THE GUITARS

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By the beginning of the 19th century, the 6-string guitar was growing in popularity and conquering new audiences. Many early guitars were made for royalty, nobility, and wealthy families; considered luxury items, they featured exotic woods and extensive pearl inlay on both the face and the fingerboard. By contrast, this simpler instrument is a rare surviving example of the type of guitar made for a less expensive market and to be played by ordinary musicians. Its body shape was the standard form for guitars around the world for most of the 19th century. 

Italian, circa 1810
Spruce top, Maple back and sides, Ebony fingerboard with ivory Frets 

36 x 3 x 12 in

Private Collection 

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John C. Haynes, Boston, 1860
Spruce top, Brazilian Rosewood body, Ebony fingerboard 
37 x 3 ½ x 11 ½ in 
Private Collection 

 

Boston-based John Haynes was well known for his banjos and made this instrument following the Martin template. Sold by the New York musical instrument dealers of Zogbaum and Fairchild, it features the William B. Tilton Improvement in its soundhole -- a silver disc that was patented 1856. Whether this device actually improved the sound is debatable.  

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Martin 2-20, circa 1890 
Spruce top, Brazilian Rosewood body, Ebony fingerboard 
36 ½ x 4 x 12 in
Private Collection 
Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, NY, Courtesy the FLAG Art Foundation

Christian Frederick Martin was born in Germany and apprenticed in Vienna with the famous guitar maker Johann Georg Stauffer. Martin crossed the Atlantic in the early 1830s and set up shop on Hudson Street in Manhattan. The instruments he made came to define the guitar in the United States. 

In 1839, C.F. Martin moved his manufacturing from Manhattan to Nazareth, Pennsylvania. His earliest guitars were made in the traditional Viennese style but he gradually refined the body of his instruments in order to create a more modern shape, most likely influenced by the great Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres. Martin resisted making fancy pearl inlaid guitars until the 1930s, but always maintained a very high standard of craftsmanship. These guitars became popular as a “lady’s instrument” after the Civil War and this one may very well have been played by a refined young woman of the 1890s 

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Weissenborn Hawaiian Guitar, circa 1924
Koa wood 
37 x 4 x 13 ¼ in
Private Collection 

German-born Hermann Weissenborn started a guitar manufacturing company in Los Angeles in the early 1920s to capitalize on the popularity at the time of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. This instrument was made to be played on the musician’s lap with a steel bar held in the left hand pressing on the strings to create the slurred notes and chords essential to Hawaiian music. A former  violinmaker and piano repairman, Weissenborn worked with Mexican craftsmen to manufacture these instruments as evidenced by the fine wood binding around the edges. The neck is hollow, which generates a warm and mellow tone.

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Kona Hawaiian Guitar, circa 1925

Koa wood 
37 x 4 x 13 ¼ in 
Private Collection 

Made by the Weissenborn factory in Los Angeles but labeled Kona, this guitar has an odd, short, solid neck and a deeper body than the circa. 1924 hollow neck Weissenborn Hawaiian Guitar on display nearby. It appears that this instrument could be played both upright like a standard guitar or in the musician’s lap, in the Hawaiian steel bar style. It has the same fine woodworking but a louder sound than the circa. 1924 Weissenborn Hawaiian Guitar.

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National Tri Cone Style 1, 1931 
German Silver body, Honduran Mahogany neck, Ebony fingerboard

38 x 3 ¼ x 14 in

Private Collection

Metal bodied guitars were an attempt to achieve a louder volume before the advent of the electric guitar. The National Guitar Company of Los Angeles made brass, steel and German Silver (an alloy of nickel and copper) bodied guitars in both square neck for Hawaiian playing and round neck like this one for standard fingering. National’s Styles 1,2,3 and 4 referred to levels of engraving on the instruments: ranging from no engraving (here) to very elaborate floral patterns. Engraving increased the price considerably but had little effect on the sound. Metal bodied guitars were often favored by African American Blues players and became a definitive sound of many great Blues recordings. 

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Gibson Century of Progress, 1934
Spruce top, Maple back and sides, Plastic “Mother of Toilet Seat” fingerboard
39 x 4 ½ x 14 ¾ in 
Private Collection 

 

Designed as a showpiece for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, this model sold fairly well and was manufactured up until 1941. This size and body shape, with various cosmetic appointments, had become a Gibson standard by 1932. The maple back and sides give it a crisp powerful sound, perfectly suited to blues and ragtime fingerpicking. When played with a pick the guitar is both loud and cutting enough to play rhythm in a small dance combo. It is still considered one of the best sounding and most playable guitars ever made.

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Maurer, Chicago, 1927
Spruce top, Brazilian Rosewood sides/back, Mahogany neck with Ebony  fingerboard
37 x 3 ½ x 12 ¾ in

Private Collection

Swedish brothers, Carl and August Larson were master carpenters who came to Chicago in the late 1880s. They found work as luthiers at the Maurer  Company and quickly mastered the craft of making mandolins and guitars. In 1900, they bought the company but continued to use the Maurer name. Carl and August only ever put the name Larson on one instrument that was made for a family member. In addition to Maurer, they used other brand names including Stetson, Euphonon and Prairie State. This is a high-quality guitar, rivaling both Martin and Gibson in workmanship, playability, and sound

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Regal by Wulschner & Son Music Company, Indianapolis, circa. 1900 
Spruce top, Brazilian, Rosewood back and sides, Mahogony neck 
Private Collection

Born in Germany and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, Emil Wulschner immigrated to Indianapolis in 1875 after marrying American musician Flora Stewart, who was studying in Munich. Shortly after his arrival, he founded The Musicverian, Indiana’s oldest orchestra now known as the Anthenaeum Pops Orchestra. In 1896, he started a company making early steel string instruments with his stepson, Alexander Stewart. This guitar shows their expertise and craft. In 1904, the Chicago firm of Lyon and Healy bought the Regale name and used it for many years. The name was subsequently bought and sold a number of times and became associated with cheaper mass market instruments. 

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Gibson 02, 1905

Spruce top, Cuban Mahogany body, Ebony Fingerboard 

41 x 2 ¾ x 18 in
Private Collection

Orville Gibson of Kalamazoo, Michigan, started making mandolins and guitars in the early 1890s. He scavenged fine wood from old furniture and church doors, then hand carved his instruments, sometimes into elaborate shapes. By 1902, his reputation had grown so much that he sold his company to a group of investors who built a factory.  Gibson eventually became one of the big three American guitar makers, joining Martin and later Fender. At eighteen inches across its face, this large guitar was an attempt to produce a louder instrument. It features steel strings rather than the traditional gut strings, as steel strings vastly increased volume, through required special bracing inside the instrument to withstand the added stress on the bridge and top. 

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Prairie State Super Jumbo, 1937 
Spruce top, African Rosewood sides and back, Ebony fingerboard 
42 x 4 ½ x 19 in
Private Collection

This guitar was made by the Larson Brothers of Chicago. At nineteen inches across its face, it is among the largest guitars ever built. It is a special-order instrument made for the cowboy stage and radio bands in the 1930s. Its craftsmanship, featuring fancy yet subtle appointments, kept sound and playability on a par with the quality of any instruments made in the 1930s, which is widely considered to be the Golden Age of acoustic guitars. This instrument is very rare. Less than ten of them have survived and are in existence today. 

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Gibson Les Paul Junior, 1954
Honduran Mahogany body and neck, Rosewood fingerboard 
39 x 1 ¾ x 13 in  

Private Collection

Introduced in 1952, the Les Paul solid body electric was Gibson’s answer to the Fender Telecaster. Originally, the Les Paul Standard featured a “Gold Top” finish but by late 1953, a Custom model was introduced with gleaming black finish and gold hardware. This model is a first year Les Paul Junior. It was a budget, student model costing around $55. By the late 1960s, rock guitarists had discovered that the Junior had a powerful singing tone that fit right in with the music being made at that time. Leslie West of Mountain and Keith Richards both used Juniors to great effect. The upscale model Les Paul Standard with a Sunburst finish, though a market failure when it was introduced in 1958-1960, is today the most highly valued vintage electric guitar. A mint condition model from those years starts at around $250,000.

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Fender Custom Telecaster, 1963
Alder body, Maple neck with Rosewood fingerboard
38 x 2 x 12 ½ in 
Private Collection

Leo Fender of Fullerton, California, introduced this solid body guitar in the summer of 1950. Originally called Broadcaster and then Esquire, the name Telecaster was settled by 1951. It was the first commercially successful solid body electric guitar and helped define the sound of American rock and country music with its twangy single-coil sound. This well played example is the custom designation, featuring a Sunburst finish and binding around the body. Most early Telecasters were varying shades of butterscotch and later white. 

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Fender Stratocaster, 1963-1964
Alder body, Maple neck with Rosewood fingerboard

39 x 1 ¾ x 13 in

 

Private Collection

Introduced in 1954, the Stratocaster had a revolutionary body shape, which has now become commonplace: the double cutaway, elongated horns, and heavily contoured back which were all designed for better balance and comfort while being played slung off the shoulder with a strap. It sold well and can be heard on many recordings of the 1950s and early 1960s. Buddy Holly and The Beach Boys feature Stratocasters. When Jimi Hendrix released his first record in August 1967, the Fender Stratocaster was enshrined as the ultimate rock guitar. Millions of Strats and Strat copies have since been sold. This example is the standard issue with its sunburst finish.  

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Gibson Firebird 1, 1964
Honduran Mahogany neck and body, Rosewood fingerboard
44 x 1 x 14 in
Private Collection

Produced only between 1963 and early 1965, this Jet Age design is thought to have been an attempt by the Gibson Guitar Company to counter Fenders’ increasing dominance of the solid body electric guitar market. The central body and neck are carved from one solid piece of mahogany. This required large pieces of high-quality wood and was so costly that it was abandoned for the more standard separate neck and body by 1965. The body design was also flipped the opposite way allegedly after a threatened lawsuit from Fender saying that Gibson had copied Fenders’ Jazzmaster model.

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Coffin Guitar Cases, circa 19th century

Private Collection

 

This type of wooden, felt or paper lined case was used for guitars in the 19th century and is often called a coffin case, owing to their straight sides, which makes them resemble a casket. Durable and sturdy, guitars were shipped in these cases all over the country, including some sent west by the Pony Express. 

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Martin D41, 1971

Spruce top, Indian Rosewood back and side, Mahogany neck with Ebony fingerboard 

40 x 5 x 15 ½ in
Fred Goldring

In 1917 Martin & Co. briefly introduced this body shape and called it Dreadnought after a battleship. Then in 1931 it resurrected the instrument as the largest guitar in their line. With square shoulders and bottom, the instrument’s size gave it a bolder, perhaps richer, and often louder tone. It was offered with various levels of decoration from the plain D18 up to the elaborate D45. Superbly crafted, this style with 14 frets clear of the body, became the definitive acoustic guitar in the United States. This particular instrument was previously owned by Dan Fogelberg. 

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Gibson BB King Model, 1992 

Maple top, back & sides, Mahogany neck, Ebony fingerboard, Poplar interior center block 
42 x 2 x 16 in

Fred Goldring 

In 1958, the Gibson Guitar Corporation brought out this “semi hollow” guitar body shape to great success. There is a solid strip up the center of the body with the two hollow wings on either side. It is a very versatile and fine sounding style of guitar. Originally sold as the Gilson ES-335, it was quickly adopted by many African American Bluesmen, including B. B. King. In 1980, Gibson paid tribute to B. B. by releasing a model named after him and featuring many of the musician’s favorite design elements on the standard body shape. This one is autographed by B. B. King himself.

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Rick Kelly, Carmine Street Guitars, NYC, 2020 

200-year-old White Pine body, neck, logo and inlays 

The Church, Sag Harbor 

Rick Kelly's hand-made guitars use one hundred percent recycled wood. This guitar is made from the wood of a beam taken down and saved during the renovation of the building that would become The Church. In 1976, Kelly first opened his shop in New York City and in 1990, moved his world-renowned establishment to 42 Carmine Street in Greenwich Village. In the mid-1990s, he discovered reclaimed wood, mainly white pine, which he has called the "King's wood." Modern guitars are usually built using “new” kiln-dried wood - a process that dries out the wood but leaves pockets filled with resin because it naturally takes years for the resin to dry out, crystallize, and leave the wood's pores. The pores of wooden musical instrument are important because it is within these spaces that the vibrations happen, creating rich and unique sounds. 

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Cindy Guitars, Greenwich Village, NYC, 2020 
200-year-old White Pine body, neck, logo and inlays 

The Church, Sag Harbor

New York-based luthier, artist, and DIY-enthusiast, Cindy Hulejis, is known for the custom guitars she hand-makes from scratch. She created this Skimtop T-Style guitar from the wood of a beam taken down and saved during the renovation of the building that would become The Church. It has pyrography accents on the inlay and logo, Glendale hardware, custom wound DarkMoon pickup and Skimtop pine pickguard. Hulejis uses a variety of different techniques in her work, including wood-burning, hand painting, and even leatherworking. Each of her instruments is a unique masterpiece. Hulejis apprenticed with renowned luthier Rick Kelly. Both she and Kelly, who made the guitar on the other side of the stairs, are celebrated in the lauded 2019 documentary Carmine Street Guitars. 

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Huma Bhabha

Sculptor

2014

Liver of sulpher, ferric nitrate, chrome orange, bismuth nitrate

"I like texture, I work with my hands and I like to feel it.” 

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Chuck Close

Painter

2012

Ferric Nitrate, Liver of sulpher

"Obviously, I don’t have a lot of options for gestures, but I certainly manage to get along.”

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William Crozier

Sculptor

2019

Cupric nitrate, Ferric nitrate, Liver of sulpher

"I hope to capture a spark of life through the push and pull of clay.” 

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Elizabeth Strong Cuevas

Sculptor

2014

Liver of sulpher, cupric nitrate, Iron oxide, Ferric nitrate

“My hands appear delicate but in fact are highly skilled. 
Don’t ever forget this.” 

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Eric Fischl

Painter, Sculptor

2014

Liver of sulpher, Ferric nitrate, Bismuth nitrate, Titanium dioxide

“There are memories and knowledge that your hands have stored that cannot be accessed through your eyes.”

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Mary Frank

Sculptor, Painter

2012

Liver of sulpher, Cupric nitrate

“Since the 1950’s, hands repeat throughout my work. I have drawn them with arthritis not realizing my own served as models” 

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April Gornik

Painter

2015

Silver nitrate

“In bronze, my hands are newly animated, strangely compelling.” 

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Don Gummer

Sculptor

2013

Cupric nitrate, Ferric nitrate, Lamp black, Bismuth nitrate, Titanium dioxide

“Start by starting. This is what I do.” 

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Peter Haines

Sculptor

2021

Veridian, Carbon black, cupric nitrate

"It’s a surprise to hold my own hand, to shake it, to feel the girth of it.” 

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James Hart

Sculptor

2022

Liver of sulpher, Red oxide, Ferric nitrate

"When I’m carving. I go to another place- the land of the spirits.” 

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Bruce Hoheb

Sculptor

1997

Motor oil, Carbon black

“I remember the moment when the hand and tool became extensions of the mind, an unbroken energy.”

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Bryan Hunt

Sculptor

2019

Glass bead finish

“I sculpt the hidden world to render it visible and tactile.”

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Robert Indiana

Painter, Sculptor, Printmaker

2010

Cupric Nitrate, Ferric Nitrate

"I’m amazed this process doesn’t hurt. Totally icky yet totally interesting.”

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Jasper Johns

Painter, Printmaker

2010

Silver Nitrate

“I choose one hand, to do both would imply I was doing nothing.” 

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Titus Kaphar

Painter

2018

Liver of sulpher, Burnt sienna, Bismuth nitrate, Titanium dioxide

"This is my primary tool.”

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Lucy Kim

Sculptor

2021

Ferric nitrate, Liver of sulpher

“Thin strings under tension, a bronze sculpture that makes a sound. What a happy accident.”

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Maya Lin

Sculptor, Architect

2017

Gilt wax

“I think with my hands.” 

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Todd McGrain

Sculptor

2017

Liver of sulpher, Mars black, Cobalt blue, Cupric nitrate

“At the end of the day, to get some relief, this is how I hold my hands.” 

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Toshio Odate

Sculptor 

2020

Cupric nitrate, Ferric nitrate, Liver of sulpher

This is my biography, my identity.”

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Michele Oka Doner

Sculptor, Designer

2014

Silver nitrate

"It’s about the sensual form that is created by my hand holding this object.” 

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Beverly Pepper

Sculptor

2014

Liver of sulpher, Bismuth nitrate, Titanium dioxide, Ferric nitrate

“When I’m thinking, this is my default position.” 

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Judy Pfaff

Sculptor

2014

Liver of sulpher, Manganese violet, Prussian blue, Cupric nitrate, Lamp black, Ferric nitrate

“I can’t believe how good this molding rubber feels! 
… I’m sorry I can’t stop moving my fingers.”

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Rona Pondick

Sculptor

2018

Cupric nitrate, Ferric nitrate

“I think with my hands. My hands are everything.”

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Richard Prince

Painter, Photographer

2012

Silver Nitrate

“I wasn’t associated with the hand and that bothered me. Then the hand-written jokes were the first works that I sold.” 

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Martin Puryear

Sculptor

2014

Manganese Bronze

"This is how I measure."

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Ursula Von Rydingsvard

Sculptor 

2016

Silver Nitrate

“My hand hangs down to accentuate my veins. I’m proud of my strength.” 

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Ed Smith

Sculptor

2020

Cupric nitrate, Ferric nitrate, Veridian, Liver of sulpher

"I expect my hands to do what I ask of them. When they hurt, it slows me down.” 

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Kenneth Snelson

Sculptor

2014

Silver nitrate

“Don’t you manicure that thumb! I worked very hard for that.” 

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William Tucker

Sculptor 

2012

Cupric nitrate, Liver of sulpher

"I was contemplating my hand and picked up this piece of clay.
It felt so right to me.”

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John Waters 

Filmmaker, Author

2020

Silver nitrate

“These are wonderful! Scary, spooky. Quite the experience.”

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Jean Wiart

Metal Artisan

2018

Liver of sulpher, Ferric Nitrate

"This is how I hold my hammer, my working position.

I know this...my muscle memory.”