Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

Weymann Harp Guitar
with Double "Tree of Life" inlay
by Gregg Miner, September, 2013


Here's a beauty! 

Unless I'm mistaken (and I've scoured the site and my files), this is the only harp guitar currently known with two inlaid "tree-of-life" fingerboards!

Some five years ago, my harp guitar friend Anthony Powell got a temporary job in the Gruhn Guitars repair department.  He immediately told me of a couple "basket case" harp guitars George had (and wasn't interested in putting money into) that might be something I'd be interested in.  When I saw the photos, I certainly was!

It sounded like George was willing to do a package deal on the three instruments.  There was a cool Knutsen steel that I sent my friend Ben Elder's way (which we later sold here), an intriguing Tony Biehl harp guitar (due for an upcoming feature, as well), and this unmarked, but very fancy, double-neck.  George was originally thinking "Bohmann," but noted that he had seen the inlay pattern on certain Weymann banjos.  My web search uncovered only other, asymmetrical Weymann vine inlay patterns, and eventually this page at De Paule Supply (scroll down a ways), labeled as both “Ludwig Guitar” and “S.S. Stewart” vine inlay (???).

However, I quickly found, if not a "smoking gun," then at least an extremely compelling clue to attribute this instrument to H. A. Weymann & Son of Philadelphia: the only known labeled Weymann harp guitar (at right), already on this site, which just happened to have the exact same " tree-of-life" fingerboard (more on this one below).

Regardless of provenance, I wasn't about to let this one go, so quickly purchased the Biehl and the "attributed to" Weymann (thanks for the deal, George!) and had them sent directly to Kerry Char in Portland for restoration.

This happened to be in the fall of 2008, just before we'd all be in Portland for the 6th annual Harp Guitar Gathering.  

So I had Kerry bring the two instruments to add to our display (but really because I was dying to see them).

Here are the Biehl and Weymann in original condition.  Not great, not bad.  You can't see all the many cracks and issues (always more than are first apparent!), and of course the Weymann was missing its bridge.

Luckily, the precise outline of the bridge remained.  Not only that, but right at this time, I received photos of this nearly identical (but plain) harp guitar (at left) from owner Jim McKenna.  He, too, was wondering what his unlabeled instrument might be.  We noted that the headstock was identical, as was the body and overall dimensions.  Only the bass "neck" termination (coincidentally reminiscent of Bohmann) and bridge shape were slightly different.  Jim kindly sent additional photos of the bridge from all angles, to help Kerry craft a reproduction for mine.

By the way, you've now seen all three surviving Weymann harp guitars (one labeled, two "attributed to").

After a couple years (of nagging; Kerry's always overloaded), the initial repairs were done and I was able to see the (almost-finished) restoration.  Kerry had repaired the multiple cracks, done the bridge, neck resets, finish touch up, etc., and while apart, also beefed up the neck block, soundhole reinforcement, ladder bracing and bridge plate - as we wanted to make sure this would play while staying in one piece.

Let's take a quick look (sorry, the solid Brazilian rosewood back and sides still did not photograph well enough):

weymann_hg2-miner.jpg (154050 bytes) weymann_hg5-miner.jpg (83347 bytes) weymann_hg7-miner.jpg (83475 bytes) weymann_hg6-miner.jpg (77449 bytes)
Before diving into string options and playing it, however, I wanted to improve the appearance of the neck inlay, which was of inconsistent quality to begin with, and missing way too many portions for my tastes.  On it went to inlay expert Jimmi Wingert for major touch-up.  However, this poor woman is so in demand by high end luthiers (including her mother), that after a year in the queue, Kathy Wingert tackled it for me.

The one problem with expert guitar builders working on some of these vintage instruments is convincing them to "do a crappy job."  It's anathema to them.  But that's what this one required.  We had long talks about how far to take the inlay repair.  Missing pieces were not the real issue, nor consistency (the job required a certain sloppiness to match the original).  She explained that the symmetry would need to be the key goal, as that would be the giveaway.  I'm sure it drove Kathy crazy, but in the end, it looks nicely blended in and "historical." 

weymann_hg3-miner.jpg (211158 bytes)
weymann_hg4-miner.jpg (159150 bytes) Next problem...

The fingerboard inlay now looked about as bright as it may have when new (the fingerboards being of course unfinished)...

...but the beautiful headstock inlay all but invisible under the thick dark, colored, aged shellac was now bothering me.  The lovely 3-piece Brazilian rosewood veneer also had a lot of finish issues, wear and discoloration.

So I decided to take it to French polish whiz, Richard Reynoso, a classical guitar builder, and occasional restorer for me (who had conveniently moved to much closer Hollywood since I had last seen him).

Again, it pained him to have to do a less-than-perfect job.  But we were forced with the reality of the very obviously worn and repaired and blemished spruce top as our "model."  Of course, his job was was still way too gorgeous, and we had to hit it with pumice to dull and scratch it enough for my liking.

weymann_hg9-miner.jpg (101498 bytes)

Hey, I could finally string it up!

Though Kerry made sure it could handle full steel strings, I tried silk & bronze on the neck, and extra-light phosphor bronze (tensioned roughly to the equivalent s&b) for the 12 subs, tuned like the original Gibson (Eb on down, chromatically).

It sounds wonderful, but not fantastic.  The sub-basses are perfectly cavernous, but the high neck strings (as so often on these ladder-braced harp guitars) are a bit weak.  As it turned out, Kerry probably went a bit farther than necessary to strengthen the top.  It would have been great to hear it at least once with all-original construction (just before implosion!).  As the top isn't moving much, I'll probably beef up the strings a bit and see what happens.

Incidentally, dimensions on this are: Body: 21.5" x 18.5" wide x 4.75" deep; 25" scale; 43" overall length.

weymann_hg8-miner.jpg (102080 bytes)
Let's talk a bit more about the H. A. Weymann Company, active from 1864 into the 1940's, according to Mugwumps Online...

...and, that's about it.  Seriously, very little information has been written on this Philadelphia manufacturer.  The Music Trade Review Archives are probably worth searching more in-depth (the hits consist largely of a repeating ad).  In the March 20, 1920 issue, there's a nice profile that names those involved at the end.

Today the Philadelphia pioneer in small musical instruments and musical merchandise is the firm of H. A. Weymann & Son.  Harry W. Weymann is at present the head of this firm, and for thirty-six years he has been actively engaged in promoting the manufacture and sale of musical instruments, and prior to that time—from 1864—his father, Henry A. Weymann, conducted the business, which he had established.  Harry W. Weymann says: "We have always advocated the higher grade of musical instruments, and I have made several important inventions in recent years, including the Weymann-Keystone State mandolute, the tone amplifier for banjos, etc., and the neck adjuster, which is used exclusively on the Weymann-Keystone State mandolins and banjos. "These instruments have gained a reputation among the professional players and are handled by all the leading houses from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast. There are many specialties for which the Weymann firm are having a very large demand, such as the Keystone State strings for all instruments, and the Three-Star violins. "Our sales of musical instruments more than doubled during 1919 over any previous year in the history of the house. We attribute this demand to many causes—the music that was introduced into the soldiers' camp life being one of the many. While our factory force has been greatly increased recently, and with the introduction of improved machinery we have been able to greatly increase our production, yet the demand during the past year has been far greater than the output.  "It has always been the policy of the Weymann house during the more than half a century of its existence never to try and compete with other manufacturers making cheaper goods, our prime object being at all times to maintain a high standard of quality and gain a reputation for making the highest class musical instruments possible. That this policy has won out is conclusive proof through the great success this house has achieved.  Associated with Mr. Weymann in the business is his brother, Albert C. Weymann; his two sons, H. Power Weymann and Herbert W. Weymann, and his sister, Mrs. E. C. Mullen.

A 1913 issue mentions yet another Weymann, William, "who is in charge of the factory."

Their claim to fame are their banjos, mainly the highly decorated tenors of the '20s and '30s (all rare, with a nice archive here).  Of their even rarer guitars, Frank Ford once wrote "Weymann was one of the great banjo producers in Philadelphia...although they did venture into guitars, mandolins and ukes. All Weymann instruments were characterized by exceptionally fine woodworking, fit and finish."  Three Weymann catalogs at Vintage Axe (1928, 1931 and 1937) show a few standard 6 string guitars, an F-hole “Hawiian” with extension nut, the "Jimmy Rodgers" model, and finally archtops, along with their more common mandolins called "mandolutes."  No harp guitars, although that's expected at this late date.

So when were the harp guitars made?  The general workmanship, combined with the friction tuners and inclusion of a full twelve sub-basses points to early (1900's), yet if the inlay matches later Weymann (or Stewart or Ludwig) banjos, that points to the 'twenties.  I found just a couple clues in The Music Trade Review:

From the Oct 11, 1913 issue, 

Harry W. Weymann, in charge of the small goods department of the house, as well as the manufacturing end, notes that business has kept up remarkably well. They are making a special window display during the past week on the Weymann mandolutes, taking in all the sizes used in the quartet, also the new four-ply curly maple wood rim Weymann mandolutes, the twelve-string contra base (sic) Weymann guitars and the Keystone State mandolutes, all of their exclusive manufacture.

And from Dec 20, 1913: 

"The house has just placed on the market an extra large contra bass guitar with twelve strings, and which retails at $60."

Sadly, this doesn't help us at all, as the two known "models" have 13 strings and 18 strings (the two MTR articles are almost certainly referring to a 6-sub-bass harp guitar).  Neither does the 1913 text suggest that this was the first, or just another new harp (contra-bass) guitar.

So, I still have no idea when my Weymann was built, nor can I prove they built it!  Still, it does fit the reputation of their fretted strings as a finally built, high end instrument.  It's also not a "one-off" as there are two nearly identical harp guitars known, suggesting a production instrument (though strange that neither of those show any evidence of that label on the back).  Finally, there is the extremely compelling clue of the "theorbo-style" 7-bass Weymann.  It does have a label, clearly seen in the photos, like the one at right (from a Weymann 6-string) or at least similar there were several variants of these labels.
And the two have essentially the exact same tree-of-life fingerboard.  The pearl and metal inlay of the 7-bass looks in much better shape (if original) and has some "extra creamy filling" in the bottom piece as well.

My double neck is on the right

weymann-portman2.jpg (99872 bytes)

Note also the slightly different bindings.  The 7-bass Weymann also has a wild, pearl decorated bridge (again, originality unknown).

So there you have it.  An unbelievably ornate harp guitar "attributed to" H. A. Weymann & Son, nicely restored and resurrected.  Whether I find my "smoking gun" provenance or not, I'm pretty convinced...and just honored to be its current custodian!

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