c.1900 Lyon & Healy Oak/Spruce Tailpiece Guitar

I love these old "first generation" steel-string guitars with the ladder-bracing and tailpiece design. It's a very simple way to deal with the higher tension of steel strings and lends these flat-top guitars a distinctive "fiery" tone -- loud, sustained, and sort of honky like in old ragtime or blues recordings. While this style of build doesn't lend itself to a dreadnought's big bass or an archtop's severe cut and zing, these guitars sort of sound similar to gypsy-jazz Selmer instruments, though with a very American twist -- they make excellent fingerpickers with plenty of volume and plunky, precise bass.

At any rate, this guitar is around a size 1 to 2 (in Martin specs) though it has a narrower waist and upper bout than its Martin-style counterparts of the time. This one, while unlabeled, was clearly built by Lyon & Healy in Chicago, judging by the body shape, materials, bracing pattern, neck shape, and other details similar to branded L&H guitars I've worked on. In terms of L&H "grade" this probably would have been sold as one of their lower-to-midrange "Lakeside" or "American Conservatory" brands.

Replacement nut -- but original tuners.

My work on this guitar was... a lot! It had a cruddy old, broken-down "neck reset" that I had to reverse and reset again, needed a new 12th fret (where someone had yanked it out and chipped up the board to cut the extension off), needed the end block (where the tailpiece is attached to) reglued with a shim to the top as it had come unglued from the top, needed a fret dress, setup, and a new bridge as the original became too low for use post neck-set.

Amazingly, this guitar is crack-free, which is highly unusual for these old guys. That fun half-herringbone purfling and rosette detail would have been bright greens, reds, and browns originally. Note the pickwear to the top which has also dirtied up over time.

Nice details! This guitar was so disgustingly dirty when it came in.

Here's my new ebony bridge -- compensated, too -- and I roughed it up slightly after finishing it to make it look a little more "natural" to the instrument.

Look at the finish wear on the back! It's practically missing all over the upper bout... but also check out that gorgeous quartersawn oak on the back. I love that stuff -- tends to impart a loud, overtone-rich, and quickly-responsive tone to a guitar. I'm always surprised it's not used much in modern instruments. Sounds somewhere between maple and mahogany to me, with a sort of darker tone.

Nice "small" heel cap like on earlier Washburn-branded L&H products.

I like to see wear & tear on a guitar -- means the instrument has been loved.

Original pearl-dot end pin, too.


Anonymous said…

I found a modern builder using oak named Johann (Hans) Brentrup in Minnesota. He is pretty famous for making mandolins. I played one of his oak parlors (he also makes a killer 12 string based on a Larson Brothers design). Unfortunately his guitars are in the $4K range and, although worth the $$, way out of my league. Why DON'T more builders use quartersawn oak in the modern era? Any thoughts from a manufacturing standpoint?

Ben: It's just personal taste. Since the late 1800s the industry has had a bias towards rosewood, mahogany, or maple, and the advertising has simply been so ingrained that folks have a hard time getting off of that horse. Thankfully, people are SLOWLY getting more accustomed to different tone choices -- oak is lovely, as is cherry and walnut, too.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the reply Jake. Do you know other oak builders I could check out?

Also, inventory update still coming? Inquiring minds want to know.

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jtrusl said…
Hey Jake, I'm very happy to have found your post with photos of the L&H guitar. It IS an American Conservatory. I have one almost exactly like the one shown that belonged to my Grandfather. Inside the sound hole is a very simple sticker that reads:
American Conservatory
No. 480
The only differences seem to be that the face of yours shown has the decorative band around the edge and the "button" on the bottom, otherwise all the hardware is identical, neck/head and body are the same.
In the late 20's & early 30's Granddaddy played it at "barn dances" in the s.e. Colorado area. I'd like to send a photo or two but I’m not sure how to attach them.