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True Guitar Heroes

GUEST,AR282 21 May 06 - 11:29 AM
open mike 21 May 06 - 12:41 PM
GUEST,DonMeixner 22 May 06 - 12:32 AM
Dave Hanson 22 May 06 - 04:22 AM
GUEST,Alain Breitenbach 19 Oct 14 - 12:31 PM
Wesley S 19 Oct 14 - 12:52 PM
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Subject: True Guitar Heroes
From: GUEST,AR282
Date: 21 May 06 - 11:29 AM

We've all heard of C. F. Martin and Washburn as early pioneers of the American guitar. Few people know about equally important pioneers as the Ditsons, Henry Schatz or Charles Bruno.

I don't know much about Oliver Ditson's early life but the trail starts with him. The records are spotty but it seems that Ditson was employed in a Boston bookstore owned by Samuel Parker. Ditson was already quite the entrepreneur and impressed upon Parker the profit to be made from publishing music. Parker agreed and the firm of Parker & Ditson began publishing sheet music in 1835, two years after Christian Friedrich Martin had arrived in Brooklyn from Germany.

Martin had trained under noted luthier Johann Stauffer in Vienna and became foreman of Stauffer's shop. Martin married in Vienna and fathered a son, Fred or Fritz. Martin eventually returned to Germany to run his own business but fled to America in 1833 following on the heels of fellow luthier Heinrich Schatz to avoid clashes with various craftsmen's guilds over his luthiership. America lacked such restrictions and Martin would be able to operate as he pleased. Schatz set up in New York (and began using the name Henry) and Martin did likewise and owned a shop on Hudson Street in Brooklyn that housed 500 employees. When Schatz moved his operation to Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1836, Martin did likewise.

Initially, Martin's guitars sold sporadically and he had no real distribution system. To make ends meet, his shop sold all kinds of musical instruments including flutes and cornets. In addition, Martin also sold sheet music. He also made alliances with two other wholesalers besides Henry Schatz to help him market and move guitars—C. Bruno & Co. run by the enterprising Charles Bruno, and a guitar teacher who distributed Martin guitars in New York, John Coupa. These distributors got to put their names on the guitars they marketed for Martin in addition to his and so we often see early Martin guitars bearing names as Martin & Schatz, Martin & Bruno or Martin & Coupa. His earliest guitars were built in the distinctive style of Johann Stauffer to the point of being virtually indistinguishable from them. In the 1840s, Martin did away with the Stauffer headboard and went for the traditional 3+3 Spanish style. By the 1850s, he would revolutionize the guitar with his x-bracing system.

Samuel Parker stayed in partnership with Oliver Ditson until 1844 when he retired from the publishing business and Ditson took over as sole owner. The firm was now called Oliver Ditson & Co. Ditson was determined to dominate the sheet music market in Boston and he did—Oliver Ditson & Co. was the top dog. Ditson bought other existing catalogs from houses as Firth, Son & Co. and Lee & Walker Co. bringing them under his umbrella. Ditson would purchase several dozen catalogs from other houses. Consequently, Ditson published an enormous amount of sheet music including the original editions of pieces by composers as Bartok. Orders across the country were handled from the Ditson offices in Boston via rail.

In 1856, Oliver's son, Charles Healy Ditson, joined the firm. That same year, Ditson also took on a promising young man named John C. Haynes. In 1861, Ditson began buying out musical instrument dealers and shops from New England to Philadelphia to Cleveland to Detroit to Chicago. Ditson wanted to expand into the instrument manufacturing and repair industry via spinning off a subsidiary of Oliver Ditson & Co. dedicated solely to that purpose. Ditson was thinking that he could sell more music if more instruments were made available and were reasonably inexpensive. To head this enterprise, Ditson appointed Haynes and called the new company John C. Haynes & Co. Meanwhile son Charles opened a music retail subsidiary in New York called Chas. H. Ditson & Co. selling the instruments received from Haynes and other wholesalers.

In 1864, Oliver decided to expand the operation by taking on a Midwest subsidiary. Chicago was becoming a music mecca and Ditson realized he needed to capitalize on the situation before rivals got too big and numerous. He sent two Boston protégés, George W. Lyon and Patrick J. Healy, to Chicago as wholesalers to run the new office. He called the new subsidiary, Lyon & Healy Co. These "jobbers," as they were called, merely bought up instruments and distributed them to retailers around the country thereby spreading the product and company names far and wide. One of the manufacturers Lyon & Healy ordered guitars from was Christian Friedrich Martin. Since 1867, when his son, Fred, joined his father as a partner, the company was thereafter called C. F. Martin & Co. That same year, Oliver Ditson & Co. was offering a 350-page sheet music catalog of some 33,000 pieces!

The relationship between Lyon & Healy and C. F. Martin & Co. was short-lived. The former were industrious, prolific music businessmen while Martin was more the quaint, skilled, old school German craftsman making his guitars by hand with loving care (not entirely true but close). As a result, the volume was always too low for Lyon & Healy's needs and Martin could not sell them as cheaply as Lyon & Healy was insisting on in order to turn a good profit. In frustration, Lyon & Healy did two important things: In 1880, they broke away from Ditson and became independent dealers, the largest in the Midwest, and they went into manufacturing their own instruments in 1883, which they felt they could do far faster and cheaply than haggling with C. F. Martin & Co. They still bought other manufacturers' instruments and distributed them when the price was right. Lyon & Healy also made mandolins, zithers and banjos, which were far more popular instruments at that time than guitars due to the popularity of the minstrel shows starting in the 1840s (about the earliest record we have of whites playing banjos). Banjos were actually considered "a lady's instrument" because so many played them and mandolins were the overwhelming favorite of the "string bands." Lyon & Healy used Lyon's first and middle name to put on the instruments as a trade name—George Washburn (perhaps because he was the musician of the two partners). The fretted instruments that Lyon & Healy distributed as wholesalers still bore the name Washburn despite being made by other companies. It was part of the deal, if they wanted distribution, they had to agree to the Washburn name going on the instrument.

Lyon & Healy also had a Washburn factory and set it up assembly line style in order to maximize production (one should understand that there was no such company called Washburn at this time). This was an early American factory environment prototype. The instruments were sturdy enough and cheap enough to sell to ordinary people rather than serious musicians—a smaller market—although that isn't to say that serious musicians didn't use Washburn or that Washburn guitars were not high end. Washburns were not Martins but then they weren't meant to be. They were almost everything a Martin wasn't and vice-versa. Martins were still largely handcrafted while Washburns were mass-produced. While a Martin guitar was touched and worked on by a number of assistants, the master craftsman, Martin himself or a trusted assistant, guided the work. Washburn guitars passed through successive hands each performing a different function that came out a guitar at the end of the process which was overseen by a shop foreman. Martins were careful works of art which had to find good homes while Washburns were merchandise to be sold as quickly as possible in the highest possible volume. Guess which brand was owned by more people.

In 1873, Christian Martin died after 45 years of quality guitar-making. His son and nephew took over the business. Oliver Ditson died in 1888 and the company was taken over by John C. Haynes who changed the name to Oliver Ditson Co. Haynes also established subsidiary Boehm, a flute company.

Grocer Wilhelm Gretsch founded his business in 1860 in Manheim, Germany. His son, Friedrich, emigrated to America in 1873, two years before his father's death, and settled in Brooklyn. At some point, Friedrich found employment with The Albert Houdlett & Son drum and banjo company, a.k.a. Houdlett & Sons Music of Brooklyn.   In 1880, Friedrich and wife, Rosa, had a boy they named Fred (odd that Martin and Gretsch were both German immigrants with the name Friedrich and sons named Fred). By 1883, Friedrich left Houdlett and founded Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co. as a maker and dealer of musical instruments, mainly drums and percussion, ukuleles, banjos and guitars (whether he used his son's name because he intended to hand down the business or because the name Fred was easier for Americans to remember than Friedrich is not known by me). The guitars were not released with the Gretsch name on them but were sold through wholesalers as Wurlitzer and our old friend Charles Bruno.

George Washburn Lyon retired from Lyon & Healy in 1889 and Healy ran the company on his own and not only continued to make Washburn instruments, he vamped them up, improved their design and build and offered models based on player's body size and level of proficiency. Consequently, Washburn offered a little something for everybody. In fact, Washburn was the guitar of choice among students. Rural guitarists also played Washburn and other cheaper guitars as Stella because it was about all they could afford and it was adequate. Nor were these bad musicians, many were excellent. Nor were the Washburns bad guitars, they were actually quite well made and had won a bronze medal for excellence at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Two years later, Friedrich Gretsch died, leaving the company in his 15-year-old son's hands.

That same year Friedrich Gretsch passed away, 1895, a 39-year-old man from upstate New York opened a guitar and mandolin shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was, of course, Orville Gibson. There isn't much that can be said about Gibson that doesn't already speak for itself. Gibson still makes some of the most top quality guitars and basses but also make excellent mandolins, banjos, and even harp-guitars. The early Gibson instruments were marked on the headstock with only a crescent moon and pentagram. This has nothing to do with Islam or Satanism. Like Procter & Gamble, Gibson realized that much of his clientele were likely to be immigrants unfamiliar with English so he opted for a recognizable symbol. The crescent moon (just as P&G's man-in-the-moon motif) was a familiar decorative motif popular in the 19th century as was the pentagram and so Gibson used both. Gibson would invent the archtop guitar and the brilliant engineer Lloyd Loar would perfect it (he also worked with amplifying stringed instruments including bass in the 1920s).

Around 1900, Washburns were in their prime. Healy had, by this time, established himself as an important figure in the evolution of the American guitar. However, sales of Washburns slowly went into decline approaching the 20s probably due to competition with Victrolas and phonographs (and later, radio). Fewer common people needed to play since they could wind up the Victrola, put on a record and let her rip. This left the guitar to more serious musicians, who preferred Martin. Lyon & Healy made some rather high-end Washburn models that were things of true beauty to behold but that wasn't enough to stop the slide.

An important evolution in the American guitar happened about this time. It was started by two brothers in Chicago in the late 1890s—Carl and August Larson, Swedish immigrants who had come to the U.S. the decade before. Their guitars were built exclusively for steel strings. All the Martins, Washburns, Gretsches and what not prior to this were made only for gut strings. The Larsons had irrevocably changed the world's guitar landscape with their wonderful innovation. They aren't better known because they never marketed their guitars themselves but always through other companies. These names include Champion, Prairie State, Euphonon, Stahl, Maurer, and Dyer. The Larson Bros. manufactured not only acoustic guitars but also the beautiful and remarkable looking harp guitars of Dyer and Knutsen—so popular throughout the 1910s—and a stand-up acoustic bass guitar marketed by Prairie State. The volume and clarity of the Larson Bros. steel-stringed guitars was undeniable and the other manufacturers began to make steel-string guitars also.

Around this time, 20-year-old Fred Gretsch has his company manufacture fine mandolins to cash in on the string band craze. Before long, Gretsch was manufacturing an enormous amount of equipment including violins, guitars, mandolins, banjos, bells, accordions, harmonicas, drums, etc. Gretsch also sold instrument accessories as strings, cases, drumsticks, guitar and cymbal stands and even phonographs. About this same time, the Haynes company got out of the instrument building and repair business and became mainly a piano retailer but sold other instruments also. The company remained a subsidiary of Ditson and was still using that name. By 1907, Charles Ditson took over as CEO of Oliver Ditson Co.

By 1916, the end of the ragtime era when the Gretsch company was moving into a 10-story manufacturing facility on Broadway in Brooklyn, Oliver Ditson Co. called upon C. F. Martin & Co. to produce the large-body guitars with narrow shoulders, shallow curves and wide bout (making the guitar body almost a soft-cornered trapezoid) that we call the dreadnought, named after a type of British battleship. It had a big, boomy sound. These dreadnoughts were to be sold at the Chas. H. Ditson & Co. retail business as their house guitar. This would become the most popular type of guitar design in the country as it is to this day.

Lyon & Healy had no answer to the popularity of Martin and, by 1925, were forced to cut their product line down which eliminated the various student guitars that had once made them favorites. Nor could they compete with Gretsch who were cleaning up in the business and marketing very nice and popular guitars under names as 20th Century and Rex. The quality and appearance of Washburns by this time were also inferior to Martins and other manufacturers but often more expensive. This spelled doom and, in 1928, Lyon & Healy opted out of the guitar business and sold the Washburn name to a Chicago company called Tonk Bros. A year earlier, Gretsch acquired a cymbal company with the unlikely name of Avedis Zildjian.

Charles Ditson would die in 1929 taking Chas. H. Ditson & Co. down with him as America's stock market crashed. Oliver Ditson Co. survived on its own until 1931 in the midst of the Depression when it was bought by Theodore Presser Co. (Theodore Presser was a professor of music who founded the excellent Etude music magazine in 1883 and a publishing empire by 1906). The Depression forced many changes such as Gretsch cutting out the middleman and distributing their guitars under their own name starting in 1933. By this time, Tonk Bros. had hired Regal to take over the Washburn factory. Regal made both Washburns and its own line of instruments from the Washburn factory and became perhaps the best selling guitar manufacturer in the thirties offering everything from acoustics to resonators to stand-up acoustic bass guitars (the basso guitar as it was called) to harp-guitars to electrically amplified double bass necks. Gibson appears to have acquired the Washburn factory in 1938 but Regal regained it the following year and continued to produce top quality instruments at a good pace until 1942, hitting a brick wall now known as World War II. Shortages, rationing, conscription and the war effort put an end to Regal and Washburn.

Gretsch rose to the occasion in the 50s. Gretsch guitars and drums virtually defined the sound of the rocknroll era. Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran and Cliff Gallup (manic lead guitarist of the Blue Caps) all played Gretsch as did George Harrison—who played one precisely because Cliff and Eddie did (in fact, George's was the same model as Cliff's—a black duo-jet 6128). Gretsch drummers include Charlie Watts and Phil Collins. By 1966, Baldwin acquired Gretsch guitars and moved the operation from Brooklyn to Arkansas.

Not until the early seventies, would we see Washburn guitars again. Somehow, an importer/manufacturer called Beckmen acquired the rights to the Washburn name and was applying it to the headstocks of a line of cheap-but-decent-quality Japanese guitars being marketed in America (you occasionally read ads of collectors looking for a Japanese Washburn). These guitars were offered only a short time before Beckmen sold the Washburn name. Gretsch meanwhile had been wholesaling other companies' cheaper guitars under the Gretsch name since the fifties. This was not such a good move as it tended to make the public wary of Gretsch guitar quality to the point that the company gave up making and selling guitars in 1983 but started again in 1985 when Fred Gretsch III bought back the company from Baldwin. Beckmen had sold the Washburn name to a Chicago importer called Fretted Instruments, Inc. in 1987 when they promptly changed their name to Washburn International, making Washburn a true company now, and Washburn guitars today appear to be made exclusively in China and Indonesia while Gretsch guitars appear to come largely, if not exclusively, from Japan. Today, the Gretsch guitar division is owned by Fender and the drum division is owned by Kaman (who also own Takamine guitars).

Lyon & Healy now make harps and mandolins but they no longer have anything to do with the Washburn brand name.    If it seems odd that a company doesn't own its own name anymore, this is fairly common in among instrument manufacturers. William F. Ludwig (another German immigrant) founded the Ludwig & Ludwig Drum Co. in Chicago with his brother in 1910 but had been forced to merge with C. G. Conn of Elkhart, Indiana during the Depression when the drum manufacturing business went south. The Ludwig factory was moved to Elkhart. Conn wanted Bill Ludwig to oversee both Ludwig and Leedy—another rival drum manufacturer now also owned by Conn (who also owned Epiphone). This resulted in a Ludwig-Leedy division of Conn which Wm. Ludwig ran in Elkhart. Eventually, Conn sent Ludwig back to Chicago effectively removing him from the manufacturing operations he loved. Ludwig resigned in 1936 and started a new company called W.F.L. Drums in Chicago the following year (their first product was the Speed King foot pedal). For years, W.F.L. and Ludwig-Leedy were bitter rivals. Two companies named for and started by the same man were in heavy competition. In 1955, Bill Ludwig was finally able to buy out the Ludwig portion of Ludwig-Leedy, along with his old factory and all its machinery, and combined it with his new W.F.L. base in Chicago to form the Ludwig Drum Co. Ludwig is now owned by Selmer.

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Subject: RE: True Guitar Heroes
From: open mike
Date: 21 May 06 - 12:41 PM

Wow! what a lot of history -- interesting to see the progression.

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Subject: RE: True Guitar Heroes
From: GUEST,DonMeixner
Date: 22 May 06 - 12:32 AM

Nicely done, a great read.


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Subject: RE: True Guitar Heroes
From: Dave Hanson
Date: 22 May 06 - 04:22 AM

You read all that Don ? well done.


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Subject: RE: True Guitar Heroes
From: GUEST,Alain Breitenbach
Date: 19 Oct 14 - 12:31 PM

I own 2 guitars made by Charles Bruno - details coming up very soon - please be patient

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Subject: RE: True Guitar Heroes
From: Wesley S
Date: 19 Oct 14 - 12:52 PM

Good story. Who wrote it?

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