Vintage Guitar - July 2016 - Open - 46
ColuMn the (Way) Back Beat
(CLoCKWAIsE, toP) the Lyon & healy
Monster Bass catalog debut. the
Monster, in the wood. the Lyon & healy
"Jumbo," as finally pictured in 1925.
The first well-documented attempt to
enlarge the guitar for group use came
from Lyon & Healy, in Chicago. The
earliest such instrument known to have
been produced was the Washburn Style
503 Contra Bass Guitar introduced in
the company's 1889 catalog,
described as "the largest
instrument of the kind
attempted - intended
for use in clubs as
...too large for successful solo use."
That shows just how
small standard guitars were in 1889;
the 503 was all
of 15" wide - same size as the Martin 000
introduced in 1902 and by then regarded as a
mid-size guitar. The body was extra deep (5" at
the end pin) but the guitar's most distinctive
feature was a 27"-scale neck, which joined the
body between the 10th and 11th fret.
"Strung with specially wound strings... the
tone is quite harp-like" was Lyon & Healy's
description of the sonic character, but they
failed to say how it was tuned or what the strings
were. Research by Hubert Pleijsier for his 2008
book Washburn Prewar Instrument Styles,
indicated the 503 was fitted with a special
compound-wound string set and tuned
down almost an octave, with the lowest
string sounding to G. This made it nearly
equivalent of the six-string basses of the
1950s and '60s, in an acoustic mode. The
1889 catalog listed the 503 at a very high
price of $75 net. The model was no longer
listed in Lyon & Healy catalogs after 1892
and however many were produced, hardly
any survive today.
The Model 503's top was elegantly Xbraced like most better Washburn guitars,
and materials included Brazilian rosewood
back and sides. Though the "Contra Bass"
idea failed to catch on, an original Style
503 is a relatively elegant guitar to hold
and play - certainly when compared to
some overgrown successors. The "Low G"
tuning seems impractical in retrospect,
but tuned to a D, C, or down to B in the
contemporary baritone guitar mode, it
performs as well as any modern equivalent.
The recent Santa Cruz Bob Brozman model looks rather
like a 503 crossed with a
jumbo seems to have
passed almost unnoticed over more
than a century - I
have yet to see a photo
of any period player using one.