The acoustic Hawaiian guitar of Hermann Weissenborn is one of the most specialized instrument designs of the 20th century. Weissenborns were made for guitarists who played the newest craze of the late 1910s and 1920s – Hawaiian music – and with their koa-wood construction and square, fully hollow necks, they were unsuitable for virtually any other style of music, even the Hawaiian music of later eras.
Hawaiian guitarists introduced their style, with the instrument held flat in the lap and played with a steel bar in the left hand, to the mainland around the turn of the 20th century, but they represented only one of many genres of popular music until 1915, when performances by Hawaiian musicians at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco set off a national craze. At the time, a “Hawaiian guitar” was simply a standard steel-string guitar with a high nut to raise the strings off the fingerboard.
In response to this new style of guitar playing, a new instrument design appeared from two instrument makers in the Los Angeles area – Chris Knutsen and Hermann Weissenborn. Knutsen is better known for his harp guitars, which had a large hollow arm for the sub-bass strings. Born in 1856, he was based in the Seattle area and by the end of the 19th century was making harp guitars; he relocated to Los Angeles in 1916. Weissenborn, born in 1863, took up instrument making in his native Germany, then moved to New York in around 1900; he relocated to Los Angeles in 1910.
Neither maker dated his instruments, and their design was similar enough that they had to have been familiar with each other’s work. Knutsen’s hollow-armed harp guitar design would appear to have provided the inspiration for the hollow neck of both makers’ Hawaiian guitars. The tops of Knutsen’s guitars are typically ladder-braced, while Weissenborn’s are X-braced. The earliest Weissenborn in the collection of author Jonathan Kellerman (VG, October ’05) is ladder-braced, which suggests that Knutsen influenced Weissenborn, who then refined the design. Regardless of who influenced whom, Weissenborn emerged as the more successful maker and the one whose guitars define the “acoustic Hawaiian” style today.
By the mid 1920s, Weissenborn’s basic model featured a shallow (3″ deep), elongated body with shoulders curving into the neck. The neck was square and hollow all the way from the body to the nut. Top, back, sides, neck, and fingerboard were of Hawaiian koa wood (spruce top was optional). The fingerboard had flush, inlaid fret lines of white holly.
The model was available in four ornamental variations, distinguished by the degree of rope-pattern inlay or binding:
• Style 1 was plain, with a retail price (in 1930) of $40.
• Style 2 featured the rope around the soundhole only. Retail $56.
• Style 3 added rope around the top band fingerboard. Retail $67.50.
• Style 4 featured rope around the soundhole, top, back, fingerboard and headstock, plus fancier fretboard inlay. Also, as the style numbers increased, so did the figuration of the koa wood. Style 4 retailed at $79.
Weissenborn guitars, along with the Kona-brand models made by Weissenborn for L.A. teacher C.S. Delano, were the most popular Hawaiian instruments of the mid 1920s. The music was more closely related to the jazzy pop music of the 1920s – with syncopation and hot licks – than to the lush, dreamy, electric-Hawaiian style of the 1930s that would become the quintessential Hawaiian style. The shallow koa body and the metal saddle produced a tone that was rich and pleasing, but with enough cutting power to be heard in a typical Hawaiian duo or trio. A group could outfit themselves entirely with Weissenborns, as the company also offered koa Spanish-style models with the same ornamentation levels as the Hawaiians (but with model numbers A, B, C, and D). Weissenborns were available virtually anywhere in the U.S. thanks to a distribution agreement with Chicago-based wholesaler Tonk Brothers.
By the late 1920s, the guitar was beginning to supplant the tenor banjo on its way to becoming the dominant fretted instrument. Part of its rising popularity was a result of changes in popular music, and with more interest from musicians and fans focused on the guitar, innovative instrument makers also turned their focus to the guitar. The result was a flurry of innovation that included more powerful acoustic guitars and culminated in the early 1930s with the introduction of the modern electric guitar. Unfortunately, through these changes in guitar design, which went hand-in-hand with changes in popular music, the Weissenborn acoustic Hawaiian guitar did not change. In the Hawaiian arena, another Los Angeles company, National, came up with a new “resonator” guitar, built around a trio of aluminum cones. Presumably because one of National’s founders, George Beauchamp, was a former vaudeville Hawaiian guitarist, the first Nationals were Hawaiian models. Although the bodies were metal, they had the same square, fully hollow neck design as the Weissenborns.
It was a matter of personal taste whether or not the gleaming “German silver” (nickel alloy) body of a National tri-cone was more attractive than the highly figured koa wood of a Weissenborn, or whether the lilting, bell-like voice of a National was as pleasing as the rich, woody tone of a Weissenborn. But one thing was undeniable: the National was louder than the Weissenborn. The National was quite a bit more expensive – the cheapest, plainest National tri-cone cost $125, more than half again what the most expensive Weissenborn cost – but it was no contest. Hawaiian musicians were willing to pay the price to get the extra volume, and within a couple of years Nationals blew Weissenborns off the map. Weissenborns were all but forgotten by the time Herman Weissenborn died in 1937. It’s not known if he held any animosity toward National, but he did live long enough to see National’s acoustic Hawaiians suffer a similar demise at the hands of the new electric Hawaiian guitars.
The aesthetic appeal of a Weissenborn Style 4 is as strong today as it was in the 1920s, with its smooth body-to-neck lines outlined by rope-pattern trim and complemented by the highly figured koa wood. And with today’s amplification technology, the Weissenborn-style Hawaiian guitar – whether an original or a modern replica – is once again a unique and vital voice in the world of the acoustic guitar.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s February 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.