Featured Harp Guitar of the Month
The House of Stathopoulo
A Surreal Missing Link
by Paul Fox. July, 2010
And don't miss Gregg's June, 2011 blog update!
of Stathopoulo Harp Guitar is one of the rarest Epiphone
instruments anywhere in the world, and the only example known to
exist. In 2007, it was acquired by Dave Berryman as part of a
collection of the late Jim Fisch, co-author of the book, Epiphone:
The House of Stathopoulo. It is also an instrument that provides a
glimpse into a very transitional period during the formation of
what would become one of the most recognizable names in guitar
history, Epiphone, as well as establishing a definitive link to
real origins of another legendary, one-of-a-kind instrument; The
Roy Smeck Octochorda.
|The first era of the Stathopoulo legacy starts in 1903, when a 40 year-old Greek immigrant named Anastasios Stathopoulo came to New York from the Turkish city of Smyrna. As evidenced by an early classified ad from the New York Tribune, he soon established himself as a “manufacturer of musical instruments, and repair services for violins. A fine example of his early work is a 1907 mandolin that was inconspicously sitting on a shelf in Epiphone’s Nashville offices. Although its basic design in quite similar other ‘bowl-back’ mandolins of that period, it clearly shows the skills of a very experienced luthier, sporting intricate inlay and purflings made of mother-of-pearl and ebony and a carved solid tortoise-shell bridge and pickguard. In 1909 Anastasios, not yet a U.S. citizen and “a subject of the King of Greece, residing in New York”, patented a “new, original and ornamental design for the Mandolin’ (Pat. 40,010). its most striking feature was the cello-style scrolled headstock with a carved animal’s head that would appear on several instruments. Tragically, this era abruptly ended in 1915, when Anastasios, a 52-year-old husband and father of six, died from “a long illness.”||
Anastasios Stathopoulo mandolin with very ornate ebony and
mother-of-pearl inlay and solid tortoise shell bridge.
classified advertisement from the New York Tribune for A.
Stathopoulo claiming to “possess the secret to repair your
1909 Patent Anastasios Stathopoulo’s new, original and ornamental design for the mandolin with carved animal peghead design.
Courtesy of Paul Fox
1917, the newly christened “House of Stathopoulo” ushered in
the second era in the history of the family’s growing musical
instrument business headed by eldest son Epi Stathopoulo. In
1916, at the age of 23 and only a year after his father’s
death, Epi had filed his first banjo patent (1,248,196),
followed by two more in 1920, and was granted four by 1929. Epi
was well aware of what instruments Americans wanted to play and
in a stroke of great foresight and genius, Epi got the jump on
their Michigan-based rival by diving into a new market for the
uniquely American instrument, the banjo. Realizing that they
would not fair well against Gibson in the mandolin market, and
knowing that manufacturing traditional Greek instruments was a
market with limited potential, Epi and his brothers started
exclusively manufacturing high-quality banjos. In 1923, the
Stathopoulo brothers Orphi and Frixo established the Epiphone
Banjo Company. Epi, short for Epaminondas combined his nickname
‘epi’ which is also a prefix from Greek meaning at the
center, with “phone”, from the Greek word for voice or
sound. Unfortunately, little is known about this period
following Anastasios’ death by way of catalogs or
advertisements. A 1920 trade magazine “The Violinist” barely
mentions the “Stathopoulo Shop” on West 39th
Street, despite its self-proclaimed “forty years of
experience” as a dealer and importer of “old and new
violins.” It would take several years before the name of
Epiphone became synonymous with high-quality instruments like
the Recording Banjos of the 1920’s and their legendary
Masterbilt archtop guitars of the 1930s.
|The Harp Guitar
Since the first publishing of this article in the May, 2010 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine, startling new information has surfaced that clearly shows that there were two versions of the harp guitar including both a 12-string with 6 sub-bass strings and an 18-string with a full complement of 12 sub-bass strings. There was also a 6-string guitar (more on that later).
There were no known official company catalogs offering a harp guitar, but a recently uncovered Greek-American instrument catalog shows a 6-string guitar version with a similar body design and information including prices for the 12 & 18-string harp guitar versions. It is presumed that the Stathopoulo brothers were marketing these instruments to Greek-Americans given the fact that it is in Greek, but with prices in U.S. dollars.
instrument catalog with the 6-string guitar or “sextachorda”;
is no mention of any of these three instruments in the Stathopoulo/Epiphone
book, and prior to finishing the book, Jim Fisch was unaware of the harp
guitar’s existence, which he later received in trade from a friend who
found it in a music shop in Massachusetts. The
label inside the body clearly establishes the “House of Stathopoulo, New
York” as its maker, yet the harp guitar seems to lack the “quality
workmanship, strength, and durability” stated on it. The missing
lower-right corner of the label may have had a date, and the hand-written No.
781 doesn’t help to narrow it down, since
there are no
serial number records prior to 1935 for any Epiphone instruments. Although
previously dated as c.1910, it
is far more likely that the harp guitar was made around 1920 and clearly not
the work of a master craftsman like Anastasios Stathopoulo, which would
have dated it to pre-1915.
The enormous two-piece rosewood
back still has visible kerf-marks due to an apparent lack of adequate planing
and scraping; All six linear feet of the higher-grade rosewood rims
are nicely formed, but not quite a match to the back.
The shape of the mirrored pegheads may have inspired another Greek-American luthier, one Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender, but are a bit crude with more visible saw marks, indicative of a novice builder.
Courtesy of The Epiphone Guitar Company
| They join each of the two necks with loose V-joints
that long ago split and cracked under the strain of the strings. Scott
Harrison, head of Epiphone’s R&D department, pointed out
numerous examples of poorly repaired cracks, sloppy refinishing and
enough patches, extra bracing, and excessive glue inside the body for
three harp guitars.
Harp guitar mirrored peghead design may have inspired Leo Fender. Note the three extra tuners holes on the main neck, which seems to indicate a 15-string version.
The massive rosewood bridge anchors the 6 guitar and 6 sub-bass strings, but three extra holes in the guitar peghead seem to indicate that it had a total of 15 strings at some point. The bare spot on the top was probably the pickguard’s location, with no evidence of what type, or if it was original or added later. However, there are several design features that are distinctly Epiphone, including the mother-of-pearl fingerboard inlays of varying shapes & sizes, and the seven-piece laminated neck construction.
harp guitar is a bold, striking and a totally original instrument almost
as if Salvador Dali
himself added luthier to his resume and created this design that is
truly surreal in every sense of the word. The dripping heart-shaped
sound hole, off-center bridge position, and asymmetrical 20” lower
bout almost melting away from the rest of the body are some of the most
striking features that make it so unusual. It stands alone as a
one-of-a-kind creation and provides a glimpse
into a very awkward and experimental phrase prior to the formation of
the Epiphone Banjo Corporation. It also speaks volumes about the budding
talents of the Stathopoulo brothers struggling to establish their own
identity building new and original designs like their father had done
|The Octochorda Connection||
behemoth’s immeasurable value is as a missing link that connects
The House of Stathopoulo with another legendary instrument, the Roy
Smeck Octochorda. For those of you who might not be familiar with
the octochorda, it’s a very unusual custom made 8-string Hawaiian
guitar that up until very recently had never been associated with
Epiphone. It was just one of many fretted instruments played by the
legendary ‘Wizard of the Strings’, Roy Smeck.
There are a wide variety of stories floating around about the origins of the infamous octochorda. Several credit Sam Moore, a vaudeville-era novelty instrumentalist, as being the inventor of this 8-string wonder of the world. Moore was the first performer to use an instrument called the ‘octochorda’, but a 1922 article stated it was “invented by Harry Skinner of Chicago” who worked in Lyon & Healy’s “violin department.” Skinner also co-authored Moore’s first hit record, “Laughing Rag,” featuring Sam on the octochorda. A 1924 photo showed the vaudeville team of Moore and Freed as “enthusiastic users of Lyon & Healy Instruments” with Moore playing their Bell Guitar.
Sometime in 1923, another talented multi-instrumentalist, Roy Smeck, met Sam Moore while on the Orpheum and Keith vaudeville circuit, and according to Vincent Cortese, author of the biography "Roy Smeck: The Wizard of the Strings in His Life and Times", Roy said that “Sam Moore invented the octochorda tuning” (an open E7th) and “[Smeck] was the only other one to play the octochorda in vaudeville.” Smeck also stated that his octochorda was “one of only two made”, but [Sam’s] “was a regular guitar, without the heart-shaped sound hole.” A music trade editorial from June 1924 also supports Smeck’s claim and specifically mentions the octochorda as “the only one in its existence.” This all seems to indicate that Harry Skinner’s invention was most likely an 8-string version of the Lyon & Healy Bell Guitar, and not an earlier version of Roy’s octochorda.
Several other accounts credit the Harmony Company with building the octochorda and Roy himself is mainly responsible for this story. “Roy told me Harmony built the octochorda”, said Cortese, but after seeing pictures of the House of Stathopoulo harp guitar, his comment was “Now you got me scratching my head”, and added that, “Almost everything happened for Roy after the Vitaphone film”, including his association with The Harmony Company.
|Vinny was of course referring to Roy’s
overnight rise to super-stardom after appearing in Warner
Brother’s 1926 Vitaphone short film, “His Pastimes”. Roy was
signed for $350.00 by Harry Warner, one of the four original Warner
Brothers, to appear
in what became Smeck’s chance of a lifetime.
6, 1926, more
than a year before Warner Brothers released the first feature
length-talking picture, “The Jazz Singer”, highbrow New
Yorkers paid a whopping $10.00 to see the feature film ‘Don
Juan’ starring John Barrymore. The
included a series of short ‘talkies’ of many renowned artists of
the day like operatic singers Anna Case and Giovanni Martinelli,
Ephrim Zimbalist Sr. and the newly discovered “Wizard of the
Strings”, Roy Smeck. As the New Times reviewer, Mordant Hall wrote
the next day, “the
seductive twanging of a guitar manipulated by Roy Smeck captured the
audience. Every note appeared to come straight from the instrument
and one almost forgot that the Vitaphone was responsible for the
realistic effect.” In fact, this was no mere guitar, but the then
In 1927, the president of Harmony, Jay Krauss, approached Roy with an endorsement deal to take advantage of the incredible success of the Vitaphone film, and the ‘vita-uke’ was introduced in June of 1927, followed by several other designs including the 6-string Vita-Guitar. Some of these “novelty’ instruments had sound-holes shaped like trained seals, and some had an airplane-shaped bridge or ‘aero-bridge’, meant to capitalize on another celebrity, Charles Lindberg and the first successful trans-Atlantic flight in the “Spirit of St. Louis”. It certainly paid off, as a reported 500,000 units were sold in the first two or three years. But the wonderful wizard had his octochorda long before Harmony came knocking on his door and it is certain that Harmony did not built it. Further proof is an editorial for 1924, annoucing that Roy was signed by Paul Specht for “orchestral and solo recording work” with Specht’s Alamac Orchestra, using the seven instruments played by this “exceptional, versatile musician”, including the octochorda. This was after the tour with Olga Myra and the Southland Entertainers, when Roy first met Sam Moore.
autographed publicity photo of the Paul Specht’s (standing with
violin) Alamac Orchestra and featured performer, Roy Smeck playing
his Bacon & Day Silver Bell banjo, with the original octochorda
laying on floor in front. Courtesy of Jim Garber, former student
of Roy, who found it in a memorabilia shop.
Roy Smeck Octochorda owned by Randy Klimpert, as photographed in 1994.
Note the similarity between its striking carved animal head and the
1909 Anastasios Stathopoulo mandolin patent. Courtesy of Randy
|Unfortunately, the octochorda mysteriously disappeared prior to 1930. One account said it was stolen out of Smeck’s hotel room, but another possible explanation is Roy’s brief marriage and subsequent nasty divorce from Olga Myra around 1929. As most musicians would agree, a reputed contortionist/dancer/violinist is either a dream come true or your worst nightmare, and in Roy’s case, the latter. Roy commented that, “She [Olga] left me with $7.00 and a ukulele.” Hell hath no furry, and Olga Myra was no exception. In fact, the octochorda doesn’t appear on any Smeck recordings after that, and seemed to vanish from the face of the earth. That is until one fateful day in 1994, when Randy “RJ” Klimpert checked out a local antique shop called the Pot ‘O’ Gold, where he noticed a rather strange looking instrument, tagged “c1890 Handcrafted; Possibly Spanish”. The owner of the shop offered quite a creative fairy-tale of his own, telling Randy that it was “made by slaves for their master during the Civil War.” Without even knowing what it was, Randy scraped together enough money to buy it. He soon realized that it was in fact, the long-lost Roy Smeck Octochorda, and in a cruel twist of fate, made the discovery just months after Roy Smeck died at the age of 94. No one knows how the octochorda wound up in this antique shop and unfortunately there are very few clues about its life after Smeck. One exception is the 1973 book “The Steel String Guitar” by Donald Brosnac with a picture labeled “Harmony Octochorda 1929 – Photographed at the Harmony Guitar Co.” As was the case when Klimpert bought it, the octochorda sported a new giant carved eagle bridge that was not original to the 1920’s version. Given Roy’s close association with the Harmony Company after 1927, it’s possible that they added the bridge and claimed the instrument as their own design. The fact that Smeck and Harmony did not join forces until 1927 clearly refutes the 1929 date and any possibility that it was made by Harmony.||
Picture of the octochorda sporting its new giant eagle bridge from Don Brosnac’s 1973 book “The Steel String Guitar”
As it turns out, the harp guitar and octochorda were not the only two examples of these unique designs known to exist. This rare photo appeared on Gregg Miner’s HarpGuitars.net website, an eBay find by collector Ben Elder. Putting aside the obvious racial stereotypes of this still-unknown ‘black-face’ minstrel group, everyone assumed that it was either Roy Smeck or Sam Moore playing the octochorda.
Unknown minstrel group with two Gibson harp guitars, one mandolin newly discovered House of Stathopoulo sextachorda player second from left. Courtesy of Ben Elder
|However, our mystery man is NOT playing an octochorda at all. An extreme close-up revealed some startling differences in its design. The most obvious is the lack of fancy mother-of-pearl and abalone inlay and purfling around the body and sound-hole. More significant is the fact that it has 6 strings and not 8 which prompted Ben Elder to aptly rename it the ‘Sextachorda’. To help dispel any thoughts that the inlay and two more strings were added later, the neck and peghead are also completely different. Although the sextachorda’s peghead is obscured in this photo, the Greek-American catalog illustration clearly shows a standard 6-string slot-head configuration, coupled with the fact that it’s being played like any other 6-string guitar, not Hawaiian-lap style. Still not convinced? The fact that the sextachorda has a standard 12-fret neck (12 frets free of the body), and that both the ‘20s version and ‘eagle bridge’ octochorda have a very unconventional 10 1/2-fret necks, should help clear it up. The catalog picture of the sextachorda also confirms these design features, although the translation does not give it a name, or refer to it as a “guitar” per se.|
|The proverbial ‘icing on the cake’ – the faint
outline of a House of Stathopoulo label inside its sound hole. A
closer look at a 1910 bouzouki label shows the date as a printed
“191” and a hand-written “0”. The “decade label”, as Dave
Berryman commented, could possibly date the sextachorda to as late as
1919. The harp guitar’s label is all together different from these
two examples, and also unlike any other Epiphone labels of the
mid-1920s, which suggests that it was made after the sextachorda.
Unfortunately, the present-day octochorda has no label according to
Klimpert, but the very ornate presentation-grade design is certainly
the work of a more experienced luthier and suggests a date of
manufacture of approximately 1923 or 1924, which also fits the time
line established by Roy Smeck’s first encounter with Sam Moore. The
crudeness of the harp guitar as compared to the more refined and
ornate octochorda also suggests the Epi Stathopoulo had come a long
way in honing his skills as a luthier during the 3-4 years between the
making of these two instruments. Undeniably, the Stathopoulo harp guitar, Roy Smeck’s custom-made
octochorda, and the 6-string sextachorda share so many common design
traits that they can only be the work of a single manufacturer, and
possibly designed and built by Epi Stathopoulo, himself. All three
also share the same distinctive
downward slanting cutaway that would reappear on Epiphone’s
Recording Guitars of the late 20s and early 30s. In a poetic
sense, the octochorda’s carved cello-style, scroll-top peghead is a
fitting tribute to Anastasios Stathopoulo’s 1909 patented mandolin
design and brings the whole story full circle back to the beginning,
when a Greek immigrant wanted to make the “highest
quality instruments” designed to stand out from the crowd.
Bravo, Stathopoulo family, you did it, and so much more.
2010 Paul M. Fox
|About the Author
Paul Fox is a musical instrument researcher and historian with an emphasis on Gibson and Epiphone. He is also a luthier and his company, www.fox-guitars.com offers “new vintage” custom-made instruments inspired by the great pre-war era. He also offers full repair and restoration services. His website also includes lots of FREE guitar history, including vintage guitar data, old magazines & advertisements, and much more.
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