The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 2

Feature

Ladder-braced Guitars and the Enduring Mysteries of the Old-Time Sound
By Dan Margolies

Were cheaply made guitars the key to that elusive sound of the golden era old-time string bands as recorded in the 1920s and 30s? A look at old photographs of musicians throughout the South or a glance at a cover of reissued old-time recordings reveals the striking uniformity of the guitars. From the 1890s into at least the 1930s, black and white Southern rural musicians all tended to play the same type of guitars—inexpensive, ladder-braced guitars by a variety of makers, many of which are now forgotten.

Listen to old-time guitar players such as Frank Hutchison, Dick Justice, Marshall Nations, Ira Stripling, Luke Brandon, Henry Whitter, Shell W. Smith—all played cheap ladder-braced guitars. Blues greats like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake, Son House, Charlie Patton, Barbeque Bob, Skip James, Charlie Jordan, Furry Lewis, and Henry Thomas all played very similar guitars built by companies such as Oscar Schmidt or Lyon and Healy. Ira Stripling paid $6.00 for a guitar ordered from the Baltimore Wholesale House, while Charlie Monroe paid $3.00 in Rosine, Kentucky, for his first guitar. Ernest Stoneman played a memorable, large-bodied Galiano Auditorium model. Ed Kincaid, who played with Fiddlin’ John Carson before 1922, played a 12-string Stella. Carson’s later partner, his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, played a small-bodied, six-string Stella. Swing a cat and you will hit an old-time master playing a ladder-braced guitar. Swing a bit wider and very commonly you will find the masters who played these same cheap guitars until they could afford to trade up—giants like Jimmie Rodgers, Seven Foot Dilly, Zeke Morris, and Mother Maybelle Carter, to name a few.

Many contemporary defenders, collectors, players, and builders of ladder-braced guitars are certain these instruments are vital to achieving the old-time sound. They insist it is the specific construction of the guitar—a technique extraordinarily uncommon in contemporary guitars—that provides a sound unlike any other. The design and building of these old guitars, despite some inherent flaws, hold secrets that musicians now covet.

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