Another Oscar Schmidt made jumbo has passed through our hands recently, and it’s a special one. The big 15.5″ body is adorned with top-of-the-line marquetry, and the Italian influence is seen in the “mustache” bridge and inlaid faux-tortoise pickguard. The large mahogany body and 26.5″ scale makes this a nice finger picking guitar, and the harder it’s played, the nastier the tone!
A rare and iconic guitar, this one is a ‘Decalcomania’ Stella, named for the application of decal ornamentation, specifically the sound hole ring and back stripe.
In fact, this guitar resembles the one held by Blind Willie McTell in his famous photo, but for the decal along the bridge and the tailpiece:
Here’s a six-string version of Willie’s Decalcomania 12-String
The venerable Oscar Schmidt Company manufactured an immensely popular line of guitars in the first half of the 20th Century. By 1939, the company was sold and would have slipped into obscurity but for the rising popularity of old country blues music beginning in the 1960’s, and another obscure object from the early 20th Century, the 78 rpm record. It just so happened that writers on the early blues reported that the Stella brand guitar was favored and used by many of the musicians on the early 78 recordings, some claim for their sound, and some because they were cheap and available (many Schmidt instruments were sold through mail order catalogs, or in local general stores). Today the Oscar Schmidt brands enjoy a new popularity among fans of the early recorded music.
The vast majority of Stellas that survived were originally cataloged as ‘Concert’ size guitars, those measuring about 13.5″ across the lower bout. Concert guitars were big sellers because they were cheap and available. As a side note ..steps up on soap box..many guitar enthusiasts today refer to this size guitar from the 20’s and 30’s as ‘parlor guitar’. But this is a misnomer. Catalogs of the era refer to this size guitar as ‘Concert’, not parlor. The parlor moniker likely came about as a nickname applied to any small guitar. An argument can be made that only guitars used during the parlor music era (think Steven Foster), from roughly 1850 through about 1920, could accurately be called ‘parlor guitars’. This parlor music era is so-called because, for entertainment on say, a Sunday afternoon, folks would gather in the parlor and make music, often played from sheet music purchased through mail order or bought at the local general store (sound familiar?). This era faded into oblivion with the invention of the aforementioned 78 rpm record. With the rise of the 78, musicians left the parlor and set out to become recording stars, planting the seeds of what we know as pop music today! But that’s another story.
The next size Stellas, and more rare today, are what were cataloged as a ‘Grand Concert’ guitars, with a spread of 14.5″ across the lower bout and a scale length of about 26.5″. And largest Schmidt-produced instruments were referred to as ‘Auditorium’ guitars, and measured a whopping 15.5″ across, also with the long scale length. These guitars today are called ‘jumbos’, and the one most familiar to music fans is the Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter Oscar Schmidt-made jumbo 12 string.
Schmidt jumbos are quite rare and few have survived today. The 12-strings are coveted for the Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell sound, two well known Stella jumbo 12-string players. It’s likely very few were originally made, because in those days, the 12-string was a pretty obscure instrument. However, original 6-string jumbos are just as rare, and maybe even more so, because it’s known that, over the past decades, numerous jumbo 6’s were converted to the more desirable 12.
So it’s a rare occasion to spot a Stella jumbo 6, but even more rare when two original examples are together.
The two guitars shown share the same dimensions in terms of body size and scale length. Both are likely made in the late teens into the 1920’s. Where they differ is wood selection. The one on the left has a spruce top with painted birch back and sides. The example on the right has a body constructed entirely of mahogany, a rare top wood compared to Schmidt examples known today (solid birch top, back and sides are much more common). The spruce topped example is from the upper part of the Schmidt line, as noted by its spruce top, body binding and sound hole purfling. The example on the right is from the lower end of the line, a notation supported by the ‘cheaper’ mahogany body, no binding or purfling and a headstock shape familiar to guitars on the lower end of the Schmidt line. The spruce topped guitar has a replaced bridge, and the mahogany example has an added pickguard, otherwise all original.
To add some perspective, here’s a shot of the jumbo 6 along side it’s diminutive ‘concert-size’ sibling. Note that the soundhole purfling is the same!
Even though unlabeled, how do we know they were made in Jersey City by the Schmidt company? One giveaway is the square upper kerfing glued in to hold the top to the sides, a Schmidt hallmark. Also, the curved profile of the heel and back is found on Schmidt-made instruments. The little concert guitar has it’s original yellow Stella label.
Next is the jumbo 6 compared to a ‘Lead Belly’-type jumbo 12. Both guitars were from the top of the Schmidt line.
Finally, how do they sound? Schmidt guitars were almost always ladder braced tops. The sound produced by these type instruments is often described as ‘woody’, full-sounding guitars with a lot of mid range umph, especially the jumbos. Blues guitar player Stefan Grossman describes the jumbo 12-string “..as if you are playing a giant organ.”
Here are a couple of sound clips..first the 6, then the 12:
John Wanamaker Guitar by C.F. Martin
As many Martin guitar aficionados can attest, the Nazareth, PA factory produced instruments for a variety of sellers imprinted with the resellers own label, stamp or brand. Oliver Ditson, Rudolph Wurlitzer and the Southern California Music Company are some of the names that may come up when discussing rare Martins. One of the more arcane resellers of Martin guitars was the Wanamaker’s department stores in New York and Philadelphia. According to the new book, “Martin Guitars: A Technical Reference”, by Richard Johnston and Dick Boak (the two book set revises and updates the original Martin Guitar book by Mike Longworth), Martin made a few “special models” for John Wanamaker about 1909. On page 233 of the book, an image of the Wanamaker stamp is shown. In a recent discussion with Dick Boak, it was disclosed that he’d heard of the Wanamaker Martins, but had never seen one. He also stated that the Martin archive retains the original Wanamaker stamp. In another discussion with a prominent and long-time Martin guitar dealer and collector, it was reported that he’d seen only one guitar with the Wanamaker stamp. So we here at vintagebluesguitars.com were thrilled to take possession of a Wanamaker Martin, even though we didn’t know it was a Martin guitar when acquired.
Based upon the guitar’s dimensions and woods, this example specs out to be a model 2 ½ – 17. Currently, this little gem is waiting to undergo careful repairs, to include crack and ding repair, reproduction pyramid bridge, neck set, and the necessary set up work to get the guitar stable and playable again. In the meantime, here’s a report on the nuts and bolts that make up this unusual Martin, arranged much like Mike Longworth’s seminal book on Martin guitars:
Total Length – 36”
Body Length – 17 5/8”
Width Upper Bout – 8 3/8”
Width Lower Bout – 11 ¾
Depth Upper Bout – 3 1/8”
Depth Lower Bout – 3 ¾”
Width at Nut – 1 ¾”
Width at 12th Fret – 2 ¼”
Diameter of Sound Hole – 3 ½”
Scale 24 ½”
Bridge – 5 ¾” x 7/8”
Bridge ‘Wings’ – 1 3/8”
Rosewood overlay over headstock
Mahogany back and sides
Engraved brass tuners w/ bone/ivory buttons
Top bound w/ rosewood; wbwb purfling
Sound hole binding three parts: bwbw – Rope in green/brown/black – wbwb
Ebony end pin with Brazillian strip inlaid where sides join
X-braced with two diamond shaped cleats over the seam of the two-piece top
End block overlaid with thin vertical strip
Oval ink stamp on mahogany heel: John Wanamaker Originator New York Philadelphia Paris w/ ‘G’ stamped below?
Date (’09?) and one initial written in pencil underside of top
“Around 1909, special models were made for this large Philadelphia department store.” P 255 Washburn and Johnston “Martin Guitars” 1997
Since Harmony probably made a zillion guitars over the years, there are bound to be some odd combinations out there. Here’s one you don’t see everyday: Flat top with f-holes. Probably from the late ’30’s to early ’40’s.
Someone enjoyed playing something similar back in the day..nice blues hat!
Here’s another oddball. I’d never seen another headstock like this one. At first, one may think cut down 12-string headstock. But a quick examination shows that the headstock is unmolested, and originally built in this offset manner..for what purpose .. who knows? .. but it’s a cool look and an oddball for sure. Otherwise, a sundry grand concert-size six string with a spruce top and mahogany back and sides. But, adding to the mystique are the scratched inscriptions and names on the head stock..wonder who the ‘Delta Kid’ was and what music he/she played on the guitar?
One cool thing about looking at and playing lots of guitars is that ‘off-the-beaten-track’ guitars really stand out. For example, when one thinks of the specs of an acoustic archtop guitar, 14 fret, f-holes, solid headstock are common attributes. Here’s an old Regal that goes against those specs and fits the ‘oddball’ catagory.
Check it out: no f-holes, but a round hole instead. Not real scarce, but odd enough. But add the slotted headstock and 12 frets to the body and you have a very unusual piece. And, it’s 16″ across the lower bout!
Here’s the new owner playing some ragtime on this unique guitar:
The old VBG blog disappeared for unknown reasons .. but .. we’re back .. new content, new look! What’s the first lesson taught in Computer 101? Back up your files! Well, I must have been sick on that day .. I didn’t back up my data, and now it’s gone! Rest assured, I’ll be backing up as this new version of the Vintage Blues Guitars Blog evolves.
Meanwhile, take a peek at the ladder bracing in a ca. 1930 Oscar Schmidt Stella.