Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

A Dyer Detective Story

by Gregg Miner, May, 2005 

When Jonathan Kellerman, prolific crime novelist and discerning guitar collector, emailed me in April, 2005 to ask if I knew anything about a “sunburst” Dyer harp guitar with double trapeze tailpieces, I of course cockily replied back, “no such animal!”  Remembering the sunburst dual tailpiece Regal harp guitar that had just sold on eBay in Los Angeles, I suggested that the seller was perhaps trying to describe this one. A couple days later, I received an email from the seller, Laguna Beach musician, collector and dealer Dan Yablonka, with the attached photo. And just when you think you’ve seen it all…..!

When the two gentlemen agreed to let me join them to photograph and document this peculiar specimen, I knew this definitely warranted a “vacation day,” and calmly and professionally snuck out of work. I still have no idea exactly what I saw that day. I’ll give you all the clues, and let you form your own theory!

George Gruhn and others had authenticated the instrument (via photos) as a “one-off” custom Larson-built Dyer, dating it to the 1930s – a perfectly reasonable guess from the appearance of the sunburst finish and the Slingerland tailpieces. It wasn’t even a stretch to imagine it as “one of the last Dyers built,” as Bob Hartman and I had recently discovered that Dyer advertised their harp guitars until 1939 - much later than previously thought. NOTE 1

Surprisingly, the label hadn’t been brought up, and I was anxious to check for a serial number or other clues.

And there it was.

A pre-1912, Knutsen-signed label. What in the world?!
Though the signature and, more importantly, the serial number had unfortunately faded to nothingness, it was immediately obvious that this specimen contained a mystery – or several! NOTE 2

The next most significant clue is the finish – which led me into a search for “The History of Sunburst.” I didn’t find out much, as I admittedly didn’t want to start yet another research project! Several experts thought it looked like a 1930s finish, and I’d have to agree. As Dan tried to describe to me as I was color-correcting in Photoshop; "It's still nice and cheesy but it's really great cheese!" Again, sticking to the premise that the instrument is in original condition, the question is: who did the finish, and how early could it have been done? Researcher Michael Wright describes a circa 1900 Bohmann guitar with a crude faux sunburst finish, "kind of like someone swirled some stained cotton around the edges and lightened up toward the center, but the effect is not very "graduated." He added that 2-tone shading was first, followed by 3-tone shading, and that it was definitely in vogue by the late 1920s, but could have appeared earlier. Certainly the beautiful Gibson sunburst stains that began in 1914 should illustrate that it needn’t have taken until 1930 for someone in Chicago to design and create a finish like this. NOTE 3

Could this instrument have been refinished in the ‘30s? I suppose, but to all of us, it looked original, with normal Dyer “crazing” of the varnish. Back and sides are made out of the standard mahogany, and more attractively grained than many Dyers. These surfaces were sunburst finished also, with much nicer results than on the spruce top.

And now we really hit a snag....

The most troubling clue is those Slingerland tailpieces. I didn’t know the exact date of these, but thought they appeared much later. I subsequently discovered conflicting history on the Slingerland guitars, but certainly the mid-1920s would have been the earliest possible date (here is likely the same tailpiece on a Slingerland May-Bell guitar from a "mid-20s" catalog). We looked for obvious signs of tailpiece replacement and initially found a couple small screw holes – but didn’t come to a consensus as to what they represented.

After much cleanup, Dan noticed additional holes and "shadow" marks which he thought duplicated the originals. He then had Orange County guitar expert Steve Soest analyze the tailpieces and hole patterns, who agreed. Steve says, "I measured the distance and arrangement of the plugged holes, and it's obvious that these tailpieces were moved from the doweled position. The old holes are exactly the same spacing as the new holes. I'd also venture a guess that these tailpieces are original to the guitar due to the fact that the harp tailpiece is designed for 5 strings, and the shape and flair of the tail is different from the 6-string guitar tailpiece. If anyone were to modify something like this, they probably would have used two 6-string tailpieces, and just left one of the slots unused on the harp unit. Besides, what else had five strings back then? This would have been made specifically for a harp guitar!" Steve also kindly supplied additional photographs for this article (it was Steve who had taken the initial photo in paragraph 1).

I have to admit that Steve's theory seems to hold water, and the photos back up exactly what he's talking about. I had missed the obvious fact that the left Slingerland tailpiece was originally drilled for just five strings. The guess that this piece of hardware was custom ordered specifically for this harp guitar seems to be a no-brainer. The only other possible instrument the left tailpiece could have been manufactured for would have been a 5-string banjo. While Slingerland made tenor banjos from as early as 1918 (per Mugwumps - and other sources give 1919 to mid-20s), I don't know if or when they made 5-string banjos, or whether this guitar-style tailpiece might have been used (perhaps a check of other Chicago banjo makers will yield such a configuration). With the likelihood that these exact tailpieces were indeed moved as the photos indicate, I would still leave room for the possibility that the tailpieces could have been installed circa 1925, then subsequently moved - but if so, where are the marks from the previous tailpieces?

Status so far: An authentic, original 1906-1912 Dyer label and original c.1925 Slingerland tailpieces (with a 30's-looking sunburst finish). The plot is thickening! 

Before we leave the last topic - why tailpieces at all? Apparently, the customer wanted a different sound (and achieved it!). Assuming the top is original (and we all do), there are and never were any bridge pin holes in the top. I didn’t get a chance to look inside with a mirror, but Dan and his friends had, and found nothing. The sub-bass bridge is loose; the main bridge is glued down. Either could be original or not, I suppose.

As far as the model, this would be a Style 7, though with more variation than normal. All Dyer Styles have some variations; different bindings were used over the years, and inlays were sometimes changed. On the 7’s, Bob Hartman has an “early Style 7” with a few different inlays than his “standard” Style 7. On this one, the inlays on the 3rd and 12th frets are yet a third variation (“snowflake” on 3rd fret, double curlicues on 12th) – Bob thought they looked like those on some early Larsons, specifically those in the 1906-1910 timeframe.

The binding is very cool – a yellowed “herringbone” separated by a third row of similarly-sized squares. I’ve not seen this on other Dyers, nor does Bob remember seeing it on any Larson instruments. The headstock inlays are standard Style 7, though the inlay at the “V” of the bass headstock is different. NOTE 4

Partially flaking off of these mother-of-pearl headstock inlays is an unknown layer of what almost looks like gold leaf, but could be a later coat of localized varnish. Jonathan thought perhaps the customer was trying to “gaudy up” the instrument for the stage. After all, in all likelihood, he was the “first one on his block” with a sunburst harp guitar!

Some of the inlays had a lot of black filler surrounding them and were not as clean as other Larson instruments. I had a sudden suspicion - could Knutsen have been involved? He did use that snowflake inlay a lot. Those who know me well knew I’d be thinking about this at some point! But no, there is still no evidence suggesting that Knutsen ever built this model, or was involved in its design. Nor did Knutsen ever do any sunburst finishes or floating tailpieces on guitars. NOTE 5

The pickguard, of course, is another custom feature of this Dyer – is it original? The consensus was yes – or at least as original as we can determine any of the features are. It’s made out of a solid piece of wood, possibly ebony (though I wasn’t convinced of that). A bit over an eighth of an inch thick, it “floats” another 1/8” - 1/4" above the top on a small wooden support, and clamps to the edge of the soundhole.

I wonder how many luthiers, collectors and players assume that the Dyer harp guitars were all the same size. I know I did, and had never bothered to study and measure the many specimens I’ve had access to (I know - I’m an idiot). In comparing this one to my Style 8, ser # 690, I noticed a significant difference in size – the sunburst being slightly deeper and wider. I got a little overexcited, thinking this was some cool, extra-large Dyer – but later found it was in fact a normal specimen at the large end of the spectrum. It turns out that there is no “standard” Dyer size at all, as Bob Hartman agrees. NOTE 6  

Finally, the tuners appear to be from a later period – again, the conundrum is whether they are replacements or original, denoting a later manufacture (the bass tuners are all replacements).

And by now I’m sure many of you are saying to yourself, “Screw all that, Miner – how does it sound?”

Well, kind of cool, actually. Definitely not the beautiful bright sustained sound of the traditional Dyers, but lots of tone and character. It didn’t have the right strings on it, but we could still get a good sense of it – loud, and a bit – there is no other word for it - “funky;” perhaps a bit like some of the great old Stellas - with a hint of arch-top, due to the floating tailpieces. Truthfully, it sounded substantially different enough from my Style 8 that I would love a chance to record it, restored and properly strung up, to compare the two (whoever ends up with this thing, please call me!).

A final question some of you might be asking yourself: “Could there have been any others like this?” Well, funny you should ask. Bob Hartman (who has seen more Larsons than anyone on the planet) had not heard of or seen anything like it. But the previous owner of this instrument had an old Mandolin Brothers list from January, 1988 that showed a very similar instrument! Unfortunately, it was on old, brittle "newsprint"-like paper, and the entire image was the size of a postage stamp. It had been in a plastic binder for all these years and when the owner went to pull it out to copy (as he didn't want to give Dan the original even on a loan) it crumbled into pieces. And there, lamentably, went our final clue. 

Stan Jay kindly had the Mandolin Brothers staff dig through their files and send me all the Dyer images they could find, but this one was not among them, much to our disappointment. Dan swears that it had the same pickguard and tailpieces (but not the sunburst finish) - so I'm dying to see this image (readers, dig out your old Mando Bros lists)! Presumably, this similar instrument is still out there, and with any luck, its owner may one day spot or hear about this article and come forward. Oh, what tantalizing secrets it may hold!

So there you have it. Hopefully, other experts will also be able to more thoroughly examine Dan's strange find. While I have some opinions on the provenance of this “mystery Dyer,” I honestly can’t decide what the actual facts are. I find it preposterous, and yet...could the pre-1912 original label be a red herring?

I don't know. I'm afraid I must leave you with:

Possible Scenarios (Readers – You Decide!)

1) The Larsons made a custom Dyer for a client circa 1910, using the requisite Knutsen-signed label. They or someone in Chicago created an early sunburst finish, and used floating tailpieces, rather than the standard bridge - again per the client’s wishes. At some point after 1925 the tailpieces were replaced with Slingerlands (which were later moved).

2) As above, but the instrument originally had a normal Dyer finish. When it theoretically had the tailpieces replaced, it was also refinished in sunburst.

3) As #2, but the entire top was replaced before refinishing, and the bridge design changed. In this scenario, the original instrument would have been a completely standard Dyer.

4) The instrument was built (exactly as we see it today) by the Larsons sometime between the mid-20's and mid-30's, and rather than use a current label (say they ran out), they attached a leftover pre-1912 Knutsen-signed label (presuming that they had saved one in a drawer for the last 20 years).

5) Someone got a hold of an authentic pre-1912 Dyer label and replaced the original label. In either scenario 4 or 5, the hypothetical label could also have been blank and even left blank.

Note that these are not necessarily my opinions, nor those of Mssrs Yablonka, Kellerman, Hartman, Soest or anyone else - just a "devil's advocate's" list of ideas, far-fetched or not (frankly, none of them seem believable!). Nothing here is written in stone. Luckily, unlike books or magazine articles, I can update these Internet articles virtually forever…so let’s hear your ideas! NOTE 7

Remember to use your Browser's "Back" button to return to text location after referencing notes

NOTE 1. As illustrated and discussed at the bottom of my page, The Knutsen-Dyer Connection. Note that I say "advertised," not "built" - so far, there have been none found with the new 1939 Style numbers.

NOTE 2. Other than the occasional rare label (such as the photo label shown on p. 98 of The Larsons' Creations), there are just the two main Dyer labels: Pre-1912 Knutsen-signed and post-1912 standard labels. Either may have the signature or Style and Serial numbers completely absent from fading (Knutsen seems to have always used a red pencil, the Larsons either pencil or ink) – but are clearly recognizable regardless. They can easily be referenced whenever necessary with Hartman’s books or my The Knutsen-Dyer Connection page online.

NOTE 3. I’m sure there are many other early sunburst cases. Unfortunately, this early Regal harp guitar, once owned by Scott Chinery, was re-finished in the 1990's, so was a red herring (see Chinery). Though dated "c.1930" in the Tony Bacon book, these instruments were only built from c.1899-1904 (as the Wulschner label proves).

NOTE 4. Here are comparisons of different era Style 7 fingerboards and soundholes (left 2 specimens courtesy of Bob Hartman)

Left-to-right: Early (pre-1912), Later (post-1912, "standard" or common), Sunburst (date unknown).

NOTE 5. For those of you out of the loop; the reason I am always brainstorming about these things is because the Knutsen-Dyer-Larson relationship has more fascinating mysteries developing all the time: Knutsen’s pre-1900 distribution deal with Dyer, the curious 1902 Cadenza Dyer ad, the “hidden years” of Knutsen and Dyer harp guitars (1902-1906), and the Dyer serial number dating theories. All are discussed in The Knutsen-Dyer Connection.

NOTE 6. This chart shows some of the sizes of existing Dyers. To keep it simple, I’m just concentrating on the max width and depth. Quite a range just among the first six specimens!

Measurements Style 8, #264 Style 8, #690 Later Style 7 (Hartman) Style 8, Hartman book Sunburst Early Style 7 (Hartman)
Lower Bout Width 15-3/8 15-1/2" 15-9/16" 15-3/4" 15-3/4" 15-13/16"
Endpin Depth 3-3/8 3-7/8" 4-1/8" 4-1/4" 4-1/4" 4-7/16"

NOTE 7.  Additional brainstorming

From Dan Yablonka and Steve Soest: "While it was in the hands of an uneducated non-collector, why anyone would have gone through all the trouble to get another Dyer label when in 1988 nobody cared much about it. It's like guys who got fret jobs in the 70's on 50's Strats for playability. No one ever thought that they would be eventually lessening a $25k guitar to 20k because they were $1500 bucks retail, etc... Restoration and collecting "parts" for just that is a much more recent phenomenon than the 30's-80's. Steve and I both suspect that the top and binding have never been off of this instrument. It's so much work over a piece that back then was still available in the 30's (the time of estimation of refinishing as per one of your "scenarios")."

From Bob Hartman: "Possibility: Dyer was looking for a revival for the Symphony in the 30's and thought a jazz style (tailpiece) one may take off. The Larsons would not hesitate to use an old label and not give it a style No. (On another occasion they gave a persistent customer an old, unused Warrantee from the wrong guitar to satisfy her, because they had none for the one she bought.) Dyer had the Larsons build a few of these hybrids and they did not catch on. Another last ditch effort was the 1939 catalog offering, basically the old Style 6, 7 & 8's with new Style numbers, 75, 85 and 100."

From myself, in response to Bob (which speaks to Scenario #4 - a favorite of many): Remember that Knutsen was alive (and in business) until 1930. What would be the implications of using an old Knutsen-signed label? Or could Dyer have supplied the Larsons with new "old stock" unsigned labels?

From Bill Hicklin, March 4, 2006: Another speculation: What if the Larsons, very late (say in the mid-30s*), conceived of or were commissioned to build a tailpiece harp-guitar, their first new Symphony since ca. 1923. Having built the thing, they needed a label- which they hadn't used in years. Theirs was not an orderly shop! After some time rummaging around and clearing dust, they still couldn't come up with their own Knutsen-less "Symphony" labels, but did dig up an unused old-style one, still hanging around the back of a drawer since 1912.

*To me, the gentle sunburst shading around the edges says "Thirties," not "Twenties."

Thanks to: Dan Yablonka, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Hartman, Steve Soest, Michael Wright, Stan Jay & Mandolin Bros.

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