Special Combined Feature:
Player, Historical Luthier, and Harp Guitar of the Month

 Albert Shutt and the Mando-Bass-Harp-Guitar
or
Don’t Quit Your Day Job

by Gregg Miner, July, 2008
Updated April, 2011

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Introduction

Luckily, Albert Shutt had a perfectly good day job in the music business that remained rewarding throughout his life.  Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, his unique instrument inventions and designs – which were in many ways precursors to or improvements on the much-ballyhooed Gibson instruments – never had a chance of catching up with the more famous company’s popularity.  Thus it was that Albert found it necessary to multi-task throughout most of his career, a talent at which he excelled.  He tirelessly taught music and various stringed instruments during the day, built his new instruments in the evening, and composed music and lyrics as he found time.  In addition, he arranged music for, practiced and performed with, and often conducted various musical ensembles.

This article is the result of a lot of information gathering from Shutt instrument owners, but mainly from material and information supplied by Jack Shutt, the grandson of the great, unsung Albert Shutt.

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The Shutt family, circa 1930: (standing from the left) Albert, Melvin (Albert's son), Myron, Melvin’s brother; (seated from left) Cathern Ann and Simon, Albert’s mother and father, and Myrtle, Albert’s wife.


Albert Shutt, the Man

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Born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania in 1877, Albert grew up on a farm near Beloit, Kansas from the age of six.  At age 12, his family moved to Topeka , where he remained until his death in 1963.

Besides his prolific musical activities, his son Melvin mentioned that his favorite hobby was sketching, especially boats, ships and nautical gear.  Melvin’s son Jack remembers his grandfather (at whose home his family lived during WWII) as a “thin, soft-spoken person who had a great mind as an inventor, freelance drawer, musician, composer and teacher.”  He adds that Albert “never owned a car, but rode the bus or trolley to events around town.”

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He was known to Topekans as “Professor” Shutt in honor of his sixty-plus years as a music teacher, performer and composer.  


Albert Shutt, the Performer

Albert played the common fretted instruments, beginning with the 5-string banjo, learning to first play by ear, as his older brother had begun to do.  Later, he took formal lessons from local musician Howard Lawrence. 

In the 1900s, Albert – then in his twenties – organized and conducted several mandolin groups.  Later, in the ‘teens, he led three Hawaiian guitar bands and three different banjo groups.  Many of these were said to use instruments of Shutt’s own design and manufacture.  Shutt himself played his new Mando-Bass-Harp-Guitar in at least one Hawaiian group (see below).  

Albert closed the 1927 vaudeville season at the Novelty Theater with his 12-member “Banjo Jazz Band of Home Boys.”  They were also the first musical group to broadcast over Radio Station WIBW from the Hotel Jayhawk (or Jayhawk Theater).  His son Melvin was in this and several others of his father’s banjo groups, which, again, were often playing new instruments made by Albert.  

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Shutt's Banjo Band, late 1920s.  Albert is second from the right, his son Melvin second from the left.

In addition to his performing, Albert taught hundreds of pupils to play guitar, banjo, mandolin and violin.  He began this sixty year teaching career in the 1900s, leading many of his students in public performances with his various groups.

Three years before Albert’s death at age 85, the Topeka Capital-Journal wrote that he was “still active, full of ideas and plans, and has entered a song in the Centennial competition.”  


Albert Shutt, the Composer

Albert published over two dozen works in his career, many of which were patriotic themed.  His new arrangement of "Our National Anthem” featured a new melody for the “Star Spangled Banner” - an attempt to create a tune that people could actually sing.  It was officially approved by the U.S. Congress in 1941, but unfortunately never caught on, other than seeing some local use.  I am still looking for a copy of the sheet music, which features Shutt himself on the cover with his mando-bass-harp-guitar (more on this image below)!

Other patriotic themed compositions included “Kansas, We’re Proud of You” (another vain attempt at an official state song), later re-written as “Ike We’re Calling You” – which saw success as a campaign song for Eisenhower.

Two of Shutt’s best-known marches, “Allegiance” and “Kansas State March” were recorded in 1956 by the Topeka High School Band.  “Allegiance,” composed in 1903 and published in 1930, proved an enduring piece for Army, Navy and Marine Bands, continuing after WWII with the addition of new lyrics by Albert.

He also wrote children’s tunes, with “Cat and Dog” becoming a popular square dance number, and “The Dog Show” recorded with Shutt’s own banjo accompaniment.


Albert Shutt, Inventor and Instrument Maker
Albert Shutt was an amazing inventor, not to mention a very artistic designer as well.  Between 1906 and 1924, he patented at least nine different inventions or designs for stringed instruments (some have proven difficult to find; there may be others).  Who knows how many others he applied for and was never granted.  His designs and inventive modifications to existing instrument components show a clear reaction to, and competition with, the Gibson company’s popular features, although he did manage to beat them to a couple of key features.

Shutt's first patent - in 1906 - was for an ingenious mechanical tuner which would attach to a guitar or mandolin bridge and operate via calibrated reeds that would sympathetically vibrate as the string reached the correct pitch.  I would love to find one of these – way cooler than a digital tuner (and probably perfectly accurate)!  

Right: Next (1909/1910) came his first original mandolin design – with a vaguely Gibson-like “Florentine” shaped, carved top body.  Most importantly, it was likely the first carved-top mandolin to include F-holes, preceding Gibson’s F-holes by many years.

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Left: A year and a half later in 1911, Shutt refined the mandolin body shape in his next design patent.  In particular, note how the bass-side scroll more closely emulates Gibson's.

1912/1913 saw his new elevated pickguard (right).  This was theoretically an improvement over Gibson’s, as it featured a small soundhole so as not to block off the F-hole, along with the option of having dual pickguards.  It is shown on a slightly altered mandolin body - most likely a crude copy of the previous drawing for representational purposes, and not another design change.

In 1914, Shutt developed his fully-compensating bridge, which , again, challenged Gibson’s own compensating bridge.  It took over a year for the patent to be issued.

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Left: 1914 saw a new mandolin design in an effort to offer a less expensive model.  In removing the scrolls, Shutt created a distinctive new asymmetrical shape.  At the same time, a very curious bit of history occurred.  Shutt's patent is # D45969.  At right is patent # D45968, which was issued on the same date as Shutt's (June 16, 1914).  Yet this early F-hole mandolin design is credited to William Schultz (originally Wilhelm), the founder (1892) - and in 1914, still the president of - the Harmony Company.  As the Harmony design also featured early F-holes, and a consecutive patent number, there is no doubt of a relationship - but what was it?  There are many intriguing possible scenarios here.  One is that independent Kansas maker Albert Shutt may have tried to solicit Chicago's largest instrument factory to make his mandolins.  Then, instead, Schultz created a simpler F-hole instrument that his company could presumably produce more cheaply.  The reverse scenario has also been proposed - that Shultz hired Shutt and his small staff to build better carved top and back mandolins for Harmony.  More on this below under "The Shutt Instruments."

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Left: In 1915 Shutt was granted a patent for his remarkable “Double Bass Guitar” – later to be called the Mando-Bass-Harp-Guitar, the main topic of this feature (to be discussed in detail below).

During 1920/1921 - perhaps the peak of the Hawaiian music craze - Shutt’s uniquely shaped glass tone bar for playing slide style was patented.  Another item I would love to find on eBay!  He ran this ad in The Cadenza for several months beginning in March, 1920.

His final patent (1924/1926) was for a new banjo resonator, the banjo now being his focus.  This Shutt mandolin-banjo displays the Jan 5, 1926 patent issue date, and features his new resonator - one meant to attach simply to an open-back instrument.

Jack Shutt says that his grandfather started building instruments in 1910, “to supplement his income from teaching music.”  His first mandolin design patent – applied for on December 9, 1909 – suggests that it was slightly earlier, certainly throughout 1909.  By the time of the surviving catalog, Albert had created a full line of fully-formed instruments.  Unfortunately, the catalog date is unknown - Albert's son, Melvin inscribed the catalog with the date "1912," but the patents seem to indicate that it was more likely 1914.

These mandolins and guitars were clearly influenced by the Gibson instruments, which by then had a virtual stranglehold on the market. Though Shutt’s instruments were of equal quality and similarly distinctive, he simply didn’t have a chance – even though, ironically, he scooped Gibson by adding F-holes to his archtop instruments a decade or more before Lloyd Loar did.  

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Cover of 1912-1914 Shutt catalog

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Cadenza ad, date unknown

Ads in Cadenza magazine - the main trade publication for Shutt's potential audience - did little to earn Albert any orders, although the trio at left illustrates the instruments' visual, if not sales, appeal.

At right, mandolin composer Warren Dean with a Shutt model A2.

Cadenza, June, 1914

Crescendo, Sept 1912: Pictured are the Artist Model mandolin, mandola (?) and what is undoubtedly the Shutt "Sub-Bass Guitar." (see below)

 
Not even the mighty Sherman Clay & Co., who prominently featured Shutt's full line of instruments in their 1914-1915 catalog (essentially duplicating 16 pages of Shutt's own catalog), was enough to push him into the mainstream he deserved.

Shutt designed the instruments himself and assembled them in his home.  It is thought that he had expert violin makers helping - perhaps carving the tops and backs.  No one knows how many people worked for him, nor how many instruments he made.  Other than his inventions and prototypes, he filled orders only as they came in; later he supplied tenor banjos for his various groups.  Jack’s father Melvin believed that Albert had made only about a hundred instruments total - most likely with the help of his workers.  Though this seems a very low number, it does fit with the surviving instrument count, which is extremely low.

There are no clear records, but according to Jack, the Shutt business was always in Albert’s Topeka home.  He started out at an apartment at 9th & Quincy, then moved to a flat in the 1200 block on Jackson.  In the late ‘twenties, he purchased his first (and only) home at 1333 Kansas Avenue, where he had a studio on the second floor, with instrument assembly being done in the living room.  Here he lived and worked until his death in 1963.  Though the Jackson Flats building is still standing, sadly, the Shutt home has since been torn down to make way for a parking lot.

Shutt's Jackson flat building today

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1333 Kansas Ave, Topeka - Shutt's home and workplace for nearly forty years

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The Shutt Instruments

Jack Shutt mentions only one hundred Shutt instruments total – which would include many later tenor banjos and mandolin-banjos, and perhaps the more common mandolin model built for Harmony.  However accurate this count is, it is obvious that the instruments never caught on - or rather, that they never had a chance, as they were all but obliterated by the Gibson merchandising juggernaut.  I’ve heard of at most two dozen instruments – a few in the hands of Jack Shutt and collectors Lowell Levinger, Stu Cohen and Jim Reynolds (since dispersed), plus an occasional specimen here or there.

Right: Jack Shutt's six instruments built by his grandfather: 
a guitar, two A-style mandolins and three tenor banjos.


There does not yet appear to have been any ads or catalogs depicting Shutt's first model.  He likely built one before he applied for his patent in December, 1909.  Also likely is that he didn't build it for long, switching to his new design by the time he applied for that next patent in May, 1911.

With his few orders, low numbers, and short design lifetime, it is remarkable that any examples can be found.  Pictured is the only specimen I am aware of, recently donated to the National Music Museum in South Dakota.  Unfortunately, the label was removed at some point.  Whether it had a "style" number is unknown, but it looks like his fanciest example yet.

Photos copyright National Music Museum, courtesy Adrian Sheets


A somewhat more common model, seen in the hands of the performers and the Cadenza ad above, and in the circa 1912 catalog at right is arguably Shutt's most attractive model, the "Style 'No. 3' Artist's Model."  Clearly, this was meant to compete with Gibson's extremely popular F-style mandolins.

The Artist's Model came in two Styles: No. 3 and 2, the 2 being slightly less fancy.  Curiously, though the elevated pickguard is listed in the description, it is not seen on the catalog image, the Cadenza ad, nor the two extant specimens I have seen.

This model was likely being built by May, 1911 when Shutt applied for the patent, but was not superseded by the next patent, as both models appeared concurrently in the 1912 catalog.  This shape was used for a guitar also.

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Label reads: Style 3,
No. 1004, Jan, 1912
Body Label Headstock Scroll

This model illustrates the problem of precisely dating catalogs and instruments. If the catalog was truly produced in 1912, then Shutt would have been building this model for up to 2 years before he filed the design patent in March of 1914.  It seems a bit long to wait.  As a labeled 1913 (no month) specimen is known, it is clear that fully-finalized instruments were built well before the patent.  Note that all known specimens match the catalog images, but that the "later" patent drawing is noticeably different on the right flare.  This "A" model, offered in three grades (No. 1, 2 and 3) is the most commonly seen.   A brown specimen from 1915 is also known.

Body

Label
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No. 103(?), 1916


Mandola, labe l reads: Style D#2, No. 3008, Aug, 1914

So far I know of one surviving mandola of the simpler body style, and two guitars, one of each style.  Perhaps once the nicest Shutt specimen known, the fancy Shutt guitar at near right was lost in the Nashville flood of Spring, 2010. The catalog depicts two nearly identical models - based on the position of the neck to body junction, this appears to be the larger 16" wide Special Grand Concert Size model.


Guitar, Style G, No.3, 1911
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Guitar, Style B, No.1,
No. 3005, 1914

As discussed above, we don't know the specifics of the Harmony/Shutt relationship, but some of us believe that this model was first built by Shutt for sale by the Harmony company, though it is possible that Harmony's better custom shop luthiers created it.  Unfortunately, none have yet been seen with labels, although the specimen at right has "Style 3" stamped into the heel.  As we don't see the Shutt label on them and they don't appear in the Shutt catalog, it would appear to be an "exclusive" for Harmony.  Lowell Levinger, who owns two of these (one with maple back &sides, one with sycamore) and the two "faux Shutts" - along with several labeled Shutts - believes they were made by the same shop, and are equal in quality and even superior in tone.  More common are instruments like the one below, believed to be a later (and much cruder) copy made at the Harmony factory.  It is certainly a shame that, even with the powerful Harmony Company promoting and selling this instrument, Shutt was unable to gain any ground against Gibson and the other larger firms.
 

Body 

Headstock front 

Headstock back


This is believed to be an early Shutt-built "Harmony-style" instrument.

This instrument is a  typical lesser- quality Harmony model, and likely from a much later time frame as well.

Though Shutt's own mandolins were little-appreciated and short-lived, his ideas lived on for decades in the Harmony "Supertone" mandolin line.  By 1926, this same mandolin - still with the appearance of the suspected Shutt-built instrument above - was called the "Viol Mandolin" in the Sears-Roebuck catalog, where it remained for four more years.  The name may have alluded to the "violin construction".  At $14.95, then $19.95, it was the most expensive mandolin offered, its "unusual shape giving it tone and volume."  It disappeared in the Fall-Winter 1930-31 catalog, remained absent in the 1936 catalog, but reappeared by the 1941-42 catalog as the "Playtime" Economy  mandolin.  This version - with a slightly different pickguard (still based on Shutt's original 1913 patent) and headstock shape - very closely resembles the "faux" Shutt at left,

1926-1927

Fall 1928

Fall 1929

Spring 1930

1941-1942

Those lucky enough to own a Shutt instrument praise them highly.  David Grisman compares both the quality and tone favorably to pre-Loar Gibsons, as do collectors Lowell Levinger and Jim Reynolds.  The latter adds, "I did set up one of both styles of mandolins.  Oddly enough, the 2-point had a fuller sound; I attributed that to the fact that the scroll models had a solid dovetail block that included the two scrolls.  The sides were not bent around the scrolls, but instead were joined at the beginning of the scroll, with a very slight seam showing on both sides.  Of course the top and back wood covered the blocks and were bound with celluloid further hiding the fact.  Both mandolins were well made and had no cracks or loose seams that are seen so often in Gibson instruments of the same time period."

Click here for PDF file of the full 1912-1914 Shutt catalog
 (copyright and courtesy of Jack Shutt)


The Mando-Bass-Harp-Guitar

One of the most interesting and impressive things about the Gibson harp guitars is the fact that they featured fully carved tops and backs.  Until very recently, most guitar aficionados thought that they were the only “archtop” harp guitar ever created.  Lately we have discovered specimens of an Almcrantz and Regal archtop as well, though these appear to be pressed and molded archtops, rather than carved.  But we also now know that shortly after 1910, Albert Shutt – once again nipping doggedly at the heels of Gibson – created his own carved top harp guitar.  And as in many of his inventions, he did Gibson one better – by ingeniously combining Gibson’s Mando-bass and Harp-Guitar into one!  There was simply nothing else like this instrument, before or since.  More impressively, Shutt’s acoustic version of a 4-string bass played like a long-scale guitar is an amazing precursor to the revolutionary Fender bass and today’s acoustic variants.

Here’s how Shutt managed his clever combo-instrument.

There are ten sub-bass strings on Gibson’s standard harp guitar, providing (with the neck’s E and A strings) a full chromatic scale.  Shutt realized that if he swapped the harp guitar sub-bass strings around, he could put the four notes of a mando-bass over a second fretted neck, and thus press these strings into double duty.  They could now be played fretted as a mando-bass or played open as the floating bass strings of a harp guitar!  The second neck is tuned exactly the same as Gibson’s 42"-scale mando-bass (EADG – an octave lower than the four lowest strings of a guitar) – but with a 30” scale.  Inexplicably, the otherwise-ingenious Shutt seems to have made a miscalculation, as he only includes six more open sub-basses, for the same total of ten as the later Gibson.  But he needed twelve, as unfortunately, two of the assigned mando-bass neck sub-basses are the very notes Gibson did away with when they reduced their harp guitar’s sub-basses from 12 to 10 (the E and A from the neck instead being used).  Thus, Shutt is forced to omit two notes from the chromatic scale – choosing C# and D# (randomly?).  While he is quite clear about the true pitch of the sub-basses over the mando-bass fretboard, Shutt is inexact in describing the accurate pitch (octave) of the remaining six sub-basses, stating only that they “are tuned in unison with the same tones made on the four Mando-Bass strings.”  Clearly, these remaining notes can be fretted in either one of two octaves on the open E, A, D or G strings – so we are left with one of the following scenarios:

I tend to like the first option - as the six "floaters" center around the three low bass neck strings, rather than ascending past the high G on the bass neck.  This would put the range quite low and "muddy" as in the original (but not later) Gibson harp guitars.

In either arrangement, the ten sub-basses are no longer linear, so this must have been a brainteaser!  Maddeningly, if one closely examines a blown-up image of Albert with his properly-strung mando-bass, his string gauges appear to go thin, thick, thin, thick - in other words, not matching either of the above.

The circa 1912 catalog pictures the M-B-H-G Style “0, No. 3”, which sold for $165.  The listed Style “0, No. 2” – at $155 – is exactly the same, with less choice woods.  A 16-string “Sub-Bass Guitar (Style “No. 3”)” is Shutt’s $140 version of Gibson’s harp-guitar, and may have had the same tuning of the ten sub-bass strings as Gibson's.

Jim Reynolds pointed out to me that the catalog instrument has what appears to be truss rod covers on both necks!  Like much of Shutt's work, this is important news.  Jim adds, "In the past I spoke with George Gruhn about the truss rod covers and showed him (this image).  He was mystified, thinking as we all do that is was a Gibson innovation circa 1922 or so.

Shutt scoops Gibson again!

UPDATE: April, 2011: I obtained the Shutt pages from the 1914-1915 Sherman Clay catalog (at right; they essentially re-formatted 16 pages from Shutt's own), but was frustrated to find the exact same text describing the tuning - no help there, nor any additional information.

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Note the truss rod covers on each neck!

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This remarkable photograph appeared on the cover of Shutt's sheet music shown above.  Albert is seen playing bass on his Mando-Bass-Harp-Guitar - which may be the very one shown in the catalog and the only one ever built.  His Hawaiian quintet features three young ladies - possibly students of Albert's - playing what appear to be Knutsen steel guitars!  How wonderful to know that at least one performer ordered Shutt's "Sub-bass Guitar."  For all we know, it may have sounded similar to, or perhaps even substantially better than, the Gibson Style U of the same era.  With those F-holes, it may have packed even more punch.  It also looks to be a little more comfortable size-wise and was about half the price of a Gibson.  I find it inexplicable that Gibson sold several hundred harp guitars, while Shutt seems to have managed to sell only one (or extremely few).
Here are the Shutt Mando-Bass-Harp-Guitar and Sub-Bass Guitar compared.

If the player were not tilting his instrument back, my guess is that it would have basically the same outline and proportions of the catalog picture at left.  Rather than two fretted necks and a third support post, the sub-bass guitar has a second, unfretted "support neck" with the end of the fingerboards appearing symmetrical.  It looks like it has a large, centered, single tailpiece as opposed to the two separate tailpieces on the M-B-H-G.  Only the M-B-H-G has the special pearl headstock inlay proclaiming "The Shutt."  Both have F-holes in a carved top.  This was the only harp guitar with this feature ever known until Mike Doolin created his jazz harp guitar in 2006.

There is no way to know how many of either of these instruments were built, but as Shutt only built his catalog instruments “to order” – and judging by the quantity of surviving mandolin family instruments – we can surmise that is was undoubtedly extremely few.   Perhaps as few as the single examples shown in these images above: one standard harp guitar and one mando-bass-harp-guitar.  To this day, no one in the Shutt family knows what became of this latter instrument.  I am certain that Albert took special care of it, and, since he didn’t keep it, it may have been sold to another player.  I hold onto the hope that it will one day be discovered, sitting in the proverbial closet.

Credits:

The catalog and family images were kindly supplied by Jack Shutt (right), the grandson of Albert.  Some of this material is taken from a magazine article written by his father Melvin in 1977.   Jack is a banker, not a musician, though he played trumpet throughout High School, with an instrument and lessons paid for by Albert.  His father Melvin played banjo, guitar and mandolin like his father, often in the same groups.

Special thanks to: Jack, Jim Reynolds (previous Shutt collector), Lowell Levinger of Player's Vintage Instruments (a current Shutt collector), Arian Sheets, Curator of Stringed Instruments, National Music Museum.

Updates

April, 2011: Added news of Sherman Clay's catalog advertising Shutt's full line (no new information, unfortunately).
May, 2010: Added the Cadenza tone bar ad and the Acuff Collection G-3 guitar, thanks to Arian Sheets (reminding me I had the book on my shelf all this time...)


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