Nioma Guitars

Rarities from a West Coast Music School
Nioma Guitars
(LEFT) 1936 NIOMA Hawaiian guitar and peghead. (RIGHT) 1936 NIOMA Hawaiian guitar and peghead.
(LEFT) 1936 NIOMA Hawaiian guitar and peghead. (RIGHT) 1936 NIOMA Hawaiian guitar and peghead.

NIOMA musical instruments from the 1930s and ’40s – with their vaguely Hawaiian-looking name – have mystified vintage-guitar enthusiasts over the decades when they’ve occasionally surfaced in retail shops and guitar shows.

The seven known models – three acoustic guitars, two dobro-like resophonics, and two electric lap steels – were oriented to those who made Hawaiian music. But the backstory of NIOMA represents far more than those surviving artifacts – it’s the untold saga of a 1930s franchise music school founded in Seattle – the National Institute of Music and Arts, or NIOMA.

On July 7, 1932, attorney D. Wilbur Zundel represented founders Harry Baxter and Mary M. Strnad in filing incorporation documents with the State of Washington. NIOMA’s headquarters, at 4519 University Way in Seattle’s Kalberg Building (now home to the Seattle Daily Times) were “spacious, modernly equipped studios” and the three comprised NIOMA’s initial Board of Trustees, though Baxter and Strnad remain a bit mysterious. Each lived within blocks of the school in 1933, but then disappeared from the business/telephone directories. It seems Baxter is the same Harry V. Baxter who was a one-time flautist with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, longtime member of Los Angeles Flute Club, and in 1916, head of that city’s Baxter-Northup Music Company. He believed that “love for music and the desire to offer the advantages of a musical education would lead not only to the betterment of the individual, but to the social, civic, and moral uplift of the community.” Strnad resurfaced later in Los Angeles – where, intriguingly, a second branch was opened in 1934, at 951 S. Western Avenue.

NIOMA’s goals
NIOMA’s Articles of Incorporation make clear the goals of its founders; to “operate, maintain and conduct for profit, schools and studios for the teaching of all classes of instrumental and vocal music… all forms of dancing, radio broadcasting, dramatics, public speaking and all other forms of art, music and entertainment.” In addition, they intended to eventually “manufacture, buy, sell, export, import, publish and deal in violins, pianos, organs, phonographs, radios, musical instruments, musical appliances, accessories, musical supplies, musical publications, and sheet music.”

NIOMA was possibly inspired by Harry G. Stanley’s Cleveland-based Oahu School of Music, whose business model franchised hundreds of schools across America beginning in 1926. Stanley’s associated Oahu Publishing Company later began producing sheet music and song folios for their legions of students, and he also contracted with various established instrument manufacturers (including, reportedly, Harmony, Kay, National/Valco and Rickenbacker) to build “Oahu” guitars and amps. But, given the range of arts classes offered at NIOMA, Seattle’s school seems to have been even more ambitious.

Student Orchestras
When NIOMA was founded, the national economy couldn’t have been worse; the Great Depression, one would think, left few families with spare funds to send their kids to an arts school. But, NIOMA’s salesmen went door-to-door pitching $1 weekly lessons in clarinet, cello, trumpet, piano, viola, and violin, and by March of 1933, the shop’s musical director, Charles F. Hodell, had 400 kids performing pop standards like “All Through The Night,” “At Dawning,” “Believe Me If All Those Enduring Young Charms,” “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” and “I Love You Truly” publicly in a gigantic orchestra.

Later that year, NIOMA conjured up what was perhaps the ultimate ploy to attract even younger students with an idea almost certain to spark the interest (and dues-paying!) of proud parents – that of forming the Seattle Baby Orchestra, which would be led by noted child educator Miss Margaret Gribbin. Then, circa 1934, the Seattle school had Herman Bueller leading its 30-member Junior Symphony Orchestra (which presumably featured more-advanced players selected from the overall pool of students). By ’35, NIOMA had several branches in Seattle and would soon have others in Washington towns like Aberdeen, Bellingham, Bremerton, Camas, Port Townsend, Tacoma, Vancouver, Wenatchee, and Yakima – along with Gresham, Hillsboro, Oregon City, and Salem in Oregon, and Boise, Idaho. In time, schools were also established in far-flung locations like Salt Lake City, El Paso, and Calgary.

The NIOMA Guitar Orchestra, Seattle, 1939. Note the two NIOMA resophonic guitarss in the back row.
The NIOMA Guitar Orchestra, Seattle, 1939. Note the two NIOMA resophonic guitarss in the back row.

The Guitar Orchestra
Later in ’35, NIOMA added guitar instruction. In Seattle, a 40-strong ensemble Guitar Orchestra was formed and featured scores of Spanish-style guitars along with even more Hawaiian-style lap-steel guitars. After a year of learning to steel on an acoustic, students could opt to move up to an electric lap-steel – but lessons increased to $2 each. The organization published a series of sheet-music folios – the “NIOMA Modern Plan of Hawaiian Guitar Instruction,” along with an individual song series (“NIOMA Hawaiian Melodies”) that included island classics like “Aloha Oe,” “Akahi Hoi,” and “Ahi Wela.” A variety of guitars can be spotted in the various surviving NIOMA band photos, but those relevant here were produced under the schools’ own brand.

NIOMA Hawaiian Guitar
This entry-level student-model guitar is a simple 12-frets-to-the-neck flat-top acoustic with a light-toned birch body and white-painted trim around the top edge and sound hole. It also has a NIOMA logo decal on the peghead, black-button tuning gears, a raised black nut (for Hawaiian steel playing), floating wooden bridge, and a rudimentary stamped metal tailpiece. This model (manufacturer’s date of “1/36” stamped into the back of the peghead) was, in all likelihood, produced for NIOMA schools by the Regal Musical Instrument Company, of Chicago, which also produced instruments for the Montgomery Ward’s department-store chain.

NIOMA Spanish Guitar
A step up in quality from the Hawaiian Guitar is this 14-fret Spanish-style (probably walnut) with white trim, arched top, and raised pickguard. The guitar also boasts a NIOMA logo decal on the headstock, black-button tuning gears, floating wooden bridge, and a stamped metal tailpiece. It offers a few more clues as to its origins, specifically a manufacturer’s model number (1169) inked inside and the code “VV W” stamped into the neck heel. Guitar/amp historian Mike Newton believes it was likely produced by the Chicago-based Harmony Company in 1937 or ’38, after it had bought the Stella and Sovereign product lines from the bankrupt Oscar Schmidt Company. “The body size and shape are pretty much identical to the ‘new, improved’ $9 model 1105 Stella guitar in the 1939/’40 catalog,” he said. “It’s also the same size and shape as several of the nicer Harmony flat-tops, one of which is the $11 Model 1193 – it even has the same peghead shape. The design of the stamped tailpiece would date it to 1937 or so. All of that, along with the inked 1196 – doubtless the Harmony model number – pretty much nails it as being a Harmony product.” 

NIOMA Resophonic Guitar
This square-neck acoustic with metal resonator cone was produced by Regal, which made countless instruments under many brand names and supplied guitar bodies to the “big boys” on the West Coast – Dobro Manufacturing Company and National String Instrument Corporation. This 12-fret NIOMA has a Regal (Model 25) body with a sunburst finish, maple body binding (top and bottom), two f-shaped sound holes, a standard Regal brushed-metal resonator, rosewood neck, raised white nut, white-button tuning gears, slotted peghead with gold heat-stamped NIOMA logo, and a chrome tailpiece. An even more deluxe variation – the Regal (Model 37) body, with a solid headstock and two screened ports – was produced later.

NIOMA Lap Steel Guitar
This handsome solidbody electric lap-steel guitar – which was sold with a matching amplifier for about $70 – is clearly another student-quality instrument. The guitar’s wooden body is sheathed in gray marbled pearloid plastic, but other specimens exist in green. The angular, almost-Art-Deco body, boasts minimal features – a lone knob to control volume, a chrome palm rest, a jack on its butt, white-button tuning gears, and a small metal logo tacked to the peghead.

Guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright detected similarities between the NIOMA’s split-blade electromagnetic pickup and circa 1938-’40 National/Dobro designs. Newton concurs, adding that two NIOMA amps he has examined bore the names of different L.A.-based manufacturers – one was by Musical Electronics Inc., the other by Western States Wholesale Musical Corporation. Both are three-tube “shoebox” amps with one input jack and an on/off/Volume knob along with an 80 rectifier tube, a 6N7, 6V6, and a 6″ field coil speaker. 

It’s also possible these NIOMA instruments were constructed by L.A.-based Dickerson Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, which had been wholesaling electric lap steels and matching amplifiers to various guitar schools since at least 1939 – and some of those were clad in a very similar pearly plastic, with one model sharing an angular top profile. Of notable interest is the fact a guitar identical to this except for an additional Tone control knob was produced under the GEB brand (which was likely run by NIOMA stockholder W.C. Gebs), and Newton has suggested these guitars (and amps) were ordered through GEB.

(LEFT) 1930s NIOMA Resophonic Guitar  and peghead. (RIGHT) NIOMA lap steel. ’30 NIOMA resophonic courtesy of Frank Ford. Nioma lap steel image courtesy of Lynn Wheelwright.
(LEFT) 1930s NIOMA Resophonic Guitar
and peghead. (RIGHT) NIOMA lap steel.
’30 NIOMA resophonic courtesy of Frank Ford.
Nioma lap steel image courtesy of Lynn Wheelwright.

End of an Era
In 1935, NIOMA’s general manager, J.H. Ryan, offered a bit of hope about the economy’s negative effects on people, telling the Seattle Daily Times, “There is no better harbinger of deepening optimism than this increasing return to the cultural side of life by expenditure for these finer things.” And, as the economy improved, NIOMA continued expanding. The company began offering scholarships, holding composition contests, and even forged an affiliation with the national non-profit Junior Musicians of America.

By 1940, NIOMA had begun referring to its Los Angeles branch as the “main school,” and the following year, the Seattle shop moved to 4719 University Way. The NIOMA era likely saw its crowning achievement in ’48, when 200 Seattle students traveled to L.A., where they joined thousands of other young musicians in a mass concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which was broadcast nationally via radio on August 15. In 1951, Seattle’s NIOMA moved again, to 4224 University Way, and then downtown, to 1001-5 New World Life Building, in ’52.

By then, America was experiencing a whole new post-war dawn. The Hawaiian and exotica music fads of recent times were fading, while country/Western music and rock and roll were about to make huge inroads with the record-buying hordes, and public schools began ramping up their music-education programs. In December of ’52, the National Institute of Music and Arts’ directors and stockholders met in Los Angeles, and President A.W Ryan, Vice-President Rose McNeil Stromberg, Secretary M.M. Strnad, and various shareholders (J.H. Ryan, W.C. Gebs, and Wilbur Zundel) all signed a document that effectively dissolved NIOMA after a generation of local guitarists (and other players) were educated and offered an opportunity to gain stage experience.

This article originally appeared in VG January 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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