Doitsch Hawaiian Guitar

1939 Doitsch Hawaiian Guitar

1939 Doitsch Hawaiian Guitar. Photo: Michael Wright.

If there’s a foundation for the enthusiasm for vintage guitars, it’s based on a somewhat arbitrary hierarchy of brand identity.

That is to say, a Gibson or a Fender is by common understanding superior to, say, a Harmony guitar, and therefore more desirable. Some of this is simply a logical outgrowth of the truth, though it has led to the overlooking of many fine guitars that don’t have the right “pedigree”! Comparing a Fender to a Harmony or, more to the point, an Ibanez or Aria is one thing, but we get on much more shaky ground when the guitar says something like Doitsch!

Say what?

Who made Doitsch? Who sold it? How do we judge it? Well, we can help with two out of three!

Who made it is pretty easy; the guitar was manufactured by the Harmony company in Chicago. We know that because the general shape is Harmony, as are the headstock shape and the basic feel of the construction. Furthermore, we have pictures of an almost identical guitar, minus the fancy trim, that was made by Harmony for Gretsch in 1939, a time when Gretsch was sourcing a number of its acoustics, as well as its budget Rex line, from Harmony. Therefore, this is a Harmony guitar.

Who sold it is a horse of a different color. The annoying underside of the guitar game for some people (for those of us with more of a scholarly bent its like a good puzzle!) is the fact that many companies, including even the estimable Gibson and Martin, occasionally made guitars to be sold by someone else and put their customer’s logo on them, making them harder to identify. This guitar is no Martin, but it’s pretty darned good, and, as we’ve said, a high-end Harmony from just before World War II at the end of the Depression.

However, don’t expect to find out much about who Doitsch was. All we have is clues; first, this guitar was purchased in Medford Lakes, New Jersey, a bedroom suburb outside of Philadelphia. Guitars certainly can and do travel long distances in this modern world, but this was owned by an older gentlemen who’d had it many years, so in all likelihood, it was not far from its point of origin.

Then there’s the name itself; “Doitsch” is an anglicization of the German word “Deutsch,” which means German. Germany is the Deutschland. The first Germans came to Philadelphia in 1683 and settled the section of the city now known as (duh!) Germantown. Before long, they had spread north into the Lehigh Valley and west to Lancaster County, where they became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. “Dutch” in this case is a corruption of Deutsch, not a reference to people from the Netherlands. Indeed, Pennsylvania Dutch culture is still riddled with words that have been corrupted – anglicized – from their original German. Hence, the proximity of this guitar’s purchase to Southeastern Pennsylvania and the heavy presence of German “Dutch” culture in the area strongly suggest that it was probably made for a distributor in that vicinity.

In fact, it was quite common for manufacturers such as Harmony to build batches of guitars for individual distributors or retailers, and apply their names to the instruments. Teaching studios were often among these customers, especially during the slow days of the Depression. For example, Ed Sale, a teacher in New Jersey, dressed in cowboy gear and billed himself as “Radio’s Wizard of the Strings.” Sale had a regular radio broadcast (where is unknown), published methods, and sold Sale guitars, probably made for him at the old Oscar Schmidt plant in Jersey City. Many associations of Hawaiian guitar teachers developed during the 1930s and many of those, including groups such as the American Hawaiian Teachers in L.A., marketed guitars bearing their logos. Thus, in all probability, Doitsch was a music retailer or studio located in or near southeastern Pennsylvania during the Depression.

Then again, of course, this guitar may have traveled east with some bloke from Wausau, Wisconsin, trying to be another Les Paul or Ed Sale… If you’ve ever heard of a Doitsch company selling guitars, please let us know.

Judging this guitar is a snap, since it’s a pretty interesting piece of guitar art typical of many Depression-era guitars, a time when few people had lots of money to spend on instruments. The top is made of laminated spruce, whereas the sides and back are curly maple. The dark sunburst is fairly common on Depression guitars. The hardwood neck is square and set up for Hawaiian playing. The engraved plastic head face was a common way to dress up guitars and make them look fancy without adding lots of cost. The tuners are original crummy Harmony strip tuners, the kind many players eventually change out. This guitar probably didn’t see lots of action. Like many Harmony guitars, the bridge is both glued on and bolted on to make sure it wasn’t going to budge! This one came with an original hardshell case.

The most notable features, however, are the fancy inlays, which consist of genuine pearl scrolls and rectangles. The inlay workmanship is not the finest, but it may simply not have survived as well over time. This guitar must have been custom-ordered, because the inlays are not similar to any of Harmony’s regular offerings. In any case, from the audience’s point of view, this is quite elegant!

As far as sound goes, this one is quite respectable for a wooden guitar meant to be played lap-style with a slide. The dreadnought size gives a very nice bass response, very funky for slide, and much louder than more common small-bodied Hawaiians. However, playing a dreadnought on your lap may sound better, but it’s a little harder than playing guitars with smaller bodies. This is probably better for skinny players!

It’s probable that this guitar would be worth more if it bore the Gretsch – or even the Harmony – brand, since no one knows boo about Doitsch, but it’s a cool Harmony by any other name, and a nifty example of better Depression-era guitarmaking.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s February 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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