  In this case - unlike the harp guitars - no earlier ads turned up to move up the mandolin timeline.  In fact, if anything, I'm moving it back.

(image copyright and courtesy of Ron Middlebrook
Dyer Harp Mandolin Family Timeline

dyer_ad-cadenza,1908,09-miner.jpg (131768 bytes)

After a complete search of the BMG periodicals, it appears that the first Dyer harp mandolin appearance did in fact take place in the September, 1908 issue of The Cadenza.  However, for years, no one (including Bob and myself) ever noticed something strange about the the pictured instrument.  It doesn't exist.  Well, obviously, one did, as the woodcut undoubtedly shows a real instrument.  Notice the body points.  Compare it to the photo above and you'll note that the first Dyer harp mandolin had opposing "kitty-corner" points just like Knutsen's double-point harp guitars.  Coincidence?  Obviously not, but let's leave that for later.  The ad states that the harp mandolin "is an entirely new creation."  I am inclined to believe it.  In fact, I think we are looking at a single prototype instrument - built and shown to enough of an audience to warrant the (exaggerated) claim of being a "revelation to everyone" that has "rapidly sprung into popular favor."  This model - with the body points on opposite corners - has never been seen outside this ad.  Why not?  I think it has something to do with Knutsen, which we'll explore below.  It may also have something to do with other existing harp mandolin patents (also discussed below).  It is curious that this ad appeared just two more times, then disappeared.
From The Cadenza, September, 1908
Update, April, 2012: "Backwards" Dyer Harp Mandolin discovered (two, in fact)!  

See my blog, The Dyer Optical Illusion Harp Mandolin

Two years later, Dyer still had not come out with a new harp mandolin ad.  However, in November, 1910, Cadenza ran this photo of "The Symphony Harp Quartet."  All three instruments are of the common (only known) style - the lower bass bout point has been relocated to the other side.  Clearly then, at some point between late 1908 and late 1910, the Larsons had re-designed the harp mandolin and started producing them.  

PENDING CLUE: We do have one additional clue: Harp Mandolin serial #141 – which almost certainly corresponds to the 41st harp mandolin built – was inscribed on an inside brace with a date: December 25, 1910.  Since it could not have been inscribed through the soundhole, it must have been done by the builder during construction.  Logically then, forty harp mandolins were built before December, 1910.  That would seem to put #101 (perhaps the ad prototype?) in late 1908, then ramping up pretty quickly after a short period for the body design change (the mysterious lack of ads notwithstanding).

dyer_symphony_harp_quartet-cadenza,11-10-miner.jpg (167421 bytes)

dyer_ad-cadenza,1911,02-miner.jpg (137996 bytes) Finally, in February, 1911, the harp mandolin re-appeared - in both Cadenza (left) and Crescendo (right).  It now showed the typical  production model, and there was no mention of a "new model."

This period must have been the Dyer harp mandolin's heyday - while the Crescendo ad ran continuously for 11 months, the Cadenza ad ran monthly for a staggering 47 months!  I would think that the bulk of them must have been built and sold in this timeframe.

Now things get interesting.  After the last (mandolin) ad in Cadenza in January, 1915, Dyer stopped advertising in both magazines for a full 31 months - no harp guitars, nothing.  This is curious, since they had been typically advertising monthly for the most part.  What was going on?

I think that Dyer was working with the Larsons to create the new "harp plectral quartet."

In August (Cresendo) and September (Cadenza) of 1917, the Dyer ad campaign began anew.  The new harp guitar ads contained a fine print mention of the harp mandolins and now mandolas and mandocellos.  Perhaps more tantalizing, both magazine editors mentioned (and one raved about) the new Dyer catalog, which introduced the new mandolas and mandocellos.  I would imagine that the catalog was fully illustrated with all the instruments.

Next, rather than re-running ads as was common, Dyer rolled out the new "harp plectral quartet" (or "quintette") family in fairly quick succession - each would run just once (and only in Cadenza).  First up was the mandolin, which had been available now for several years.

Each shows what is undoubtedly the top-of-the-line example - Style 50 mandolin, Style 145 mandola, and Style 250 cello.

dyer_ad-cadenza,1917,10-miner.jpg (235908 bytes)
Cadenza, October, 1917
dyer_ad-cadenza,1917,12-miner.jpg (223538 bytes)
December, 1917
dyer_ad-cadenza,1918,02-miner.jpg (131891 bytes)
February, 1918
Sadly, this distinctive (perhaps outlandish?) set of instruments never caught on.  Or perhaps they were partially a casualty of poor timing - being introduced smack in the middle of the United States involvement in World War I (April, 1917 - November, 1918).  Additionally, the mandolin orchestra "craze" was winding down, surviving for perhaps another decade until it almost completely disappeared.  In November, 1919, a Crescendo ad for Dyer's "Sterling Strings" mentioned the harp guitar and mandolin line for the very last time.
Surviving Specimens
Harp Mandolins

Harp mandolins were built in at least four levels of appointments, from plain to fanciest, a Style 20, 25, 35 and 50.  There were slight differences and also custom special order or family instruments built.  As of April, 2010, there are 23 serialized harp mandolins inventoried, two Style 20's, six Style 25's, ten Style 35's and five Style 50's (along with several additional specimens known of various models with missing labels).  With serial numbers ranging from 105 to 264, we calculate that between 160 and 175 harp mandolins were produced.

Note how the instruments above have slightly different body widths or dimensions.  The harp arm tips of the Dyers also went through (or simultaneously had) a degree of variation (whereas the Dyer harp guitars are very standardized).  Below, just for fun, is a direct comparison of 3 random Style 35 harp mandos I happened to have in inventory at the same time.

Style 20

Style 25

Style 35

Style 50

Style 35 Harp Mandolins, L-R: #188 (owned by Stephen Bennett), #X (label missing), #223 (my own)

Lots of subtle differences including:

The pearl inlay in headstock is placed at 3 different heights; the arm tips are all different; the fretboard inlays all match except for 1 different 5th fret one on #223; the pickguards are all the same, though the pearl in #223 is more centered in the celluloid away from the body (cut from a larger stock piece?); the bridges are all different; the nut and saddle of #188 are abalone!; the tailpiece covers are all standard type of the period, with #188 being engraved (any or all could be non-original); the neck of #X seems shorter, though the scales are all identical; it also leans slightly more to the left, due to the size and shape of the back being slightly different.

On the back, the top of the arm is square on #188 and rounded on the other two; #X is leaning further back due to a smaller(?) back that changes the angle of the butt edge; the tuners have ended up at slightly different heights; the different neck positions are due to movement.

The Larson books show an additional multitude of random differences on the "same" models.

Harp Mandolas

Once the rarest of the rare, four are known, all coming to our attention only since 2007!  And we finally have some labels.  The first one found originally caused some confusion.  

To Bob and I, it was obvious that someone inadvertently swapped the serial number with the style number when entering the information.  "145" must be the style number, as stated in the ad.  That leaves "402" as the serial number - which is at least partially logical as the "-02" would indicate that this is the second mandola built. To me, the only explanation for the "4" is that they started a new 400 series for the mandolas, rather than adding them in sequence to the already-in-production mandolins (which were in the 200's at the time).  Note that, while the standard harp mandolin label was used, "mandola" was not added, as in the two cello labels (next).

(images copyright Mandolin Brothers)

(images copyright and courtesy Gary Berry)

(images copyright and courtesy Tom Ketterman)

(images copyright and courtesy anonymous owner)

The second label found (October, 2009) proved our conclusion: It is properly labeled "Style 145" and the serial number appears to read "405."  The "closed loop" number 5 looks like the same handwriting as the "501/601" cello below.  Additionally, they have pasted over the last letters of "mandolin" and handwritten the "a" to quickly, if crudely, create "mandola" - just like the "mando-cello" below!

Here's a funny story about the first mandola above, which will clear up an error in Bob's The Larsons’ Creations, Centennial Edition.  Astute researchers may recall that when that "final" book was published in 2007, there still were no Dyer harp mandolas known...or were there?  Actually, yes...and right under our noses!  On page 157 of the book there is a photo of an instrument sold by Mandolin Brothers as a "harp mandolin."   I took one look at it and called Bob.  "Clearly this is a harp mandola!" I insisted.  Bob then admitted he was always suspicious, as the the pickguard was so similar to the one in the Cadenza ad.  I hadn't even gotten to the pickguard appearance - the body shape alone was obvious, being much more bulbous than the much slimmer harp mandolins.  Bob added that the moment he saw it, he asked Mandolin Bros. about it, but it had just been sold to an overseas collector (I wonder if he knows what he's got?!).   The scale length wasn't listed, nor could it (now) be checked.  Yes, Stan and staff are experts, but somehow they made a rare mistake (sorry, boys!) and Bob should have trusted his instincts. 

The second Dyer harp mandola came to our attention in June, 2008.  This one has a much shorter, thicker arm than the other, but has a pickguard matching the original ad woodcut.  Unfortunately, there is no label - and it has been a bit "overly-customized" - a painting on the soundboard and three large holes in the top that were made to attach a pickup.

A third specimen showed up in August, 2008, and with a label, as discussed above.  Note that it has still a different harp arm length and shape.  

Then in October, 2009, Bob sent me the image of the fourth mandola with the label, discussed above.  From the serial numbers (402 and 405) we can so far surmise that at least five specimens were built (401 through 405).  The two label-less instruments shown may or may not be within this series.

Harp Mandocellos

Two of these incredibly rare beasts have been discovered - perhaps the only two ever built.  Amazingly, both labels are intact - but, oh, what a tangled web they weave!  The fancier specimen is stamped "250" for the style, and expectedly matches the "style 250" in the ad.  Its serial number is 102 - and for once, we can be positive of the number, as it was typed in.  The other specimen is labeled Style 200, which makes sense for a plainer model.  However, its serial number is a completely different series.  What is going on?!  Clearly, the handwritten serial number is not "101," which would have tied things up nicely.  No, it appears to be "601."  It could even be "501" - if you think the latter unlikely, then examine the row of labels below.  I'm leaning toward "501."  Either way, we seem to be stuck with two series of mandocello numbers.  It is extremely unlikely that the two instruments were not built within two or three short years of each other (c.1917), and Bob has always agreed that it is virtually impossible that #102 was built in the early 1900's, before the harp mandolin and well before the mandolin orchestra's heyday.

My conclusion is that #501/601 coincides with "mandocello #1" - #102 would of course be "mandocello #2" - thus, two cellos known, with the serial number equivalents of "1" and "2."

Collection of Ron Petit
(images copyright Ron Petit)

Collection of Mickie Zekley (copyright Mickie Zekley)

We now know that mandolins had their own numbering system in the 100's to 200's, apparently duplicating the harp guitars.  And we now deduce that the mandolas were meant to have had their own 400 series.  Thus a 500 series would make perfect sense for the mandocellos.  600 also, although that had been used by the harp guitars (but like the mandolin case, perhaps not a problem to duplicate when they were "different instruments."  

So far, so good.  The only question is why they didn't stick with the series and used "102."  I have no idea, unless different individuals were taking care of the system and make an error or were re-arranging things.  Note that both labels modify the standard harp mandolin label in different ways.

Below is a series of label images that led me to consider "No. 501" for the mandocello.

dyer_label.jpg (43063 bytes) dyer_label-lancaster.jpg (52211 bytes) dyer_label-heizman.jpg (42232 bytes)

Note the handwritten number 5 and 6 in the series, starting from the left.  Personally, I cannot judge how many of these serial numbers are in the same hand or penned by different individuals.  The third label from the left has been in my folders for years, but never added to our serial number list.  Now I remember why.  I couldn't tell if it was "845" or "865."  Can you?  I wasn't sure if that was a second poorly-written "4" or what.  I thought the last digit must be a "6."  Now that I've seen many written sixes, I realized that that must be "6," meaning the last digit can't be another six, but something else - a "5" with the loop closed (ink bleeding or penmanship).  Considering again the cello, which owner Mickie Zekley only recently photographed for us - Bob thought it looked like someone was trying to turn some other number into a six.  It does at that.  It also looks not all that different from the five in the previous label to me (even though the top stem is curving).  Just listing all the options.

Bottom line: We can reasonably date the cellos - to 1917-1918, possibly an early 1916 prototype (Mickie's), but we can't state their serial number series, which is nonsensical and unreadable.

Ron Petit, the owner of #102, also owns a very fancy Dyer harp mandolin. When asked how he acquired these two prizes, Ron added, "These two instruments have remained together since leaving the Dyer store!  I bought them from a fellow in Richfield, Minnesota in 1994, who had bought them from the original owner in 1954.  These two instruments were used in a family Vaudeville band - with the husband (double neck harp guitar with more ivory than anything I've ever seen), wife (piano) and two daughters (mandocello and mandolin).  Very serious instruments for a family band - no doubt there are pictures out there somewhere of this band in action."

Dyer Harp Mandolin Design

Knutsen or the Larsons?  This was the focus of my original 2002 article, and remains an intriguing design question, for which we still don't have the answer, or at least overwhelming proof.

dyer_dbl_point_compare.jpg (28257 bytes)
Two versions of Knutsen "Double Point" harp guitars, and right, the first  Dyer harp mandolin (not to scale)

My overwhelming gut feeling is that the first "prototype" harp mandolin was copied from Knutsen's "Double Point" harp guitars, which we think appeared sometime in 1906.  I now believe the 1906-1908 was a key transitional period for both Knutsen and Dyer - a time when Knutsen gave up his "Symphony" name to Dyer, and very likely re-negotiated the license so that Dyer could switch to their new label without Chris' signature. Soon after, Dyer would have the Larsons build the Style 3 harp guitar, again very similar to Knutsen's standard "Lower Bass Point" Seattle model.  Only a few of these were built....why?  Then a basic copy of Knutsen's double point harp guitar body appears on a Dyer harp mandolin...and again quickly disappears.  Perhaps because of some increasingly "bad blood" between Knutsen and Dyer, I envision a case where Knutsen asked for Dyer to stop copying his two new "signature" designs (I still favor the idea that Knutsen came up with his "lower bass point" and "double point" forms in 1906 to deliberately create something visually different from his Symphony harp guitars, which Dyer had "taken over.").  True?  I don't know, but we know that Knutsen built these through 1913, while meanwhile, Dyer abandoned both designs, instead altering the harp mandolin to place two pointed body flares on the treble side of the instrument - something Knutsen hadn't done.

Knutsen, Gaskin, Livermore Harp Mandolins


wpe1.gif (15865 bytes) wpe4.gif (11479 bytes)
Knutsen's four basic hollow arm mandolin designs Gaskins, 1895,
Pat #552,116
Livermore, 1896,
Pat #D26424

Knutsen's own harp mandolins were of several designs, none of which copied either of the Dyer designs.  We have even more of a problem dating Knutsen's harp mandolins than Dyers.  With Knutsen, there are no "smoking gun" labels or photos that put them before 1910 - other than one unusual specimen bearing a cut off harp guitar label from the 1906-1908 period.  The thinking - proposed by Noe and Most in their book - is that Knutsen was prevented from offering his own harp mandolin until December, 1910, when the Livermore harp mandolin patent expired.  As the book explains, Knutsen was clearly aware of the Livermore patent (and the timeframe) as Livermore was his own witness, who apparently quickly went behind Knutsen's back to patent his own bowlback mandolin version of Knutsen's harp guitar. 

Bob Hartman and I wondered if Knutsen was prevented from building a harp mando before 1911, why wasn't Dyer?  An additional point - that Tom and Dan's book omitted - is the Gaskin harp mandolin patent, which appeared a year earlier (expiring on the very last day of 1909).  Did that not prevent Knutsen or Dyer as well?  It was actually far closer in design that the Livermore illustration.  For that matter, how could Livermore get his patent approved with the Gaskin already in place?!

Well, as patent expert Tom Noe explained to me recently, both were design patents - and substantially different "designs" of the same basic concept.  So both could co-exist.  Conceivably then, couldn't Knutsen's and Dyer's harp mandolins have also been allowed as non-conflicting designs?  Probably, depending on who was reviewing a patent infringement claim.  Whether Knutsen was aware of the Gaskin patent or not, he may have been being cautious, simply because of the Livermore patent and a potential problem there. 

How then, did Dyer & Bro. consider the two existing patents?  Were they even aware of them?  As shown above, Dyer introduced a "prototype" harp mandolin that was never built - or at the least, very short-lived (none have ever been seen outside the one ad).  I hypothesize above how they may have been appropriating Knutsen's design, who subsequently may have made enough of a stink to convince them to change this design (which they did, whatever the cause).  It is not easy to date Dyer harp mandolin #101 through #141 (dated 12-25,1910).  But clearly they were built and sold before the Livermore patent expired.  Were they also built before the Gaskin expired?  Or could that have been part of the reason they pulled the ad?  Meaning, if not from Knutsen's complaints, then a Gaskin representative threatening action after seeing the first Dyer harp mando image?  Dyer could have ignored them - as Tom Noe explains, theirs didn't infringe on the spefic design - or they could have been concerned just enough to wait until the beginning of 1910 to start up again.  They could even have had the Larsons continue to build (and serialize) instruments during this imaginined hiatus to "hit the ground running" on January 1st, 1910.  Such a case could have gotten them up to harp mandolin #141 by Christmas Day, 1910.

Serial Number Possibilities

Serial #

Original Hartman Timeline

Harp Mandolin Timeline A (starts just before 1908 ad)

Harp Mandolin Timeline B (starts just before end of Gaskin patent term)

105 (standard body points)




107 1906 1908 1909
108 1906 1908 1909
115 na 1908 1909

121 (opposing body points)

na Note: With the ad of this model coming out in September, 1908, we may now need to consider yet another timeline












157 na 1911
158 na 1911






















192 na


























257 na 1917









Harp MandolaTimeline









Harp Mandocello Timeline

501/601 na 1917




Ever since we discovered evidence of Dyer's pre-Larson association with Knutsen, I've often thought about the mutual awareness of this "triumvirate" (Knutsen/Dyer/Larsons) - especially after the discovery of this amazing instrument:

The Mysterious Five-Course Harp Mandola

Updates: September, 2010: Added several serial numbers from recent discoveries of Bob Hartman and myself, along with a new breakdown of model counts.

Dyer Harp Mandolins & the Harp Plectral Quartet

Dyer Dating, Serial Numbers and Timeline

Dyer in the BMG Magazines: An Illustrated History (Members Only)

See also Robert Hartman's site: http://www.larsonscreations.com

And finally...if you don't have this book by now, you should!

Signed copies available from Bob, or unsigned from Harp Guitar Music.

To: The Knutsen-Dyer Connection (Dyer harp guitar study)

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