Unraveling the Mysteries of the Weissenborn steel, the ultimate Hawaiian Guitar (by Ben Elder)

What kind of Dobro is that?” 
“It’s a Weissenborn.””What’s that?”

“Weissenborns eat Dobros for lunch!”

Such is David Lindley’s appraisal of his unconventional old Hawaiian guitars with their raised strings, flush frets, hollow necks gracefully flowing from the body, and that distinctive woody sound: astounding volume, sweet sustain, and deep, warm tone.

The Weissenborn Hawaiian steel, a platypus among guitars to the uninitiated, is an instrument brilliantly and specifically conceived for Hawaiian playing. These hollow-neck Hawaiians are enjoying a renaissance with players nearly 60 years after the last one was made. They might have languished in obscurity if not for Lindley (the king of oddball instruments and a Dobro lover–really), Ry Cooder, John Fahey, Steve Fishell, and singer-songwriter Ben Harper. They have also been added to the arsenals of Dobro and steel players like Mike Auldridge, Bob Brozman, Cindy Cashdollar, Jerry Douglas, John Ely, Greg Leisz, and Sally Van Meter. Many session pros now routinely carry along a Weissenborn for steel or Dobro calls. “Whenever you take one of these things into the studio, people always say, ‘Wow! What an amazing instrument!'” says Greg Leisz. “Engineers flip out every time.”

THE STEEL CRAZE

Like most aspects of guitar history, the origin of Hawaiian steel technique has been long and vehemently debated. In any case, the style had been evolving for at least a generation by the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which brought many island musicians to the mainland and helped make Hawaiian music the most popular style in America by the next year.

In the wake of this popularity emerged the hollow-neck steel, which offered improved volume and tone thanks to a sound chamber extending from the endpin nearly to the nut. The instrument enjoyed popularity until about the late ’20s, when resonator instruments like Nationals and Dobros, with their greater volume, became an instant sensation (who was eating whom for lunch then?).

It’s not absolutely certain who invented the hollow-neck steel (folk dulcimers had long employed similar construction), but the two most important names are Hermann C. (not W, as stated in other accounts) Weissenborn and Chris J. Knutsen. While there’s no known business association between them, some of their early instruments have significant similarities. Of these two figures, Weissenborn made the superior instruments, and Knutsen influenced his early designs. While histories of other makers are based on preserved records and uninterrupted interest in the instruments, piecing together the story of these makers represents more of an archaeological dig (or as National historian Bob Brozman puts it, “detective work through a backwards telescope”).

Hermann C. Weissenborn emigrated from Germany around 1902 and was listed in New York City directories as a violin and piano maker until 1910, when he moved to Los Angeles. His early directory listings in L.A. emphasized violins and piano repair, although it appears that he expanded to steels, ukes, and guitars around 1920, as Hawaiian music gained popularity.

Weissenborn built the guitars players seek today, including deeper-body Kona instruments (made for an outside concern). Two features set his guitars apart from other period instruments: (un-scalloped) X-bracing on the tops, and tapered bodies that curve from bottom to top. Ladder-braced imitations have more parallel tops and backs.

Opinions regarding the quality of Weissenborns’ construction vary. Many players dismiss Weissenborns, with their visible saw marks, rough braces, and glue squeeze-out, as badly made. “They’re not made badly,” retorts David Lindley, “they’re made simply–sometimes a little bit crude, but a fantastic, superior design. They all sound good.”

“Not fine-sanding the saw marks doesn’t hurt the tone,” says Ben Harper. “He left an edge like music needs. If you take too long with anything, it loses its effectiveness. He took the right amount of time.”

Light construction is the blessing and the curse of Weissenborn guitars. It gives them their tone and volume but makes them susceptible to ravages of time, environment, and overstringing. That’s why many surviving Weissenborns need braces and bridges reglued, cracks fixed, or seams rejoined.

The net result of Weissenborn’s innovations and adaptations is an instrument that was ideal for the music of its era and is adaptable three generations later. “What’s cool about the Weissenborn,” says Greg Leisz, “is that you can play it in a variety of different styles of music. It isn’t really genre-specific as long as you give it room for the sound to come through the track.”

WEISSENBORN STYLES

Most Weissenborns were made of koa (some early examples have bird’s-eye maple backs and sides), 39 inches long with a 25-inch scale, 15-1/4 inches across the lower bout and 10-1/4 inches across the upper bout. They were made in four styles of trim: Style 1 instruments have no body or fingerboard binding. There are three concentric wood circles inlaid around the soundhole, and single mother-of-pearl dot markers at frets five, seven, nine, 12, and 17. “Bat-wing” bridges with metal saddles were standard on all Weissenborns. Spruce tops were optional (but rare) on Styles 1 and 2.

Style 2 instruments have black celluloid tops and back body binding, rope binding (termed “clown binding” by David Lindley) around the soundhole, white wood fingerboard binding, fancier fret markers in various patterns, and sometimes a first-fret triangle with its flat side resting against the nut. (Interestingly, this feature also appears on square-neck Style 3 and 4 tricone resonator guitars. Collector and luthier R.C. Allen recalls conversations he had with the late John Dopyera, inventor of the National and Dobro, in which he said that his brother, Rudy, had once worked for Hermann Weissenborn.) Style 2 fingerboards have a French curve overhanging the soundhole (the other three styles are squared off).

Style 3 Weissenborns feature rope binding around the top, fingerboard, and soundhole; usually a diamond inlay at the 12th fret; and double dots at frets five and nine. Style 4 is similar to Style 3, with added rope binding around the peghead and back, and a triangle inlay between the nut and the first fret. Some examples have sanded braces and internal wood surfaces.

Another Weissenborn shape has come to be described, mostly for lack of an official designation, as the “teardrop” model (Bob Brozman suggests “the salad spoon”). It is otherwise a Style 1 but lacks upper bouts. The result is a bizarre-looking, bottom-heavy instrument with a sound that’s just the opposite. An example appeared in the Teisco Del Rey 1993 Weird Guitar Calendar. Some of the teardrop’s features suggest an instrument of the late ’20s or early ’30s; in the Depression era, these models may have been cheaper to make and sell. They have lacquer finish (which replaced shellac at about that time), a thicker headstock (with tuning posts placed closer to the nut), and a bridge that’s 4-1/4 inches across its top edge. This narrower bridge is partnered with an enlarged bridge plate (to counter top sinkage in front of the bridge and bellying behind it) that begins under the cross of the X brace and tapers behind the bridge.

Although many exceptions exist, the higher-end Weissenborns tend to be constructed of the fancier, figured koa wood. Ironically, many players, including David Lindley, prefer Style 1 and 2 Weissenborns with their (generally) plainer, straighter wood, attributed to the wet side of Hawaii’s Big Island. Lindley’s “A-Team” Weissenborns include two Style 2’s and a Style 1. (For a full rundown of the instruments, strings, and tunings used by Lindley and six other artists, see Gearbox on page XX.)

Slide guitarist Ben Harper, who says he’s seen great Weissenborns with both straight and curly wood, calls a Style 4 (straight) his best and also tours with a teardrop and a Style 2. Steve Fishell, another teardrop player who used to play with Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, told Guitar Player magazine that his Style 3 was much mellower than his Style 1 (the latter can be heard on “Born to Run” from Harris’ Cimarron album; see discography, page XX).

In a ’20s catalogue, Weissenborn’s four Hawaiian styles were priced at $40, $56, $67.50, and $79 respectively (1933 prices were slightly lower). Martin koa models 0-18K and 0-28K covered a similar price range–$45 to $75–from 1926 to 1933. Today, Weissenborns’ going rate can be 20 to 30 times original list, although their oddity and obscurity means that yard-sale bargains can occasionally be found for what grandpa paid for ‘em new.

Some Weissenborns are even less expensive, like Jerry Douglas’ Style 1, which he rescued before his ex–in-laws converted it from a wall-mounted dried flower holder to a dirt-filled planter. Phoenix multi-instrumentalist Joe Bethancourt’s collection of esoteric axes was augmented by a fan who gave him a long-unplayed mint Style 1 in its original hard-shell case.

THE DATING GAME

The frustrating aspect of Weissenborn-ology is trying to determine numbers of instruments produced, not to mention their precise ages. Only three numbered guitars (die-stamped on the end of the headstocks, like Dobros and Nationals) have been documented, and two of these (a thin, spruce-top Style 2 and a teardrop) appear to date from opposite ends of Weissenborn evolution. Most internal pencil markings only indicate matching of tops, backs, and sides in construction (although Mandolin Brothers’ head repairman Flip Scipio reports a four-digit number penciled on a Style 1’s X-brace).

In 1923, the operation became a limited partnership called the Weissenborn Co. Ltd. The factory relocated, and ads and catalogues indicate that guitars were selling well in this heyday of Hawaiian music. Bob Brozman estimates that perhaps 80 percent of Weissenborn Hawaiians were sold before Nationals were introduced in 1927. A rough estimate of instruments produced is under 5,000, assuming a small factory but one capable of supplying retail stores like Wurlitzer as well as wholesalers like Tonk Brothers and Stadlmair. Weissenborn also made tenor and plectrum guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, and Spanish-neck guitars–12-fret, Martin 0 size, with Styles A, B, C, and D paralleling Hawaiians 1 through 4.

Relative dates can be estimated by examining the finish, the headstock, and the bridge. Eventually, perhaps some instruments with original bills of sale or provenance will make themselves known to help pinpoint actual dates. A very few instruments have a picture label of Weissenborn himself holding an early Style 2. Most Weissenborns have a 1-inch – by – 1/2-inch “shield” branded on the backstrip: H. Weissenborn, Los Angeles, Cal.

KONA AND OTHER LABELS

A few unmarked instruments are so similar in construction details that they must be Weissenborns. As was common with many manufacturers, including Martin (which made instruments for Ditson and others; see “The Mighty Dreadnought,” page XX), Weissenborn made instruments for outside customers. By far the most common of these is the Kona Hawaiian guitar, made for Los Angeles music teacher and publisher Charles S. De Lano. While most of the features (peghead, hardware, rope binding, and internal construction) point to Weissenborn manufacture, the Kona has a deeper body (4-1/4 inches) and narrower bouts (9-1/4 and 13-1/4 inches). Rather than a hollow neck, Konas have a short standard neck with a raised bone nut that joins the extended body at the seventh fret. Kona necks had actual wire frets rather than Weissenborns’ inlaid markers. The connection between Kona and Weissenborn guitars is also seen in a comparison of the body dimensions of their Spanish models: except for the Kona’s slight neck-joint extension, these two guitars have precisely the same measurements.

Although they may not have been officially known by Weissenborn’s style designations, Konas seem to follow them, with two exceptions. The plainest Kona (often spruce-topped) has white celluloid top and fingerboard binding but is otherwise appointed like a Weissenborn Style 1. Examples of this model with features suggesting later manufacture (such as a lack of body binding) also exist. Style 3 and 4 Konas are frequently seen, but a black-bound (Style 2) Kona has yet to be reported.

Many players, including Sally Van Meter, regard the deeper Kona sound as highly as that of a Weissenborn but find the two instruments quite different. “The Weissenborn qualifies as the lonesome, soulful trip,” Van Meter says, “while the Kona is the joyous sound.” David Lindley’s favorite Kona, a Style 3, was given to him by Jackson Browne and is seen in the video “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” by the Trio (Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton), with red heart stickers on its fingerboard.

Other Kona players include John Fahey (a Style 3 can be seen on the cover of his ’60s LP The Essential John Fahey, then–with changed Grover tuners–on Railroad I, from 1982); Ry Cooder, who plays an all-koa Style 1; and Ben Harper, who owns several, including a pristine Style 4 that he uses on stage and in the studio.

A few instruments of obvious Weissenborn origin have other brand markings. Madonna and Maui instruments were made for Christophe’s music store in San Francisco. (Christophe’s was in business from the teens to the ’60s, so these labels provide little help in dating guitars.) One thin, early Style 2 (nabbed during a swap-meet setup at 4 a.m.) is both a dating clue and proof of the under-$100 bargain. The Mellotone label inside bears a Los Angeles address with a street name that changed around or before 1923.

KNUTSEN’S HAWAIIANS

Chris Knutsen’s fame stems from design and innovation, particularly of harp guitars (forerunner of the Dyer and Larson Brothers’ models), for which he received a design patent in 1898 while living in the Pacific Northwest. Arriving in Los Angeles around 1916, he made many steels (and might well have pioneered the hollow-neck design), including harp Hawaiian guitars with Weissenborn-esque bodies. These harp guitars have the conventional six strings, as well as two sub-bass strings and four treble strings with top-mounted harp tuners. They feature spruce tops and mahogany bodies or all-koa construction, and varying degrees of rope binding that’s wider and flatter than Weissenborn’s.

Knutsens’ grandiose ornaments and appendages contrasted with his dubious craftsmanship. Knutsens often need–or have had–extensive restoration. Historian Marc Silber dismisses Knutsen as a “bum,” while luthier (and Acoustic Guitar contributing editor) Rick Turner gives him higher marks for creativity than for workmanship, describing him as “a brilliant hack.”

Turner owns a wonderfully bizarre (and intact) Knutsen Hawaiian that echoes a Weissenborn teardrop. The body narrows to a short headstock with six harp pegs rather than geared tuners. Its black painted finish and crescent-moon top inlay recall early Gibson instruments. Curiously, the label inside is misspelled: “C. Knudsen.”

Another Knutsen creation resembles a pineapple uke mutated to guitar proportions. This guitar’s label pictures a variety of Knutsen models, which is as close to a Knutsen catalogue as we have. Other guitars with different names (such as Hilo and Mai Kai) but a Weissenborn appearance have come to light, but their origin is unclear. Several sources, probably too hastily, attribute these instruments to Weissenborn, but their construction–and sound–suggest otherwise. Rick Turner’s side-by-side examination of a Model A Hilo and several Weissenborns reveals many structural differences. “It doesn’t make sense that one factory would do basic things like braces and lining two different ways,” he declares. “Hilos have to be from a different manufacurer.”

Sally Van Meter says her Hilo’s sound is “cavernous” and lacking in bottom end compared to her Weissenborn and Kona. Bob Brozman adds, “I own a Hilo and it’s definitely not a Weissenborn.” Imitation has always been standard practice in the musical instrument world, and as David Lindley notes, “You can bet somebody left Weissenborn with a design in mind and started making their own. They decided they didn’t want to work just cutting out soundholes, but wanted to make the whole thing.”

WEISSENBORN REBORN

People “with designs in mind” are looking toward production of Weissenborn copies, given rising demand and prices for the originals. Most of these copies are being made on a small scale by individual luthiers. John Pearse, of string and accessory fame (Breezy Ridge, PO Box 295, Center Valley, PA 18034) is exploring these possibilities. Marc Silber (K & S Guitars, 2923 Adeline St., Berkeley, CA 94703) is doing limited production of a hollow-neck Hawaiian made from black acacia, a mainland cousin of koa. Using only front and back snapshots of a Weissenborn as a guide, John Reuter, head of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, built a custom-order hollow-neck Hawaiian that impressed none other than David Lindley, whose own interest in building a Weissenborn knock-off is growing. “I think the time has come to make one,” he says. “I have some ideas I want to try.”

The Dobro company has developed a nonresonator prototype–not a Weissenborn copy per se, but a similar instrument–based on the tone bar and soundpost design of its Jerry Douglas model. Resonator-guitar maker Tim Scheerhorn (1454 52nd St., Kentwood, MI 49508) recently acquired a Style 4 Weissenborn and has built his own version, which will retail for about $2,500. Toronto luthier Joseph Yanuziello (442 Duffner St., Studio H, Toronto ON M6K 2A3 Canada) has also built hollow-neck Hawaiian steels, as has Bob Gleason (Pegasus Guitars, 45 Pohaku St., Hilo, HI 96720).

The neo-Weissenborn is not a new idea. Nearly 70 years ago, Neal Penner dreamed of making his own Weissenborn when he was playing a Style 4 in a Hawaiian quartet. He recently built his dream–a burgundy-stained example of ultra-flamed koa, abalone inlay, and several of his own design touches. Weissenborn-inspired guitars are appearing elsewhere around the globe, too. In New Zealand, Janek Croydon is having a brutalized original Style 4 examined, measured, and restored in preparation for making all-koa repros. Tokyo luthier Yasu Kamiya is producing the Canopus-brand Weissenborn copy, examples of which are now owned by David Lindley and Ben Harper.

His instruments may receive all sorts of acclaim today, but Hermann Weissenborn’s fortunes appear to have declined in his last years (in no small part because of tricones and subsequent innovations). Although he worked until three weeks before his death in 1937, his operation was apparently small, and he died with considerable debts, including more than a year’s back rent on his shop. He probably couldn’t have imagined that the name Weissenborn would be regarded as magic half a century later.

Gear Box from that April 1996

Weissenborns and related Hawaiian guitars can be found in the hands of a variety of contemporary musicians. Here’s a rundown on the instruments, strings, and tunings used by seven prominent players. Mike Auldridge plays a Weissenborn Style 1 and strings it with D’Addario phosphor bronze single gauges (a custom set, “somewhere between medium and light,” with a .014 on the first string). He tunes to open E (E B E G# B E).

Bob Brozman’s Hawaiian instruments include all four styles of Weissenborns (his Style 2 is a Mellotone brand, with a thin body), as well as a Hilo. He tunes to C (C G C G C E), B (B F# B F# B D#), G (D G D G B D), and D sus (D A D G A D). As for string gauge, he comments, “I don’t want to say what I use because it might be misused. People will tear up their guitars if they use the strings I use. Let’s preserve the instruments.”

Jerry Douglas plays a Weissenborn Style 1, a wall-hanger in its previous life, and tunes it to open D (D A D F# A D). He uses D’Addario phosphor bronze strings with gauges of .014, .016. .026, .036, .044, and .060.

Ben Harper’s road instruments are a Weissenborn Style 4, Style 2, and teardrop, and a Kona “Style 4.” He uses D’Addario phosphor bronze lights on instruments tuned with a D or higher on bottom and mediums for tunings with a C (or lower) on the bottom. His tunings include low G (D G D G B D) and a secret tuning that he uses in three different keys–one for each of three instruments.

Greg Leisz plays a Weissenborn Style 2, Style 1, and teardrop model with an original metal tailpiece (anyone seen another?). He uses phosphor bronze light strings and tunes to open D (D A D F# A D).

David Lindley’s “A-Team” Hawaiians are two Weissenborn Style 2’s, one Style 1, a thin maple and spruce Style 2, and a Kona Style 3. A Bronson Brazilian rosewood square-neck sometimes substitutes for the Kona. For strings, he uses Guild bronze lights or mediums, depending on the tuning. Instruments tuned with the sixth string lower than D have .059 Darcos (“I have a nice stash of these,” he says) on the sixth string. Lindley’s tunings include F (F C F A C F); G (D G D G B D); an open-G variant, G G D G B D (used on “The Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Building Blues”), with a mandocello sixth string tuned an octave below the fifth string; C6 (C G C G C A); and D6 (D A D A D B).

Sally Van Meter has a Weissenborn Style 1, a Kona Style 4, and a Hilo Model 640. She uses phosphor bronze strings with gauges of .014 (“maybe a .015 or .016 on the Weissenborn, depending on the tuning,” she says), .016, .026, .036, .046, and .056. She plays in open D (D A D F# A D) but says, “My Weissenborn seems to have a preference for Eb [Eb Bb Eb G Bb Eb].” She also experiments with modal tunings and high G: G D G B D G.

For amplification and recording, almost all the players interviewed use the Sunrise soundhole pickup (Sunrise Pickup Systems, 8101 Orion Ave. #19, Van Nuys, CA 91406). Much of the Sunrise’s mystique follows David Lindley’s sound and his declaration, “It’s got magic stuff in it!” Manufacturer Jim Kaufman identifies the Sunrise’s “magic stuff” as its quick response, sonic imaging, pole pieces that make an audible difference when adjusted, and ability to move with the guitar’s top.

For microphones, Lindley and Harper favor vintage tube mikes like the AKG C-12 and M-50, while other players mention high-end Neumanns, like the U-67 and U-87. For live performances, Bob Brozman mixes a Sunrise with workhorse Shure SM-57 mikes “because that’s what everybody has, so I adapt.”

Article by Ben Elder. No modifications except on attached pictures.