The eye-catching and technologically innovative stringed instruments created by Frank Evans Coulter in the early 20th century are so exceedingly scarce that few guitar enthusiasts have laid eyes on one.
Indeed, their rarity is conveyed by one simple fact – only a couple dozen Coulter instruments – including an Hawaiian-style guitar, a tenor guitar, a few harp guitars, Spanish-style guitars, mandolins, mando-cellos, one ukulele, one violin, and one banjo – are publicly known to have survived the decades.
True to the Coulter Company’s motto of “Odd Instruments To Order,” Coulter built custom one-off oddities in Portland, Oregon, as well as a line of strange round-bodied mandolins and guitars. Most notable today are their eccentric design features, in the realms of decorative details and structural attributes – which Coulter personally believed represented scientific breakthroughs. Among the latter category are cross-laminated wood veneers (for strength), sound-hole placement at the top of an instrument’s body (for optimal resonance), and the irregular shape of those sound holes (for controlling overtones). At least that was the theory. And, Frank Coulter was very big on expounding theories – some of them understandably controversial, such as his dismissal of the concept of preferred “tone woods” and the related assertion that all woods, essentially, are equally acceptable for instrument making.
Born in 1862, Coulter arrived in Portland from California in 1900 to serve as a minister at the town’s United Brethren Church. He was also an early adherent of America’s fledgling Technocracy movement – a sociopolitical philosophy that advocated that knowledgeable scientists, mathematicians, and economists be elected to leadership positions (rather than rank politicians). In addition, Coulter fancied himself a gifted “platform orator” who gave free lectures around Oregon (and as far away as Seattle) on a variety of topics… especially, economics.
And if there was one thing that bothered Coulter the most, it was the wasting of money. In particular, it angered him that people invested good money into bad musical instruments. Within several years of arriving, he had left the ministry and opened a business (at 145 ½ First Street), where he initially made violins and worked on instruments brought in for repair. But, it frustrated him that so many substandard instruments were being sold, in quantities, to public schools. He told how those schools’ music teachers would drop by with “flocks of 50” or more lousy mandolins seeking to have him “put more tone” into them.
“Tone” – along with intonation and volume – were something to which Coulter had given a great deal of study and thought. Given the chance to expound on such topics, the former preacher would launch into zealous evangelizing about how his guitar designs achieved superior results.
Coulter once explained that, “[We] feel that our instruments are as nearly perfect as first-class material and human skill can make them, and so we send them out to all the world under an absolute guaranty of satisfaction as to durability, tone, ease of playing and material, or money refunded.”
Thus, his company adopted a trademark graphic emblem (depicting a medieval knight’s helmet set upon a table) – noting that “This mark means Real Music Instruments in truest harmony. Made to see how good they can be; not how much they will bring” – and their slogan became, “If you don’t find ’em better than any, send ’em back at our expense.”
Circa 1905, Portland hosted the Oregon’s World’s Fair and the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, and Coulter committed himself to deducing exactly what design details and other factors might produce better instruments. Around 1909, he embarked on a cross-country tour, visiting fellow luthiers along the way. And it struck him that no one was developing new techniques or designs, relying instead on centuries-old traditions even if they did not result in perfectly harmonious instruments.
Upon his return to Portland in 1911, Coulter’s stated goal was to design guitars and mandolins from scratch – and with a commitment to ignore everything he knew about typical violin structural designs (like graduated wood thicknesses) in doing so. Thus began a series of experiments, and “Finally after many failures, we came to see clearly as in a vision, that the mandolin and guitars were not to be improved upon the same basis as the violin… the only remedy was to build into the instrument stress and strain in the fibre of the wood itself so as to increase the resilience and responsiveness to 20 or 30 times the amount necessary for a violin.”
A Coulter Company catalog informs further about that cross-veneer technique, telling how his instruments “are made of various woods selected for their beautiful grain” and “which are drawn over a frame or under fabric of birch, each skin being about one-sixteenth of an inch thick, these having the grain running in opposite directions, giving the well proven laminated construction that is unaffected by heat or cold or jars.”
It was at about this point in time that Coulter sensed a significant rise in the popularity of guitars and guitar music. “I went to work to make the finest guitar possible. In it, I used crossed veneer for strength and resonance.” After winning first prize at what he called the “New York Exposition” (perhaps the International Mercantile Exposition of 1911), he also claimed that he began selling “them to all the big factories. I used yellow fir with white for brilliant tone, and California redwood, with rosewood and Australian lacewood for the top.”
Then, after satisfying himself that he had solved the strength and resonance issues, Coulter – active in the era of smaller-sized “parlor guitars” – took on the matter of volume. As he later explained to a visitor to his new shop (227 ½ Washington Street), “Here’s something else I’m doing to produce the depth of sound now wanted. On guitars, I place the sound holes on the edge of the face to aid in giving volume.” This decision to relocate a guitar’s sound hole(s) from the traditional center position (under the strings, and between the neck and the bridge) to the upper face of the instrument (and at the sides of the neck) was rather radical. And, it came about after considerable scientific testing.
“Finally, after repeated experiments, [I] noticed that the space above the sound hole of all instruments did not vibrate with [the] intensity of the space below, which was so because the cutting away of the fibers to make the sound hole weakens the whole top, right in the center under the strings where it needs to be the strongest… [So, I] decided to move it to the extreme upper end on each side of the fingerboard, where it would use up the least possible amount of valuable fibre and at the same time give a continuing brace from the neck to the bridge.”
Beyond this innovative move, Coulter also studied the shape of those sound holes. Rather than employing the traditional f shape of most violins (and some guitars) or the single center-based round hole of most guitars, he devised a unique shape for his instruments. A shape that ultimately was inspired by his past experience in observing and repairing church organ pipes. I “observed that the weak wavy spiritless tones of the pipe could be made firm and solid by corrugating the orifice of pipe like a piece of corrugated iron.” So, for string instruments, “We curled the sound hole up in a scroll like a rolled up piece of sheet metal… instead of leaving it round, and the wobbly sound was gone.” The result appears today as a prescient antecedent to Ovation’s circa-1979 Adamas guitars, with fancy baroque sound holes located astride the neck’s base, and vintage string-instrument expert, Gregg Miner, has astutely noted that those “distinctively shaped symmetrical sound-holes with excessive pearl trappings seem to be one of the common defining… characteristics” of Coulter instruments.
Coulter is known to have made a harp guitar as early as 1917, and one from the ’20s is doubly notable for its black-stained top, which conceivably could have been influenced by the similarly finished instruments produced by Coulter’s fellow Northwest-based guitar maker, Chris J. Knutsen, who won a patent for his harp-guitar design in 1896.
The example shown here is Coulter’s 16″ Style C Spanish guitar. He had been making guitars for nearly a decade and a half when this one was built in 1924, and the experience shows in its warm, clear tone and remarkable projection. It boasts mildly arched top and back profiles – of wood types whose identification remains elusive – and of dreadnought-size proportions, with a lower body of 16″; an upper-body width of 11.5″, a depth of 3.75″, and an overall length of 40.25″.
This 12-fret six-stringer also has iridescent polished abalone shell – conceivably from the waters off Oregon – inlaid around the bottom contours of the sound holes. Abalone also appears in geometric shapes along the ebony fretboard in the descending order of a triangle, square, diamond, amphitect hexagon, rectangle, parallelogram, and pentagon. The laminated neck has German silver frets, position-marker dots along its edges, and a fork-shaped slotted headstock whose dark finish contrasts nicely with the lighter wood inlaid to make the Coulter logo and the knight’s helmet emblem (which also appears below the end-pin on the butt).
As time rolls onward it will be interesting to learn if additional Coulter instruments surface, as each seems to bear slightly different physical features. And, the workmanship on them ranges, rather inexplicably, from rather fine to fairly crude – and thus embodies another sliver of the backstory of a most-intriguing luthier and his idiosyncratic, unique instrument-making history.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.