Washburn Guitars: Burning For You
Originally published in Guitar World, July 2009
More than 125 years old and still on top of the latest trends, Washburn Guitars continues to fire up players with its innovative instruments. Guitar World celebrates the history of an American legend.
You've seen their guitars in the hands of rock and metal guitar heroes like Dimebag Darrell, Dan Donegan, Joe Trohman, Scott Ian, Nuno Bettencourt and Ace Frehley. So under the circumstances, you’d be forgiven if you thought Washburn was, relatively speaking, a recent entrant to the world of the guitar.
But in fact, Washburn is the second-oldest guitar company in America, having been established some 125 years ago, well before most of the today’s leading guitar makers were around. The company’s success over the decades was due to many factors, but its status as a preeminent maker of guitar and metal guitars is certainly due to the vision of one man: Washburn chief Rudy Schlacher.
When Schlacher took charge of Washburn in 1977, he built upon its venerable reputation by introducing models that attracted modern guitarists and helped the company become a force in the electric guitar market. In the years since, Washburn guitars have found favor with a number of top guitarists in the rock and metal genres, including Paul Stanley, Mudvayne’s Gregg Tribbett, Fall Out Boy’s Joe Trohman and the aforementioned guitar legends.
Today, Washburn’s range encompasses everything from acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos to traditional and ultra-modern electric guitars, and the company has made its mark in virtually every area of guitar making. For instance, Washburn has played a leading role in developing electrified acoustic guitars and basses that sound like real acoustics even when cranked up loud. Diversification has been one of Schlacher’s key strategies.
“We’ve never had one single model that sells really strong, like a Stratocaster or Les Paul,” Schlacher says. “Fender sells thousands of Stratocasters and Gibson sells thousands of Les Pauls. But in order for me to sell thousands I need to have 10 different models, so we were always forced to have a lot of different instruments. But on the positive side, that has given us more flexibility to be creative. We have the freedom to do some not-so-standard things, so we can get a little bit wilder.”
In Days of Old
In this regard, Washburn’s recent history reflects the company’s origins. Washburn was founded in 1883 as the house brand of music retail giant Lyon & Healy. As such, Washburn pretty much started out big, with a full line of stringed instruments to offer the public. Says Schlacher, “Martin is the only company older than Washburn. But in the late 1880s, Martin was a small builder, whereas Washburn produced hundreds of thousands of instruments.”
The Lyon & Healy music store was established in Chicago in 1864 by George Washburn Lyon and Joseph Patrick Healy, both of whom came from music retail backgrounds. Healy was the young go-getter, and Lyon was the more experienced partner and hands-on musician, being proficient on a number of string and brass instruments.
The American Civil War had recently ended, and Chicago, still a young city, was growing fast in the rush of post-war prosperity. Then as now, the city was an important hub—the “gateway to the West”—thanks in part to its location, on the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Just as thousand of daily airline flights pass through Chicago in the 21st century, the city was a vital connection for railway and shipping lines in the 19th century. And like many port cities, Chicago became an important musical center. The city played a vital role in the development of American jazz, blues and other genres.
Given these favorable conditions, Lyon & Healy grew quickly. As the retail business flourished, George Lyon and Patrick Healy decided to go into the musical instrument manufacturing and wholesale business. A factory, the first in a series of many, was erected at Michigan Avenue and Wabash Street in Chicago. Around 1883, Lyon & Healy began to produce a line of high-quality guitars, mandolins and zithers that bore George Lyon’s middle name, Washburn. It is thought that Lyon himself had a role in designing the earliest Washburn instruments.
In the late 19th century, guitars were still principally strung with catgut strings, a precursor of today’s nylon strings made from the intestines of sheep, goats or other farm animals. Steel-string guitars were starting to make their appearance but hadn’t yet come into prominence. Guitar body sizes also tended to be smaller than what we’re accustomed to—dreadnoughts and jumbos were still a little way down the road. Mandolins and banjos were equally popular, if not more so, although the guitar did have an important role both as a solo instrument and in the string bands, guitar and mandolin orchestras of the day.
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