Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

Lyon & Healy's
Monster Bass Harp Guitar

by Gregg Miner, April, 2005
Updated: December, 2006


OK - now we're talking wide!

Twenty-two and one-quarter inches, to be precise - the width across the lower bout. With the length of the body at a normal  20-3/4", this may be the only guitar whose body is actually wider than it is long. Quite simply, this guitar is - I'm sorry, there's no other word for it - obese.

I have to admit, though - with a 19-inch-wide Harwood and Mozzani in my collection, not to mention the 21-inch Gibson, I seem to have a soft spot for the "chunky" ones. So when the image of this lovely creature showed up in my email inbox, I was understandably filled with longing. I love it!

Remembering seeing a "Monster Bass" in an old Lyon & Healy catalog reprint, I immediately set off to find out as much as I could about this rare beast.

Such as: When was it made? And more importantly, why?


As to when, according to Washburn author John Teagle, the "Monster Bass Guitar" was introduced in 1908. I haven't been able to confirm this, as the 1908 catalog doesn't include the model, and I'm not sure where this information comes from. Teagle then mentions listings in only the 1913 and 1917 catalogs. As I don't have access to the 1913 catalog, I am assuming that the definitive image at right is from the 1913 catalog (Teagle's book is frustratingly lax about captions and dates). The 1917 catalog image (perhaps the Monster Bass' only other appearance?) appears below right. While I have yet to find anyone with a complete series of early Lyon & Healy catalogs, Washburn mandolin collector and researcher Neil Russell was able to confirm other years that the MB was not listed: 1904, 1908, 1910, 1912, 1919-20, 1920-21 and 1925. Thus, we are left with only five (with a possible ten) years in which these bizarre instruments could have been "special ordered."

Only the 6-string version - Style G 2089 was ever illustrated. The "College Line" in the name refers to one of several Lyon & Healy brand names, denoting grade of quality. The College Line brand was obviously a higher grade series, as they all featured Brazilian rosewood sides and backs (described in another catalog), and very fancy binding. The harp guitar version is Style G 2090, and is not referred to as a "harp guitar" (few of Lyon & Healy's harp guitars were), but simply as "same size as G 2089, but with six extra strings." Ergo, both versions were "bass guitars" - a very misleading term, and clearly a Lyon & Healy marketing "gimic" - probably meant to refer to the loud, booming bass tone - not the bass strings of the harp guitar version (the 6-string not having them) nor the tuning (with a roughly 26" scale length, they were undoubtedly tuned to standard guitar pitch). 

This then explains the "why." From the 1890's (when steel string guitars were introduced, along with harp guitars and other acoustic innovations) to the 1930's (when resonator guitars exploded onto the market), makers were always striving for louder, richer toned instruments to project in a variety of situations - from small groups to orchestras to the vaudeville stage. Lyon & Healy appears to have wanted to "just get the whole debate over with" by creating this instrument - making it ridiculously large, and giving it a no-bones-about-it intimidating name to match the overkill of the design. In their own words (from the catalog description top right):

"To satisfy the growing demand for a giant size instrument we have created facilities for building to order a tremendously large bass guitar.  The tonal depth, volume and carrying power are enormous. Wonderfully effective in heavy orchestra and club work. Such a guitar will always be a source of pride and pleasure to the performer and excites wonder and enthusiasm wherever seen and heard."

Note the comment about "creating facilities" to build these instruments. Was this just "custom shop" space in Lyon & Healy's factory, or were they out-sourced? As with many of the better-made Chicago instruments (and an increasing number of discovered harp guitars) the Larson brothers have been suggested as possible builders. In any event, they were advertised as "Made to order only" - requiring "about four weeks time in which to build either G 2089 or G 2090." 

The MBG appears (for only the second and last time?) in the 1917 catalog, with no text or specs whatsoever. While the illustration title is correct, the Style number is a catalog error, and belongs to the 16-1/4"" wide "Lakeside Bass Guitar."

How many players responded to this rather unusual new offering from the otherwise "traditional" maker of Washburn flat-top guitars? Likely we will never know. The 6-strings are incredibly scarce. I recall seeing one or two over the years, and in my recent Internet search turned up one on a dealer's list, and the one at right, which sold in Dec, 2004 on eBay.

 

 


Both the harp and 6-string College Line versions shown appear to have Brazilian rosewood back and sides, as opposed to the "faux rosewood" stain over birch on cheaper brands.

If the 6-strings are scarce, the harp guitars are all but non-existent. This is the first one I have ever heard of, and I was thrilled when the original owners shared it with us in April, 2005.  I was even more thrilled and honored when they subsequently offered it to me a year later; after a full restoration by Kerry Char, I received it in November, 2006.  We learned that it was ladder-braced, and with the incredibly wide expanse of soundboard real estate, steel strings would pull the top up severely.  As the top was otherwise flat and in great original shape (if well-played), we realized that it had undoubtedly been originally gut strung.  Luckily, no one decided to stick this in a closest for a couple decades with steel strings on, as so often happens - as it surely would not have survived.  I strung it with silk & silk on the neck and overspun nylon classical strings for the sub-basses, and the top deformation is negligible.  I would like to switch to silk & steel basses as well, but they already overpower the highest strings on the neck.  Very deep and resonant.  It is not so impressive to the one playing it, but out front, the audience hears this THX Dolby like sub-woofer resonance.  Pretty cool.  No, you can't hold this in "folk guitar" position - you can barely hold it in classical position!  A very strange guitar to sit with, to be sure!

The Monster Bass harp guitar compared to an early Lyon & Healy American Conservatory harp guitar shows the incredible difference in size! Both utilize the same metal headstock joining assembly. I like the fact that they didn't just slap a second neck onto the 6-string Monster Bass, but made this harp guitar properly, with the two necks centered on the body.

Did I mention the Monster Bass is also 5" deep?  It must have taken a rather daring guitarist to order one of the 6-strings so dynamically displayed in the Lyon & Healy catalog - how many would have gone further, read the fine print about this harp guitar option, and thought, "well, may as well go for broke!"?


Special Thanks to Neil Russell for catalog information and the anonymous original owners!


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