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.
Lead Belly with his iconic Stella 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.
Two Oscar Schmidt made Auditorium 6 string guitars
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!
Concert Stella, left; Auditorium Stella, right
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.
Two Stella jumbos
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: