Vintage Guitar - July 2016 - Open - 44

Column The (Way) Back Beat

lyon & Healy introduces
the Style 503, 1889.

In Search of BIgfret
Pre-Dreadnought Jumbo Guitars
By peter stuart kohman

F

or decades, the wide-waisted dreadnought
has been the common image of a flat-top
guitar. This year, Martin is celebrating the
100th anniversary of its dreadnought design,
but when the earliest version was introduced
in 1916, it hardly registered.
Named after battleships then in the news
for their work in World War I ("Dreadnoughts

Clash at Jutland" was a headline in 1916)
the original 155/8"-wide dreadnought was
specified by Harry L. Hunt, manager
at the Charles H. Ditson & Company store, New York, to round
out his custom-labeled line
of Hawaiian guitars and
ukes. Hunt was one of the

The giant Washburn
six-string (left).

Vintage guitar

44

July 2016

most astute managers in retail music, with
an ear to what dealers and players wanted. In
this case, the idea was not instantly successful;
the Martin dreadnought would not play a
prominent role for another 15 years. Despite
this, Hunt's big-body steel-string eventually
succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Still,
Martin had not always in the forefront of design
and marketing large-body flat-tops; for decades
before 1916, others had been experimenting
with the concept.
By the early 20th century, trends were
for larger, louder guitars. The 1890s
saw a wave of fretted-instrument
groups, often school or community
orchestras. This activity put the guitar
- previously considered a polite solo
instrument - in the role of accompanist
to massed banjos and/or mandolins.
Once out of the parlor, the small-bodied
gut-string of the day was easily lost amongst
the clatter of steel mandolin strings and
skin banjo heads. Soon enough, players
were looking for louder, more bass-heavy
instruments than the daintily balanced
12"- to 14"-wide 19th-century parlor guitars.
Then, in the early 1910s, the impetus for
more-powerful guitars for Hawaiian playing was added to the mix. Interest in playing
Hawaiian steel guitar (in the
A rare
lap, with a steel bar) exploded
Washburn
in the mid teens, and both
503.
the soloists and accompanists needed guitars with
improved projecting power.
Theatres and Vaudeville
demanded more from
the guitar; designs from
the 19th century were
fitted with steel strings
and played, but offered
limited potential for
improvement - designers across the country
experimented with more
evolved solutions.
By 1915, the extralarge "bass guitar"
concept had been
f loating around
for decades, but
documentation
is slim. Still,
some printed
matter and instruments survive, showing a
halting march from
the parlor into the
band, as it were.


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