Washburn Guitars: Burning For You
Washburn guitars began at $2 and ran into the $100 range. The top-of-the-line instruments, such as the model number 308 of 1889, were elaborately inlaid, stunningly beautiful instruments. The 308 is recalled as the most ornate guitar on the market in its day, with intricate pearl inlay work running along the outer body contours, rosette, fretboard and headstock, and down the center of the back. But even that looks plain next to 1892’s Style 9 ($155 in the grand concert size) with delicate pearl inlay work and marquetry (wood inlays) in multiple colors. Even more ambitiously bedizened were Washburn’s presentation guitars, the forerunner of today’s custom shop models. The inlay work on all of these 19th century Washburns was very much in the neoclassical/beaux arts style of the period, with plenty of floral motifs and Grecian lyres, but executed with a distinctly American exuberance and panache. The basic body, top, neck woods and overall craftsmanship were all top quality. Today these instruments fetch figures in the $40,000 range on the vintage market.
In the late 19th century, Washburn’s in-house advertising department pioneered many of the standard guitar marketing techniques that are still in place throughout the musical instrument industry, including the use of illustrated catalogs and endorsements. The endorsees tended to be music teachers and performers from the vaudeville and classical worlds, but the basic concept was the same as today.
As the 20th century dawned, Washburn’s place at the top of the guitar market was secure. The company had the manufacturing power, the marketing clout and a well-tuned retail machine, and its ornate guitars continued to captivate the public. Introduced in 1912, the model number 3150 boasted an all-pearl fingerboard, nut, saddle, tuning pegs and bridge pins, plus extensive inlay and marquetry. It sold for $237.50, nearly twice the $120 one would have paid then for Martin’s 000-45. The company also began to experiment with innovative designs. Lyon & Healy’s Lakeside Jumbo Size steel-string is regarded by some guitar historians as the world’s first dreadnought.
Viewed today, some of the company’s design ideas seem bizarre, others prescient. The Washburn model 804 lyre guitar had upper-body bouts that extended all the way up to the headstock. The company also produced some early doubleneck models under the American Conservatory sub-brand. A somewhat grotesquely large-bodied “Monster Bass” guitar was manufactured as well. There was no shortage of innovative ideas, a tradition that continues in the Washburn guitars of our own time.
Declining Fortunes: Between Two Wars
The horrific carnage and bitter struggles of the First World War (1914–18) put an end to turn-of-the-century gaiety and innocence. The war years also marked the end of ornately inlaid Washburn guitars.
However, the company did continue to experiment with innovative body shapes. The mid Twenties saw the introduction of the pear-shaped Washburn tenor guitar. The four-stringed instrument represented an effort on Washburn’s part to get in on the craze for tenor banjo in the dance bands and jazz bands of the Roaring Twenties. The instrument was tuned like a four-string banjo and may have played a role in the guitar’s eventual ascendancy over the banjo and dance band rhythm sections.
The Twenties were also the era of Washburn’s bell-shaped guitars, still distinctively eye-catching today, and the somewhat balalaika-shaped Shrine guitar, tenor guitar and ukulele. But by the end of the decade, Washburn’s parent company, had shifted its emphasis. Both Lyon and Healy were long gone: George Lyon had left the firm back in 1889 and died in 1894. The younger Patrick Healy at least lived to see in the new century, passing away in 1905.
By 1928, Lyon & Healy’s management, now headed by Raymond E. Durham, had decided it wanted out of the manufacturing and wholesale business. The Washburn factory was sold off to the J.R. Stewart Company of Chicago, and the L&H wholesale operation went to another Chicago firm, the Tonk Brothers. By 1930, however, J.R. Stewart went bankrupt in the Great Depression. The Tonk Brothers acquired the Stewart manufacturing facility at auction for a very low price.
Lyon & Healy continued to flourish and is still around today as a leading manufacturer of harps. Unfortunately, the Washburn brand didn’t do as well under the Tonk Brothers as it had under its former owners. The new management began to subcontract some of the manufacturing, to the detriment of quality. Washburn guitars slipped into the mid-priced market during the Thirties and were eclipsed by Gibson, Epiphone, Gretsch, Vega, National and other brands. Another problem was that Washburn was slow to get into the archtop, jazz guitar–style guitars that came into vogue during the Thirties. As a result, the brand was pretty much extinct by the end of World War II in 1945.
“Washburn guitars were out of production in the Fifties and Sixties,” says Jody Dankberg, Washburn’s director of marketing and artist relations. “Rudy and I always joke that that’s how we never got Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix. We missed it.”
But the world hadn’t seen the last of Washburn.
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