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by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
Steel-String Flat-Top Guitar -
Martin 0-21, 1928
Starring in the first duet, this cute little Martin remains a phenomenally loud and rich “pre-war” guitar, even though it appears to have been through a war of its own. Ironically, the Martin Company, whose steel-string flat-tops are renowned as the best acoustic guitars ever made, was one of the last American companies to switch over to steel strings. Just over a year previously (in 1927), this guitar would have been strung in nylon (originally gut – nylon is the modern substitute). This seemingly trivial fact just happens to perfectly illustrate the descendency of the modern steel-string flat-top acoustic guitar from the European gut-strung “Spanish” guitar (you’ll find these snappy little facts all through the booklet).
Our precocious co-star is a ` – the first of many strange, hybrid instruments you’ll be meeting throughout your tour of the museum. It’s a five-string banjo with a wooden mandolin-shaped, guitar-type body. It has nothing to do with a “lute” – this is just one of those inexplicable names that the various manufacturers of these hybrid instruments liked to make up in the 1890s. This unlikely creation is not as strange as you might think when you recall that the five-string banjo’s trademark “bluegrass” technique would not be invented for another fifty years, and that five-string banjos before the turn of the century were not only gut-strung, but, utilized with complex finger-style techniques, were playing popular and classical music of the day!
NOTE: Jan, ‘05: I use “banjo-lute” in the generic sense to describe a variety of banjo forms with wooden heads. The generic use of "lute" in this way manner was hinted at by Green and Gruhn in 1982's "Roy Acuff's Musical Collection at Opryland," but I've come across the term here and there. Over two decades later, while tackling mandolin organology for future book projects, I realized a "group term" was needed, and thus I still agree with my 1995 assessment. I use it as a family name for hybrid instruments with wood tops or bodies intended to be played as a banjo (whether 5-string, tenor or mandolin banjo). The maker’s name for this specimen is actually “Pollman mandoline-banjo” – while nothing could be more accurate than using this name, it is nevertheless confusing and misleading. For one thing, within another couple decades, mandolin-banjos had become much more popular and common, and are more well known today (with banjo construction, including skin head, but a using a mandolin stringing and tuning, these are actually the exact opposite of the Pollman instrument!).