The Birth of the American 12-string Guitar

by Gregg Miner
Rewritten July, 2013

INTRODUCTION

For those wishing to skip to the heart of the matter, just jump to the end of this article.  However, as it took me quite a while to get there, you may find the provenance, and my eventual analysis worth reading first.  What started out as just an interesting little blog - from something I unearthed in my harp guitar “To Do” folders - ended up as an extensive and pretty exhaustive 8500+ word research project, so I published it here on the more permanent site – even though it has less to do with actual harp guitars than standard guitars.

As this site is of course harp guitar-specific, I should note that I am going decidedly “off topic” and referring to what nearly everyone today considers the standard “12-String Guitar.”  In other words, the regular steel string guitar with 6 double courses (the 4 lowest strung in octaves, the top 2 in unison) – not a 12 string harp guitar such as a Dyer with 6 on the neck and 6 subs.

So what does the 12-string guitar, popularized by dozens of memorable players from Leadbelly to Leo Kottke, have to do with harp guitars…in fact, two completely different families of “harp guitars”?

It is my belief that the ubiquitous 12-string guitar may have evolved from – or at least been significantly inspired by – two previously overlooked instruments: An early non-floating-strings instrument called the “harp-guitar,” and the true harp guitar with floating strings.

All the previous theories I could locate were that the 12-string was inspired by double-course guitars from south of the border, like the baja sexto, or developed in the workshop of some American factory like Oscar Schmidt.  Michael Simmons has written a couple articles over the years on the 12-string which are worth noting.  There may be other 12-string historical expertise in print or on the web that I haven’t seen or remembered, as well.  Probably the latest in 12-string circles is the increasing awareness by esoteric collectors and players of the little-known early (very early) Holzapfel 12-strings.

There is some mention (Simmons, again), though little follow-up discussion, of my main candidate – specifically, an instrument by Rene Grunewald, which is the key to our puzzle.  Michael shows a c.1904 ad for this 12-string instrument.  But we have to go back a little further.  Feb 8, 1896, to be precise.

That’s when one Carl E. Brown, of Columbus, Ohio, filed his patent application for his own “harp-guitar” (you’ll remember from my Organology thesis that anyone is free to call their invention a “harp guitar” – it needn’t be a version of the harp guitar with floating strings, as classified today).

Brown’s curious patent (#568,108) has been on this site from the beginning, on the Patents page and in the “Harp Guitars in Name Only” Gallery.  It consists of not 12, but 10 strings, which I believe is an important observation and distinction for our purposes of “12-string guitar evolution” and provenance.  In other words, my stance is that this particular 12-string would not have existed without there being a 10-string first, and this instrument was invented for a very specific use and effect – and very much “of its time.”

The Grunewald instruments (at least the 10-string version) list Brown’s patent number on the label, and thus these labels would seem to point to a possible obscure beginning to the 12-string guitar story.  So I’m surprised more attention hasn’t been paid to this.  But the real evidence comes from reading the weekly Music Trade Review of the period and understanding the context of the prose, and also that of the related BMG world (“Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar” community), as focused through The Cadenza, and later, Crescendo, magazines.

PART ONE

Before I delve into these magazine appearances, let me present our Cast of Characters, Part 1:

Carl Brown: A (definitely wacky) inventor, from Columbus, Ohio.  Some of his work seems to have had to do with the piano, but besides his groundbreaking 10-string guitar (its only real flaw being the novelty “olden days” shape), he also invented the laughable “Harp-o-chord,” that unusual harmonica and zither combo.  The appearance of a tuxedoed professional demonstrating the instrument in the advertisements assures us Brown was serious.  He also patented 3 other fairly useless zither designs, the “Harp-Zither” - a simple, though attractively-shaped, fretless zither – and 2 other “zither body shapes” which were actually produced and sold, though they had only 3 or 4 strings each!  (You occasionally see them on eBay, where they are easily mistaken for toys).

Gordon: Hamilton Gordon of New York, a successful musical instrument entrepreneur by 1895. 
Grunewald: A large musical enterprise in New Orleans headed by patriarch Louis and 3 sons, of which Rene (pictured) is of interest to us, as head of their manufacturing division (by 1895).  Rene was born in 1869 and died in December, 1914.  By 1897, he ran their very successful mandolin factory, which was soon adding guitars to the line.  By 1904, they became a huge maker and distributor of banjo and drum heads.  This led to their infamous advertising campaign (as featured in the Spring, 2009 Fretboard Journal) with the tag line “WE WANT YOUR SKIN” (or “Give us your skin” - referring to the fact that they were actively buying up animal hide for the mass production of skin heads for musical instruments).  A legitimate business undertaking, but certainly an off-putting, if not downright macabre, slogan - even without today’s post-Silence of the Lambs perspective.

And now, with access not only to a nearly full run of Cadenza magazines, but also the recent Music Trade Review (TMTR) online archives and still-growing Chronicling America online archives (please have it, I’m sure I haven’t found every relevant entry), we can see a better timeline of the Brown invention and its subsequent manufacture. 

Equally important, we can see the reasoning behind the instrument, and visualize its intended audience.


April 11, 1896: TMTR: “The Harp-Guitar”  

This is the first news of Brown’s 10-string invention, which has been on display in a local store “for the past week.”   The necessity to describe in detail the new stringing and tuning makes clear that it is considered a “novel” concept for a guitar.  Mention is made of the tone, which “resembles two instruments…the mandolin and guitar” (not a harp and guitar, as Brown’s patent pronounces).  Though cryptically stated, the writer alludes to a “simple arrangement” (a device to be explained in a later issue) via which the effect of either a guitar or mandolin “can be produced.”  They mention the patent application, which had occurred 2 months prior (Feb 8).  The primary purpose of the patent invention is clearly stated at the outset: “…to combine the features of a harp and a guitar.”  


August 22, 1896: TMTR: “A New Musical Novelty”

This article announces that Brown’s patent (at left) has now been granted.  The pear-shaped body is described as having “the general form of guitars of ‘ye olden time…’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean) – which was probably intended to add to its “novel” aspect.  It then repeats the details of the stringing and tuning.   

Next is the claim that this arrangement makes it “much more simple than on the guitar, (due to) the air being picked with the thumb on the double strings, while the accompaniment is played with the fingers, and thumb when unoccupied, upon all the available strings.”  This verbiage is taken from Brown’s own patent, though the phrase must be looked at in context – for the amateur guitar style was then much as described; the thumb played a simple melody, with fingers playing a (generally higher) simple accompaniment.  In other words, the point is not that Brown’s new instrument was the first to introduce this style, but that it was created to better take advantage of the basic style.  As this somewhat confusing point occurs throughout several years of advertising (Grunewald still using it in 1904), and to confirm that this was indeed the playing practice of amateur guitarists at the time (I am no expert), I went to the source: Jeffrey Noonan, author of The Guitar in America.  No one has studied the early literature and music more than Noonan.  He summed it up for me thusly: “The ‘bass solo’ style was very common for amateur players - even as late as the 1920s The Cadenza (or maybe Crescendo) published some solo arrangements by Sophocles Papas (as close to Segovia as you could get) - and every one of his arrangements was in the ‘bass solo’ style.  Lots of the late 19th-century solos in the magazines were in this style and were clearly aimed at the amateur player.”  

Though Brown did not pass up the opportunity to tout the “increased” tone and volume of “nearly double that of the guitar” (after all, every new builder and inventor did this routinely), the crux of his invention was the added octave strings on the 4 low courses.  But again, this was not to create a novel means of introducing a strange new playing style – the thumb melody – but to expand the musical range of what was already a common amateur playing style (the “bass solo” style).

This is made clearer in the next sentence, when the writer explains that “the fingering is much more simple than upon the guitar, for by means of the four extra treble strings, one is enabled to render almost any ordinary piece of music with the left hand in the first position, there being two and one-half octaves under the hand in this position (italics mine).  Get it?  They’re describing the characteristic well known to 12-string players – that either the low or high octave of the 4 lowest courses can be accented (naturally occurring depending on whether a down-stroke or up-stroke is used on the pair of octave strings); or they can even be separately plucked.  Brown’s idea then is to just leave the left hand in first position, period, and let the high octave string in those 4 low courses extend the melody upwards.  This is assuming the amateur player can get the hang of this tricky transposition!  Brown seems quite confident, as the article claims “On the guitar there are eighteen frets, while only four or five are needed upon the harp-guitar.”  There you have it!  It goes on for a couple more paragraphs about how much easier it will be to play all the popular airs and such.

The tone is given additional press (“autoharp or mandolin” plus guitar), with “volume…being nearly double that of the guitar.”  Strange that there is still no allusion to a “harp” tone, as that is the name of the new instrument, and the only term used by Brown in his patent.  With nary a mention of mandolin or autoharp effects in Brown’s patent, I would propose that the TMTR writer perhaps saw and heard an actual instrument, and drew their own conclusion (and a more accurate one).  Next, the “double instrument” feature is explained a bit more, describing how by “throwing a small lever it can instantly be converted into an ordinary guitar, this being accomplished by silencing the extra treble strings.”  The patent clearly shows and explains this device: 4 hooks on a bar mounted across the soundhole are positioned over the high strings (the ones that make it sound “mandolin-like” or as Brown states, “harp effect”).  The lever linkage pulls them down out of the way, leaving just the standard 6 strings accessible…in theory.

Finally, we learn that “two prominent manufacturers will place the instrument on the market this coming fall.”

Before continuing, note that we’re still talking about Brown’s 10-string.  There are two simple reasons why Brown didn’t include twelve.  Just like today’s 12-strings, the physics of string technology don’t allow a 24-25”-scale steel string that can be tuned to a high b’ – so the octave configuration must necessarily stop at the 3rd G string.  Modern 12-strings of course double the E & B for balance and to better approximate the “jangle” of the octave courses.  Brown was only interested in extending the range of pitch in first position – so he saw no point in just adding another unison string.


June 26, 1897: TMTR: “The Gordon Harp-Guitar”  

At the “Gordon musical merchandise warerooms” (in New York), the first of Brown’s “two prominent manufacturers” places the instrument on the market.  I don’t know who built Gordon’s instruments; it probably could have been any number of East Coast shops or factories.  Whoever it was copied Brown’s patent drawing (and likely the prototype(s) pretty closely, except for the headstock, which is instead a more interesting and attractive asymmetrical shape.  We may never know whose design this actually was.

The woodcut shows the same pear-shaped, “‘ye olden time” body and distinctive bridge shape.  However, the whole reason for the bridge shape is the extension for the lever for lowering the high strings.  This is not included, nor the device itself in the soundhole (as in the patent drawing, above) - though its effect is mentioned in the text.  This is the first time that the tone of a “harp” is brought up; specifically, with all ten strings engaged, it is a “harp”; with the 4 extras silenced, it is “converted to guitar” – exactly that of Brown’s original premise.

All things considered, the vibe is still more of a “novelty” instrument.


October 2, 1897: TMTR: “Harp-Guitar – A New Invention”

The second of the prominent manufacturers, Rene Grunewald, unveils his harp-guitar (under the same patent).  It is not yet pictured.  While many TMTR “articles” reek of favoritism (quid pro quo if not payola), evident in the obvious advertising hyperbole, the level is amped up here, perhaps by Grunewald, himself?  Essentially describing the same playing advantages as the previous notices, the copy is well worth reading, as you guitar players will discover that you may very well have wasted “years of tedious practicing” learning how to run “up and down the fingerboard” for nothing!

Before we ridicule Grunewald too strongly, it should be noted that the claim of being “famous in musical circles all over the country” was not without some merit.  The Louisiana Grunewald firm was then large and well established, and Rene’s mandolin factory had been mentioned several times by this point, with notices of success exporting vast quantities of (bowl-back) mandolins, and later guitars, to other countries.

Still, the true newsworthiness of The Music Trade Review must fall under some suspicion.  Certainly they were much more impartial than the Cadenza, and later Crescendo, magazines, which rarely included a single glad-handing sentence about any manufacturer or brand name who was not one of that issue’s advertisers – yet TMTR’s “stories” and notices – intended for the trade rather than the final customers - seem intended to hype the topic, first and foremost.


January 22, 1898: TMTR: “The Grunewald Harp-Guitar”

Grunewald’s instrument is now shown, and we see that his company wisely chose to use a normal guitar-shaped body.  All other particulars seem to match Gordon’s – the asymmetrical 10-string headstock and the distinctive bridge, though once again, the required (and alluded-to) lever and hook assembly are mysteriously absent.

The write-up is similar to the last one, and even longer.  Grunewald and/or the writer revert back to tone comparison to a “concert autoharp” or “mandolin and guitar.”  They are now even more strongly advertising this as something for a beginner or amateur, an instrument that can be “mastered…with a few days practice” unlike the standard guitar.  Though still “novel,” someone at TMTR seems to be pushing this as a practical, useful instrument.

At left is one of the rare surviving specimens (sold by Retrofret).  Everything seems to match the woodcut exactly, including the specially-shaped bridge designed to incorporate the lever for lowering the extra strings.  But just like the woodcut, this is missing, and in fact, looks like it was never there to begin with.  Perhaps they thought it just “looked cool”?

grunewald2-musurgia.jpg (103503 bytes)

Later on, while still a 10-string model (at right), Grunewald appears to have switched to a standard bridge, with the same 2 strings under one bridge pin, and separated on the saddle by a tiny pin.  The headstock appears to be the same asymmetrical design.  Note the same label as in the previous instrument.


Back to our story:  

February 12, 1898: TMTR: “The Grunewald Harp-Guitar”

What’s going on?  Not a month later, the trade journal again highlights the new instrument, with the same woodcut and 2 columns of hype, claiming that it is “attracting considerable attention in trade and musical circles.”  In fact, “all who have examined it are unanimous in proclaiming it to be a radical and practical improvement upon the time-honored guitar.”  True?  There doesn’t seem to be reason to totally discount the report, yet where are all the surviving instruments?  Perhaps all south of the border, as the company’s activity there is again specifically mentioned? 

This time, in the tone department, they’re having their cake and eating it too, describing the “quality of tone (that) resembles that of the mandolin and guitar, or more particularly that of the harp…”  Personally, I consider a mandolin and harp very different (!) - the mandolin being steel strung, high and bright with little sustain, while available harps were all gut strung and meant to ring.  Note that the “autoharp or mandolin” clues have informed us from the beginning that Brown’s original instrument and the two manufacturer’s were almost certainly all strung in steel (or silk & steel), which at the time was intended for amateurs and not “serious” guitar players.

This piece ends with another reminder that the “ordinary guitar…is an instrument upon which…comparatively few can play.”  It sounds like the Grunewald harp-guitar may indeed soon supersede it!


April 16, 1898: TMTR: A short blurb tells of a Grunewald agent’s success in Mexico and soon South America with the harp-guitar.


September 10, 1898: TMTR: “Rene Grunewald Forging Ahead”

Now things are getting serious.  First, they’re already talking about the “now famous harp-guitar.”  We then learn that Grunewald is planning to aggressively market the instrument (along with his mandolins) throughout the United States, but also in Cuba and Puerto Rico (America’s “new possessions”). Further acclaim of the still-10-string instrument and much name-dropping regarding Grunewald mandolin testimonials follows.


October 15, 1898: TMTR: “The Harp-Guitar”

A month later and TMTR is really taking this seriously, insisting that “The new American harp-guitar…is considered by experts, soloists and amateurs as the acme of perfection.”  For the first time, we are told exactly how the melody will be played in first position via the paired octave strings: “The air will sound in a clear treble, bass, or plainly in octaves, with great volume, by simply engaging the treble of the parallel strings with the thumb and its larger companion with the first finger.”  Man, can you imagine a beginner doing that with a few days practice?  They’re telling me I can pluck just the skinny string of the pair and get a melody with “great volume”?  How many modern 12-string players can do that?!


December 3, 1898: The Houston Daily Post: Display Ad

A separate C. Grunewald store in Houston, Texas at 310 Main St. lists “Harp-Guitars” among its inventory.  "C" must be Clifford, brother of Rene.


April 8, 1899: TMTR: “The Harp-o-chord the Latest”

This tells of Carl Brown’s second invention, the “Harp-o-chord.”  Clearly, the TMTR editor is a Brown fan!


September 10, 1899: The Sacramento Record-Union: News Announcement

A short entry announces Brown’s new Harp-o-chord invention, and includes “who made such a success of a ten-stringed harp guitar, which he brought out some two years ago…”


December 23, 1899: TMTR: “A New Guitar”

An interesting little press release (with a typo of “1889” in the heading, so don’t get confused) from Brown’s firm in Columbus, Ohio, that mentions the “new 10-string guitar recently invented…manufactured by the “New Orleans branch of the Columbus Harpochord Co.”

Curiously, the address given (West Bond St.) is different than the Grunewald’s factory (Conti St.), so the question is: Is this a new facility unrelated to Grunewald, or simply a department of, or new location of, Grunewald’s original factory?  It’s curious that Grunewald – surely the bigger “name” – isn’t mentioned, nor have we heard anything of him in TMTR for over a year.

If Grunewald was indeed still the manufacturer, this would indicate that at the very end of 1899, Grunewald still had not come up with the 12-string version.  However, if Grunewald was out of the picture, could he have been now creating his 12-string?  And if he broke off from Brown, could he still call his 12-string version “the Harp-Guitar”?  What’s missing is a 12-string specimen showing the label, which would presumably be under the original Brown patent.  Or would it?  None of the next Grunewald ads mention a patent. WANTED: Any images and/or information of a surviving Grunewald 12-string “harp-guitar.”

Irrespective of this puzzle, note the key sentence of this notice: the claim that “The New Orleans house is sending them out by the hundreds, and the sales are enormous.”   Again, if true, where are the surviving instruments?!  


August 19, 1900: The Houston Daily Post: Display Ad

The Houston C. Grunewald store announces “Have just received new lot Harp Guitars of…$10.50.” There is no way to know whether these were 10-strings or 12-strings.


1901-1902: Here is where our trail grows cold, as nothing further on the 10- or 12-string Brown or Grunewald (to say nothing of Gordon) harp-guitar appears in The Music Trade Review (that I have found through searching.  Someone next needs to carefully read all pages of all weekly issues).

There is one ad in the S. S. Stewart Journal in April, 1901 for Grunewald’s new “Special Guitar” (per Noonan’s extensive The Guitar in American Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Periodicals, 1882-1933), but this is only a 6-string guitar with an added metal tailpiece.  I haven’t seen the ad, but suspect that if a 12-string “harp-guitar” also appeared in it, it would have been referenced by Noonan.

The Cadenza

After the end of the Music Trade Review 10-string write-ups above and the 1901-1902 “lost years,” Grunewald came back blazing with full page ads in The Cadenza for a couple years running.  These were seen by most every “serious” guitar player in America, and also all levels of amateurs.  While TMTR catered to the trade, The Cadenza catered to the customers – the players.


December, 1902: The Cadenza: Grunewald advertisement

Grunewald takes out a full-page ad highlighting his 12-string Harp-Guitar in the December, 1902 issue.  The “new invention” claim in this case was simply that the old Brown invention is now a full 12-string guitar.  I think Grunewald is “starting over” – trying to “re-set” the double-stringing concept in the public’s imagination.  There is no reference to the earlier 10-string or Brown’s patent, though later on, his brochure text clearly mentions the same first-position playing technique as the “point” of the extra strings.  There is no reference to the Grunewald ad in this issue’s “Trade Department” as normally occurred.

But when did the actual instrument first appear?  Note that ad copy such as “A New Invention!” was often used for years (in this case, at least 2 or 3), so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the instrument was brand new this very month.  Yet as of this writing, this is the earliest Grunewald 12-string date I am aware of, so until more evidence turns up, we can’t say with certainty who built the official “first 12-string guitar.”

Did one copy the other?  As both Grunewald and Holzapfel & Beitel advertised or were featured in both The Music Trade Review and The Cadenza, I imagine that the two firms would be aware of each other, but who knows?  There was likely a much better chance that Holzapfel was familiar with Grunewald’s 10-string than Grunewald being aware of Holzapfel’s first “custom” 12-string.  Speculation aside, this may be irrelevant, as there’s no reason not to believe that two builders (and probably more) could come up with the same idea at the same time.  In any event, I think Grunewald acted on his own.  To me, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that Grunewald (and/or his customers) observed the 10-string’s problem – that the 2 high strings were unevenly balanced, so he simply doubled those to approximate the octave-doubling “jangle” effect of his 4 low courses.  The result?  Grunewald has (astutely) doubled the two remaining high strings, creating the first production 12-string guitar, still called the “Harp-Guitar,” and possibly still under the original Brown patent.  


January, 1903: The Cadenza: Grunewald advertisement

Grunewald’s second full page ad concerns his other main business: supplying heads for banjos and drums.  This time the editors included him in the “Trade Department,” proudly explaining how they designed the artwork for his ad themselves.  

I have to admit that I prefer the cuddly “instrument heads-on-the-hoof” to the creepier catch phrase alluded to at the top of this article.  


February, 1903: The Cadenza: Grunewald advertisement

Grunewald’s new ad announces “The Grunewald Harp-Guitar” as “The King of Guitars” with similar hyperbole.  The Cadenza writer (either Editor C. L. Partee himself, or assistant Charles Adams) apparently paid zero attention to Grunewald’s first illustrated full-page ad 2 issues prior, and finally wakes up.  Here, in the “Trade Department,” where he pays lip service to his paying advertisers by parroting the advertiser’s own text and catch phrases, he makes the mistake of not bothering to learn about (or remember from two issues ago!) Grunewald’s instrument.  Instead, “knowing” what an actual harp guitar is, and reading “12 strings,” he makes the obvious assumption and tells the readers that the new guitar has 6 sub-basses.  Ooops!

This amusing error nevertheless illustrates how familiar the BMG community (“serious” players of banjo, mandolin and guitar) was with true harp guitars, but completely unfamiliar with the concept of a double-strung guitar.  Just as was earlier seen in The Music Trade Review articles, a double-strung guitar was not recognized as a “guitar” at all, but as a strange new novel invention!

I am missing the March Cadenza issue, which would have been interesting in light of the above – a perfect example of the useless, uninvolved “lip service” Partee gave to both his advertisers and his readers in his “Trade Department.”


April, 1903: The Cadenza: Grunewald advertisement

Obviously, the Cadenza editor has been informed (probably by Grunewald himself, who I hope got a free ad out of it!) that he screwed up on his helpful description in the last issue.  This time, he takes pains to explain the instrument (with nary an apology).  Again, this helps demonstrates that, in Partee’s world the 12-string was then completely unknown.  He includes text that is clearly taken directly from advertising material supplied by Grunewald.  This, in fact, matches exactly that of the brochure found recently (shown next).  Specifically: “Every guitar player knows how easy it is to play a bass solo on the guitar and at the same time to carry an accompaniment.  This same principle is applied upon the Harp-Guitar, the air being picked by the thumb…”  This would be the last Cadenza ad by Grunewald.


Feb 17, 1904: Grunewald brochure

The infamous envelope (left) obtained by Fretboard Journal’s Michael Simmons contained the full brochure on Grunewald’s 12-string.  Postmarked Feb 17, 1904, the earlier Cadenza listings suggest that this brochure had been out for a year or more.

Again, there is no mention of the original Brown patent, which may or may not have covered Grunewald’s slightly-altered instrument.  Regardless, for better or worse, Grunewald retained Brown’s name.


Now to wrap up the Brown>Grunewald 10>12-string guitar provenance above:

To understand what impact the above may have actually had on the development of the 12-string guitar, one needs to have an understanding of the importance and role of both The Cadenza and Music Trade Review magazines, and also their audience (readers). 

For The Cadenza, nothing beats reading through the actual journals.  Barring that, Jeffrey Noonan’s indispensable book The Guitar in America provides a great socio-musical overview.  Though it was geared towards amateurs, most of these men and women were nevertheless attempting to learn to read music and play “serious” parlor music.  In fact, a battle would often heat up over whether they should be playing only gut-strung guitars.  At least as far as the Cadenza editors were concerned, steel-string guitars were loud, crude “folk” instruments.  Yet many of their advertisers (like Grunewald) were clearing offering steel-string instruments – so the editors’ and columnists’ stated or implied views were anything but consistent!  Since everyone who advertised in the magazine was given equal treatment in the “Trade Department” monthly columns (a useless bit of “news” consisting of nothing more than the overly-flowery editor parroting what they read in the submitted ads for that month), it was left up to the reader what to believe or explore in their musical pursuits.  Again, it’s interesting to observe that the Cadenza editors were totally unfamiliar with the concept of a 12-string guitar at the turn of the last century.  It’s also important to note that, even though steel-strung, the Brown/Grunewald 10-string (and later, 12-string) “harp guitar” was clearly geared toward the then-common “thumb melody” (“bass solo”) style of much of the Cadenza’s readership.  The fact that it did not appear to catch on (judging simply from the extremely small number of surviving instruments) doesn’t mean that awareness and attributes of the new steel-string double-course guitar did not become widely known from this exposure.

In fact, the 10>12-string “harp guitar” got a potentially much bigger boost – and for a completely different audience – in The Music Trade Review.  I don’t know the circulation numbers for either Cadenza or TMTR, but they were the primary (if not only) periodicals available to the rapidly growing population of fretted instrument aficionados, and must have had some impact.  For TMTR’s part, they were serving the retail side of things.  Again, while the lack of specimens makes it appear that few of the small to large music stores across the U.S. fell for the bait and ordered the Grunewald instruments, it’s likely that the retailers, and more importantly, the other manufacturers, became familiar with the concept.  How could any guitar maker or factory not notice such a heavily-marketed new “guitar invention”?

By a strange, if frustrating, coincidence, it was during the 1901-1902 “lost Grunewald years” – when no advertisements appeared and Grunewald’s “harp-guitar” morphed from 10 to 12-string – that our new cast of characters appear to have entered the fray.  Whether any of them saw the Grunewald hype in either the Cadenza or TMTR, we’ll never know – but I doubt it unlikely.


PART TWO

Cast of Characters, Part 2:

Holzapfel & Beitel (“H&B”): Comprised of the two named individuals, this was a Baltimore, MD partnership from c.1898 to 1905 (possibly 1896-1904), when Beitel left, leaving Carl Holzapfel (shown at left) to continue on his own until 1963.
C. Bruno & Son: Founded by Charles Bruno in 1834, and run by his son during the turn of the last century, this New York firm supplied musical instruments of every description. As far as their guitars, they both imported and offered “American” brands, many under the Bruno name.  The builders of the latter are still unknown, though East Coast manufacturers like Oscar Schmidt are likely suspects.
bohmann_p71-myers.jpg (120695 bytes) Joseph Bohmann: An important and largely overlooked Chicago builder of plucked and bowed stringed instruments with many innovations and patents to his name.

Vintage 12-string guitar aficionados have long known about the extremely rare and impressive instruments built by Holzapfel & Beitel.  But none of the instruments that turn up seem to be dated.  I am seeing in several places on the Internet an “1898” date for the period that Holzapfel started building his 12-strings.  This date comes directly from Neil Harpe’s Stella book, and coincides with the date of the Holzapfel & Beitel partnership, before Beitel left.  Specifically, Neil states, “The earliest (12-string) examples were made between 1898 and 1905…”  Do we take this to mean that they built their first one in 1898, or that this is merely the inclusive range of years that such an instrument was known to have been introduced in?  A small point of semantics, but important for provenance, and I believe Harpe intended only the latter generality.
February 3, 1902: Holzapfel & Beitel private contract

Still, here was a smoking gun worth tracking down!  I noticed that all the early Holzapfel specimens are always “circa” dated – apparently none are dated inside.  Asking Neil for provenance to hopefully put this matter to rest, he graciously sent me a scan of the rare document at left, allowing me to share it with you.  This is indeed evidence that shows that on February 3rd, 1902, Holzapfel & Beitel rented to a customer (with “option to buy”) a new or used 12-string guitar.  As of this writing, this would appear to be the earliest proven date for an American “12-string guitar,” would it not?  So, armed with this data, I would be careful of claiming “1898-1905” for H&B 12-strings, but 1901 would appear to be plausible, and, if need be, “c.1900” a reasonable and generic “round number” for circa dating this important instrument.

So far, we have something happening with both Grunewald and H&B between 1900 and 1902.  Could one have copied the other?  As both Grunewald and Holzapfel & Beitel advertised or were featured in both The Music Trade Review and The Cadenza, I imagine that the two firms would be aware of each other, but of course we cannot know.  There was certainly a much better chance that Holzapfel was familiar with Grunewald’s 10-string than Grunewald being aware of Holzapfel’s first “custom” 12-string.  Speculation aside, this may be irrelevant, as there’s no reason not to believe that two builders (and probably more) could come up with the same idea at the same time.  In any event, I think Grunewald acted on his own.  To me, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that Grunewald (and/or his customers) noticed the 10-string’s problem – that the 2 high strings were unevenly balanced – so he simply doubled those to approximate the octave-doubling “jangle” effect of his 4 low courses.  The result?  Grunewald (astutely) doubled the two remaining high strings, creating the first production 12-string guitar, still called the “Harp-Guitar,” and possibly still under the original Brown patent.
Holzapfel 12-strings (at left) are important today, not from just an historical perspective, but because they are amazing instruments years ahead of their time, and - a hundred years later - perfectly suitable for contemporary players.  Like Chris Knutsen and the Larson brothers did with their harp guitars, in the 12-string world, Holzapfel introduced larger, louder, steel-string instruments that must have blown away players with “progressive ears.”  On the other hand, Grunewald 12-strings were likely strung with fairly identical steel-strings, and may or may not have sounded great, but due to their “parlor” size (and rarity), they don’t even register a blip with today’s 12-string players and collectors.

But were Holzapfel & Beitel 12-strings known back in their day?  Curiously, I have yet to come across any specific ad or mention of a Holzapfel or H & Beitel 12-string guitar…or have I?


Enter the True Harp Guitar… 

It was while working on my article about George Dudley that I received an exciting new and important clue.  That article ends with a presentation of two incredible Holzapfel & Beitel harp guitars – one an undated, but labeled surviving specimen (at left), the other (at right) Dudley’s own incredible 36-string (also undated), which I “attribute to” Holzapfel & Beitel due to its evident similarities.  In addition to the impressive number of twelve sub-bass courses – single in the known specimen and double (!) in Dudley’s – each has 12 strings (6 doubled courses) on the neck.  If only we could date them!  Both are definitely around the turn-of-the-last-century, but how close to 1900 (or before) is the pertinent detail relative to the present topic.

But then Michael Holmes shared this fascinating tidbit: "Music Trades in 1900 (I didn't record the month, so perhaps the MT Annual) had an article about Holzapfel & Beitel building 'large 24-stringed guitars and 12- stringed mandolins for The Hollywood Mandolin Orchestra' of Baltimore. They were probably 12-stringers, not 24." 

In fact, it was no typo Music Trades was almost certainly announcing the very instrument shown above!  Remember that the term “course” (paired or tripled strings played as one “note”) remains confusing today, and was completely unknown a hundred years ago in America (even the concept was largely avoided).  Similarly lacking was the awareness of the term “harp guitar” prior to 1900.  So it was up to the reader’s imagination as to how Holzapfel & Beitel’s “24-string guitar” might be configured.  And who at the time would have imagined such a cutting edge instrument as a true harp guitar with twelve sub-basses and doubled neck strings?  If Holmes’ date is correct (and you can generally take Michael’s notes to the bank), then Holzapfel & Beitel may have actually introduced their own 12-string neck by way of the harp guitar.  Though unfortunately the exact month of the MTR article is not known, it remains that this provenance appears in the record a year or two earlier than that of any single-neck 6-course H&B 12-string guitar (so far).

To fully appreciate the possibility above, it helps to be familiar with early American harp guitars and what they were actually all about.  For the two key customer demographics – namely, ensemble accompanists (in banjo, mandolin and guitar clubs ranging anywhere from small quartets to full plectrum orchestras) and public entertainers (clubs, restaurants, theaters, ritzy parties) – the harp guitar was a popular instrument.  But it didn’t seem to necessarily be the extra musical range of the bass notes performers were after.  They weren’t interested so much in range as in projection and volume.  Thus, the main impetus behind American harp guitars was actually: bigger + more strings = more volume.  The floating bass strings were an obvious way to get more strings, more bass projection, and more notes (pitches), but why stop there?  Doubling the neck strings would have been an easy way to get even more volume and extra notes.  And so it would not surprise me in the least if the “birth of America’s 12-string guitars” wasn’t jump-started with doubled-course harp guitars by Holzapfel & Beitel and other builders.


Another “smoking gun” came to light in June, 2013 with the discovery of a 1901-1902 Bruno catalog (at right) that featured the infamous “1901” harp guitar with 12 strings on the neck (page at left).  While the 1901 date would seem obvious, it was anything but obvious until the catalog (sold on eBay) proved it (the evidence and reasoning for why I discounted the 1901 date is retained in the Updates section below).  This harp guitar seems to have been somewhat successful, as Bruno continued to offer and advertise it until at least 1914, and several specimens are known (I’ve probably seen at least ten by now).  I suspect that H&B built their double-course harp guitars at customers’ requests, but why did Bruno suddenly introduce in their catalog a true 12-string neck (“tuned in octaves”), and why only on a harp guitar?  Update, July 10, 2013: The winning bidder of the catalog turned out to be my friend Lynn Wheelwright, and he kindly shared scans of all the guitar pages...there was no equivalent standard 6-course 12-string guitar offered at the same time, only the harp guitar!
Further Internet searching has turned up no Bruno catalog entries of standard 12-strings (from any year), nor any such specimens.  If there are any out there, I sure hope someone shares it.  Until then, the Bruno “1901” model harp guitar, with its 4 sub-bass strings and 12-string neck, is one of the earliest examples of an American 12-string guitar (albeit in “harp guitar” form), and a candidate for possible “first to build a 12-string-necked guitar.”  

If sticking to just single neck, 6-course instruments for this historical exercise, then we are left with only Grunewald and Holzapfel & Beitel, both of whom we can safely say introduced 12-string guitars sometime between 1900 and 1902.  Either one could have been the first to build America’s first true 12-string guitar.  Until someone can prove who, there is the remaining caveat that Grunewald marketed theirs more as a novelty “harp-guitar,” while H&B quietly built and sold more useful, serious instruments.

Getting back to Bruno – once I discovered the true 1901 Bruno date above, I went back through all my Bruno files and found this fascinating specimen (courtesy of Kerry Char, who restored it).  It has 6, instead of 4, sub-basses, but also ten strings on the neck…with a headstock shape suspiciously reminiscent of Grunewald’s early 10-string!  Again, this points to the likelihood that these companies were familiar with what the others were doing.  In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that Bruno may have purposely copied Grunewald’s 10-string “harp-guitar” – but added sub-bass strings to turn it into a true harp guitar.  Note that the Bruno 1901 catalog version is called a “Contra Bass or Harp Guitar” (old term and new term).  This then would have been theoretically before the 1901 instrument, which – like Grunewald’s own 12-string of about the same time – was a natural evolution from ten strings on the neck.  Interesting!  Now, besides the Grunewald vs. H&B “who came first?” question, we also have the “Grunewald or Bruno?” question!

 

 


http://www.harpguitars.net/history/bohmann/linscott_bohmann-norton.jpg Before ending the harp guitar discussion, mention must be made of Joseph Bohmann, whose known catalogs did not include any 12-strings (or harp guitars with double-course necks), but who did build at least one elaborate custom 10-strings-on-the-neck harp guitar for a gentleman named Linscott.  This instrument (at left), the body of which uses Bohmann’s huge “contra bass” form, could have been built anywhere between c.1895 and c.1900…smack dab in the era of the Brown>Grunewald 10-string.  It was strung (and presumably tuned) like theirs as well.  Did Bohmann or his client copy the idea from the Brown/Grunewald?  Or were they just operating on the “more strings makes a louder, more incredible harp guitar” theory a la Holzapfel & Beitel?  Bohmann would also add “sympathetic metal rods” inside some of this guitars and harp guitars, and later (c.1915) made another elaborate harp guitar with 10 strings on the neck.

Additionally, a decade later, Chris Knutsen would make harp guitars with certain neck strings doubled, included a few with a full 12-string neck (at right).  Several other pre-1920 harp guitars with 12-string necks by different makers are also known (Coulter, Favilla, and others unlabeled).

http://www.harpguitars.net/knutsen_images/hgs26c.jpg

To re-cap:  

Evolution and Rise of the American 12-String Guitar
(as postulated by Gregg Miner)

  • Feb 8, 1896: Carl E. Brown, a musical instrument inventor, submits a patent for a new 10-string guitar he dubs “the Harp-Guitar.” It has a pear-shaped body; the 4 low courses are strung in octaves, while the 2 high strings are single. There is a lever to grab the 4 high extra strings and move them out of playing position. He already has a prototype hanging in a local music store.

  • Sep 22, 1896: The patent is granted.

  • Fall of 1896: He engages two different firms to build it – the Hamilton Gordon Company and the Rene Grunewald Company. Gordon will make theirs in the shape of the patent design; Grunewald will make the body with a traditional guitar shape. Each is called “The Harp-Guitar,” licensed and protected under Brown’s patent.

  • 1896-to-1899: In The Music Trade Review, Brown’s invention is mentioned 3 times, the Gordon version is shown once, and the Grunewald is featured at least 6 times.

  • c.1900-1901:

    • Sometime between late 1898 and late 1902, Grunewald has doubled the two remaining high strings, creating a production 12-string guitar, still called “The Harp-Guitar,” and possibly still under the original Brown patent (this remains unanswered).

    • During this same period, Holzapfel & Beitel has begun building similar (though larger-bodied) 12-string guitars. They may have gotten the idea from first building double-course harp guitars.

    • Meanwhile, C. Bruno & Sons has also introduced a 12-strings-on-the-neck harp guitar, though not a simple, single-neck 12-string.

    • In addition, Bohmann builds a custom 10-strings-on-the-neck harp guitar by c.1900, and possibly as early as c.1895.  Bruno also built at least one 10-strings-on-the-neck harp guitar seemingly patterned after Grunewald’s 10-string headstock design.

  • The 12-string Grunewald harp guitar continues to be advertised (in The Cadenza) and marketed through at least 1904.

  • This continual visibility of the Grunewald instrument (first 10-, then 12-string version), through both The Music Trade Review and The Cadenza (the main “business” and “consumer” periodicals, respectively) feeds the awareness and interest of both musicians/customers and other manufacturers.

  • Independent of the Brown/Grunewald double-course “harp-guitars in name only,” builders of true harp guitars incorporate doubled courses in their extravagant creations (and perhaps only later transitioning this stringing over to single-neck guitars).

  • Holzapfel’s instruments possibly inspire the eventual Oscar Schmidt 12-strings, while Lyon & Healy (and others) make instruments like the parlor-size Grunewald, eschewing the old “harp-guitar” naming gimmick, taking 10 and 12 strings on the neck into the mainstream.  The American 12-string guitar is established!

Early American 12-String Guitar Timeline
TMTR = The Music Trade Review weekly periodical 
Month/Year Brown Gordon Grunewald Holzapfel & Beitel Bruno Bohmann
1895-1900           Somewhere in this timeframe, he built a harp guitar with 10 strings on the neck (in Brown/Grunewald configuration)
Feb, 1896 Files patent for his 10-string "harp guitar"
Apr, 1896 An instrument is on display in a music store
Aug, 1896 TMTR publishes an extensive explanation of the invention
Sep, 1896 His patent is granted
Jun, 1897   TMTR announces "The Gordon Harp-Guitar" (licensed from Brown's patent)
Oct, 1897   TMTR announces the Grunewald harp guitar, licensed from Brown's patent
Jan, 1898 TMTR pictures the instrument, seen to be figure-8-shaped 
Apr, 1898 TMTR reports that the harp guitar is successful in Mexico and South America
Sep, 1898 TMTR reports that the harp guitar will be marketed in Cuba and Puerto Rico
?, 1900 Presumably still producing, and at some point in this timeframe, they switch from 10 strings to 12 TMTR article about a 24-string harp guitar (with a likely 12-string neck)
c.1900 Built at least 2 harp guitars with 12 strings on the neck Built a 10-stringed neck harp guitar
late 1901 The 1901-1902 catalog introduces the "1901" harp guitar with 12-string neck  
Feb, 1902 Rented a new or used 12-string guitar Continued to produce it until at least 1914
Dec, 1902 Cadenza ad now shows 12-string version 12-strings from this period are known
Feb, 1904 Brochure postmark shows that the 12-string is still being marketed

Additional Observations:

What about 12-strings south of the border?

I haven’t addressed the influence of Mexican or Latin American double-strung guitars of various types on the 12-string because, A) I’m not familiar with much of the provenance on the subject, and B) have a gut feeling that they weren’t as a big part of the story as has sometimes been implied.  But I really don’t know.  As I have mentioned a couple times above: from the provenance we have in hand – the editorial text of all the periodicals – it seems clear to me that the general United States musical instrument wholesale/retail industry – and their customers – were all but completely ignorant about any Mexican or Latin American double-strung guitars; nor was anyone among them interested in, or familiar with, the history of double-strung Baroque, and other early, gut-strung guitars.  A “double-strung” guitar was a “completely new novelty” in 1900.  However, I do find it curious that Lyon & Healy’s first catalog 12-string was lumped in with an unusual 11-string, both as “Mexican style” guitars.  I find it hard to believe that the firm was unfamiliar with the Grunewald instrument…perhaps because they realized that it was silly to call it “the harp-guitar” and were initially unsure how to market it?

Update Note: Michael Holmes strongly disagrees with my above statement regarding the lack of recognition of Mexican double-strung instruments.  He suggests to "Check the records of imports in the Commerce Dept's annual reports.  To get a feel for cross-border influence you need to go to a folklorist from the Tex-Mex area.  That's not my area of expertise, but 40 years of presenting multi-cultural folk festivals have left me with a clear impression that players exchanged information back and forth, constantly."  

I have no doubt Michael's observation is correct (and would be anxious to receive clear information from other researchers on this).  I just don't see any direct evidence that an exchange of musical instruments across the border influenced any of the major or minor North American manufacturers to create 12-string guitars, though it may have subtly helped increase the customer base for such instruments.  Judging by the evidence I show above, and especially aspects like the lack of instruments in Sears and Wards catalogs (which I mention below), I would conclude that the customer demand for 12-strings (or other "south of the border" instruments) was close to zero for quite some time; a novelty, if that.

For instance, I haven't seen any American reproductions of this obviously well-built 12-string guitar by M. Fernandez of Mexico, c.1890 according to the seller Christies (labeled "M. FERNANDEZ FTE GUITARRAS MEXICO CALLE DE CHICONAUTLA JUNTO AL NUMERO 25," and sold Oct 14, 2011).

Still, if that date is accurate, then it would appear correct that Mexican builders "beat us to the punch" on modern steel-strung 12-string guitars.

Again, I would appreciate images and information on other early 12-string guitars.

Regarding the write-ups of the Brown and Grunewald 10-strings: Ironically, after doing everything they possibly can to distance their “superior” instrument from the lowly 6-string, they mention the patented device that hooks all 4 octave strings and lowers them out of the way, so that the player can just go back to playing their standard guitar (“from harp to guitar”).  Apparently, they felt they could have their cake and eat it too!  But it does illustrate that they truly considered the “normal guitar” and their 10-string “harp-guitar” two distinctly different instruments (as do many modern 6 & 12-string guitarists today – I know I do).

We’re still left with two nagging questions, though important perhaps only to diehard American guitar historians or 12-string geeks: 
A) Who built America’s first true 12-string guitar? 
And/or, B) Who/what popularized the instrument? 

Until we find more date provenance on both Grunewald and H&B (not to mention Bruno), I’d say the first is a coin toss.  So for now, I’d go with saying “both of them built their slightly different versions c. 1900.”  As to the latter, I would argue that Grunewald’s was far more visible to a wider audience, but that Holzapfel’s was (and instigated) a more “modern” instrument.  In other words, both are key figures – with Brown>Grunewald getting points for the earlier invention and evolution, while Holzapfel can claim an instrument worthy of today’s collectors and players.

However, my personal pet theory is that the “first true American 12-string guitar” may not, in fact, have been our familiar single-neck 12-string guitar at all, but a Holzapfel & Beitel (or Bruno) harp guitar with doubled courses on the neck.


Other Twelve-string Tidbits:

Red Herrings:

 Michael Holmes’ answer to a reader in an August, 2005 Acoustic Guitar magazine column (which comes up in Google searches) states that Grunewald was selling his 12-string in 1898.  The included ad is the same as that of the 1904-postmark.  For the record, it was the 10-string harp-guitar available in 1898, not yet the 12- (Michael confirmed to me the understandable error in assumption as well).  

P.S. Don’t get confused by the 6-string “Harp Guitar” – a trademark name belonging to John F. Stratton of New York (trademarked in 1879, according to Michael Holmes; ads appeared by 1886 in the Clinton NY Courier).  These were only 6-string instruments, with one example (at left) being quite small with a 21” scale length.  According to the owner, Jake, at thewildwoodflower.com, it sounds great (with Aquila nylgut strings).  Another owner remarked in a forum that his Stratton Harp Guitar “killed” (tonally).  Presumably the “superior tone” was what warranted yet another type of “harp guitar.”  No one knows who built them; Stratton himself, his factories in Germany, Boston manufacturer Haynes, or even Bruno.  

I have recently found dates of 1888 and 1891 in the Chronicling America online archives of what are almost certainly these simple 6-string instruments, specifically: The Saint Paul Daily Globe, December 16, 1888: “GUITARS—Bruno, Bay State, Benary, Tilton and Harp guitars; prices from $6 up; fine guitar strings. Whitney's Music Store” and from the Pittsburg Dispatch, June 6, 1891: “S. Hamilton, 91 and 93 Fifth avenue…We also have imported guitars as low as $4, bound, edges inlaid, a good guitar for actual service, and the celebrated Bruno harp guitar, and everything in the musical line. Write for one of our illustrated catalogues just issued for '91.”  I believe both the 1888 and 1891 are the same instrument – the 6-string Stratton trademarked “Harp Guitar.”  Why Hamilton refers to it as the “celebrated Bruno harp guitar” is certainly curious.  Though one might initially jump to the conclusion that this was an early true harp guitar like Bruno’s 1901 model, I am virtually certain that this was not the case; rather, I believe there was some connection between Stratton and Bruno (perhaps Bruno built or supplied Stratton with the instruments, or perhaps Bruno carried or distributed Stratton’s instrument). In either scenario, we are left with however the ad writer (S. Hamilton) chose to present the instrument.


Popularity:

Just how popular was the 12-string guitar?  Scanning a run of Sears catalogs from 1896 to 1918, I found exactly zero.  In 1914 they finally added a double-neck harp guitar for a couple of years; they even offered the unusual “Portuguese Guitar” and “Italian Guitar (Chitarra Battente)” in late 1914 for 2 seasons – but never a simple 12-string, though I’m sure they eventually did (I haven’t gotten to the ‘20s and ‘30s catalogs yet).

It would be interesting to look for 12-string players in the issues of Cadenza, but normally, that’s the abode of 6-string, gut-strung guitars (though plenty of harp guitars appear).

Of the “hundreds” of instruments, specifically 10-strings, that Brown and Grunewald claim to have shipped, almost none are (so far) to be found.  I thought for sure I had an image or two of a Grunewald 12-string harp-guitar in my files, but apparently not.  Has anyone seen one?  Of surviving Grunewald 10-strings, I know of the two shown above.  I’m betting that more Grunewalds, and perhaps even a Gordon, will turn up eventually in response to this online article.   

It’s hard to accurately collect dates of when the various 12-string guitars by other manufacturers appeared (be they large factories or independent builders).  I’m surprised some 12-string geek hasn’t yet started a site like that.  It’s also hard to read from the evidence how they were perceived.  The fact that c.1905 Lyon & Healy included theirs – with second billing – as a “Mexican guitar” along with their now-completely forgotten “11-string” (at left, with its 7 oddly-configured courses) tends to demonstrate its “novelty” aspect, even then (sure wish we could get accurate dates on the various L&H catalog entries…).  And yet Lyon & Healy produced this beautiful Washburn 10-string guitar, featured in the Pleijsier book (at right, photos courtesy of Soren Venema, who once had it).  Note that it copies the Grunewald 10-string design exactly in the headstock shape (but not the bridge).  As the Washburn label includes nothing of Brown’s patent, this would presumably not have been built until after the patent had expired – in 1910.  Rather an antiquated custom instrument, if so!

Besides the early 12-strings presented in Neil Harpe’s book, I’m sure there are many others.  And as Harpguitars.net readers know, there are many other harp guitars known beginning in the early ‘teens with 12 strings on the neck: Favilla, Coulter, and others by unidentified makers.

These are just my thoughts, observations and current theories.  I’m sure the story of America’s 12-string Guitar will evolve.

 


Updates:
Initial publication:
May ‎16, ‎2011
Nov, 2011: Updated with response from Michael Holmes and my follow-up comments.
July, 2013: I rewrote certain sections substantially, most especially adding the sections about harp guitars by Holzapfel & Beitel and Bruno.  Formerly, the 1901 Bruno 12-strings-on-the- neck harp guitar was thought to be from c.1912 or 1914, and I had this listed in the “Red Herrings” section.  My text originally stated: “Despite the name, this actually came out c.1912 (see this news bulletin in TMTR, May 30, 1914).  The curious model number is never explained.  Why would someone use an “old” date for a brand new model?...”


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