Altpeter Harp Guitar and Double-Harp Ukulele
by Gregg Miner

A slightly modified version of this article is included in Harp Ukuleles: What On Earth Were They Thinking?

Update! August, 2008
This bizarre little beast is a "Double Bass Uke" made by Franz Walter Altpeter of Chicago in 1927. You gotta love this guy!

Almost nothing is known of Altpeter, and so far, this seems to be the only instrument of his that anyone has ever seen!
The label states:

F.W. ALTPETER, maker 
2405 So. Ogden Ave. CHICAGO, ILL 

I'm assuming the patent date reflects the patent for a somewhat different instrument which Altpeter was granted on Feb. 22, 1927 (thanks to Michael Holmes of Mugwumps Online for leading me to it).

This equally strange instrument is shown below.

Alpeter talks about this invention for two-plus pages, but what it boils down to is a harp guitar-like concept to be applied to any type of fretted instrument (including ukulele?).

The first feature of the patent is to cover a "new method" of playing, which is to string it backwards and strum the three high accompaniment strings with the thumb (preferably with a metal thumbpick to "add materially to the loudness"), plucking the lower strings with the fingers.

Altpeter then continues on about the volume problem of guitars and similar instruments, suggesting the addition of open bass strings ("four are usually sufficient for most players").  He doesn't acknowledge that many makers had created versions of harp guitars for the same reason prior to this (in fact, Altpeter's were probably the very last to be introduced). Of course, his bass strings are on the opposite side of the neck, to be played with the fingers, because of the backwards tuning! (He does provide for "normal" playing, and the drawing shows the guitar's main strings in normal tuning - in which case the extra bass strings are really in a strange location)

Best of all, because "it is sometimes desirable that the auxiliary neck extend from the body in a direction opposite from the main neck,"  he proposes a removable neck which can be fitted to either end of the body! For those of us who have difficulty looking over the bulky arm of our Dyer and Knutsen harp guitars, this sounds like a great idea! Who knows what they would've sounded like however, not to mention the wacky appearance (see alternate version below!)

I suspect that few (if any?) of these instruments were made or sold (anyone with any info, please write in!).

Which brings us to the one instrument we do have available: the Double Bass Uke.

The neck contains the standard four ukulele strings (we can only guess if they were to be tuned backwards!). What I call the "yoke" has nails to loop one end of the auxiliary strings around and slotted screws to act as a nut/guides. Perhaps inspired by the patent idea, the geared tuners for these strings are not at the top where they'd normally be, but protruding from the other end!

Things become more curious when we begin counting the appendages: Four auxiliary tuners; two auxiliary bridges flanking the normal bridge - each with three slots; and finally, two nails/nuts on the left side of the yoke and three on the other. Additionally, the yoke is asymmetrical with a support on the left side only. All of this appears original.

My guess is that the overly creative Altpeter is again giving us options: a maximum of four auxiliary strings, with the option of either two on each side, one on the left - three on the right, or perhaps only one side to be used by the performer. 

The question is: WHY?

Again, a guess. Perhaps his patent idea gave rise to the "Double Bass" concept. That is, auxiliary strings on both sides of the standard neck, so that the player can use (and string and tune) whichever side best suits their playing style. I can see him having difficulty with the patent instrument, and evolving into a "left-or-right"  harp guitar. The label implies that he also built some of these "Double Bass Guitars" also (he uses the term "bass" where others would use "harp" - most likely because the extra strings were to be bass strings, and/or the European use of "bass guitar" in place of "harp guitar").

Thus, I would imagine that the uke was also tuned with the extra strings as "bass" strings (but what an idea!). They sure get in the way of strumming, but I'm experimenting with some fingerstyle techniques.

This incredibly rare instrument is in part a Museum donation from the Chuck Fayne collection. Now has anyone seen a guitar?

Update! August, 2008

Despite my obvious poking fun at Altpeter somewhat misguided inventions above, I was contacted separately and unbeknownst to each other!) by two of his surviving great-grand daughters, Carrie O'Keefe, who supplied information, and Jamie Hubertz, who supplied the wonderful photos and wrote the following information:

"He was my mother's father's father from Chicago.  Franz Walter was born Aug. 21, 1869 and died Oct. 28, 1927.  Unfortunately little is known of him. I am sending you a picture of Franz Walter, his wife Katie, and their children at Christmas (taken late 1890's).  The other two pictures, I feel, shows his personality.  The last picture is the building his father built and Franz Walter lived in with his family (2405 S Ogden Ave.).  It was on the corner of Ogden & Western.  The info I have comes from letters from my great Aunt Edna, Franz Walter's daughter."

From Franz Walter's daughter Edna's letters:

"My father (Franz Walter) took a job in New York in 1909.  The next few years I wish I could forget.  During the winter my father had a gas heater in his room.  One night during a cold spell gas escaped from the heater hose and my father was taken to the hospital for dead.  He was revived, and after his release he cane home, (where he) had his third nervous break down."

Between the information provided by Carrie and Jamie, the following is also known.

Franz Walter was the son of John Jacob (JJ) and Maria Altpeter.  JJ (born Oct 1831) came to Rochester, NY from Germany.  He lived with an older brother until he married Mary Heilbronn about 1850.  He was a partner with Bausch & Lomb in Rochester, later moving to Chicago, where he repaired watches house to house.  Once established, he sent for his family.  They lived above a store on 18th & Halsted.  JJ eventually owned a jewelry store on Halsted (now part of the University of Illinois).  JJ was elected Alderman, 18th ward in the late 1880's, and in the 1890's elected one of the original drainage canal commissioners.  He built his home on Ogden and Western where Franz lived and would build his instruments at the very end of his life.  The home was torn down in the 1930's to widen Western Ave.  Mary Heilbronn's mother was Lena Ringley, related to the Ringling Bros. Circus family (they changed the name form Ringley to Ringling).  Of Franz Walter's life, little else is known.  He worked for the city attorney's office in Chicago, but apparently enjoyed a more creative and artistic life at home, as the photos below attest (as do his inventions!).

This interesting (to say the least) but forgotten American luthier/inventor would otherwise be virtually unknown to posterity.  My thanks to Carrie and Jamie for their contributions!

As much a character as his instruments

copyright and courtesy Jamie Hubertz

c,1896 (Franz would have been 27)

copyright and courtesy Jamie Hubertz

The home built by Franz W. Altpeter's father, where Franz created his unusual harp guitar inventions
copyright and courtesy Jamie Hubertz

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If you enjoyed this article, or found it useful for research, please consider making a donation to The Harp Guitar Foundation
which supports, so that this information will be available for others like you and to future generations. 
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