A brief History
A journey into the world of Larson-made instruments
“I had this dream for many years, building guitars in the Larson tradition, but where would I start?
My background in woodworking and Graphic Design might certainly give me the edge needed,
but what an undertaking. My passion for guitars would soon unlock this door.”
My journey into the world of Larson-made instruments began in the summer of 1985. Prior, I had never heard their names spoken, nor seen an instrument made by them; Euphonon, Maurer, Prairie State? Gibson, Martin, and Washburn, these were the instruments I played, owned and admired. My dream was to save enough money and eventually find a nice pearly guitar (style45). My favorite appointments! So that August (1985) I finally scrapped up $600.00. With my cash in hand and my 1929 000-28 I headed to Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. George had on his list a nice, early 1930's 00-45. Man I wanted that. I sent George some photos to see if he would be interested in a trade, and he gladly accepted. Needless to say I was excited. That trip changed me forever. Gruhn's shop at that time was much smaller than its present location, but he didn't lack in fine guitars. Wall to wall, I was in heaven. I arrived 5 minutes before closing, and George's hospitality was amazing. He locked the doors, called his wife ( I'll be home later), and I spent the next 2 hrs playing guitar after guitar. What stuck in my mind was the Euphonon. What is this!? George was totally excited about it. I wasn't quite sure. It was pearl trimmed (a real plus) and sounded unlike anything I'd played. It looked so cool! But 300.00 bucks more than the 00-45. Hmmmm. I had some thinking to do. So it was time to let George go home. Before we parted He gave me a book on the Larsons written by Carl's grandson, Bob Hartman, and told me to check it out. This Euphonon was one of the guitars in the book. On the adjacent page were two Larsons owned by Stephan Grossman. I loved Grossman's music, and now a little connection started. I remember on one of my albums, Stephan was pictured with a Euphonon. The one in Hartman’s book! We shook hands and would meet again in the morning.
Hartman's book told the story. I was really taken by the brothers. A two man shop, and located in Chicago, just an hour from my home. They made so many different instruments as well: mandolins, mandolas, and harp guitars. Their guitars were even played by some of the finest and well known musicians. Gene Aurtry, and a host of others form the WLS Barn Dance. A show I was a little familiar with because my Uncles had told me stories abut it. Their guitars had a totally different look than the guitars I was accustomed to. They made everything from 12" parlors to 19" jumbos. So now I really had to decide what to do. I still wanted that Martin. That was the reason I came to Nashville, and I had wanted a style 45 for a long time. I guess I would just have to wait till the next day.
The following morning I returned to the shop excited as ever. Just what was I going home with? On the wall hung many great guitars, but the one that really stood out was that square-shoulder Euphonon. It had such an unusual shape. I kept gravitating towards it, but I asked for the Martin instead. George lead me to a small listening room that was relatively quiet so I could hear the guitar without the outside interference. The Martin was great. That sweet Martin tone we are all familiar with; nice balance, and projection, its classic look etc.after about 45 minutes, a knock on the door. It was George, and in his hand was the square shoulder Euphonon. Here, give it a try and see what you think. I gladly accepted, tuned it to one of my favorite open tunings, and away I went. Amazing, the first thing that came to mind was how powerful this guitar was. It had more volume than I was accustomed to. It was close to the size of a dreadnought, but had the balance of the 00 Martin. I was really amazed. For the next 4 hours I would play the Martin, then the Euphonon, Then the Martin. I went through every tune I knew and open tuning arrangement trying to decide what was going home with me. Every time I picked up the Larson George would knock on the door and say I can hear that one! Right through the walls! So by now I'm really hooked on the Euphonon. It was quite clear that it really was the sound I was looking for; a great ragtime machine. The real deciding factor was on about the sixth trip George made to that little listening room. He said that he would give me 2400 for my trade in instead of the originally agreed 2000 If I would take home the Larson and spread the word. I was gleaming, it was decided! Now what I hadn't quite realized at this determining moment, this guitar would change the way I thought about vintage guitars for a very long time to come!
What I didn't realize that weekend at Gruhn's was how really special and unique the Larson creations were. I skimmed the book the night before my purchase, but there was much, much more to discover. The Larsons were much more than guitar makers, they were inventors; explorers in the world of guitar making. They were always looking to improve on their craft, and build a better sounding instrument. So now my journey began.
Very few Larsons would find themselves on the market, especially compared to Martins and Gibsons. When one did, I would try to grab it. Guitars in theses days were much more affordable, and the Larsons, since they were so rare, and not well know, were even more affordable then their counterparts. So over the years many of these fine instruments passed through my hands. I was quite taken by every one of them. The smaller guitars, 12" - 15" 12 fret parlors seemed most plentiful. The larger bodied, 15"-19" fourteen fret models are the rarest. As far as designated models, the Larsons made many different styles and looks. Body widths varied, body depths varied, but all were exceptionally well made. The most common feature was the laminated main braces. The ' X ' and lateral brace beneath the fingerboard extension. The lamination consisted of hardwood strip, usually rosewood, between two strips of spruce. This 3-piece construction produces a much more ridged brace, therefore a much stronger top. In addition to the lamination the tops were built " under tension". This is achieved by making the braces with the appropriate arch, and conforming the soundboard to them. This arch also helps in the stability of the top. I have rarely encountered a Larson with a cracked top! If this method of construction is responsible or not, I'm sure it was intended and well thought out by the Brothers. This lamination of the braces is the one most common feature found on all Larsons. Very rarely will you find one that is not laminated—and if so, it would be on their student or lower budget models. In some instances, the center strip was laminated with maple, and I have seen maple and rosewood combinations on the same guitar.
Another innovative feature, and one that I am the most intrigued with, is the jumbo Prairie State model(s). These are the guitars made in the latter years of production. I feel the Prairie State line of guitars were the most inventive in the Larson line. In addition to the laminated main braces the Larsons devised a rod system. The rods act as a way for additional support to counteract stress on the top of the guitar. In most cases there are two rods. A larger fixed, and a smaller adjustable which came through the neck block and wrapped around the heel which traveled down through the end block, and could be adjusted, or tightened with a fixture that doubled as the end pin. Wow! What a radical idea! The Larsons believed this would have to eliminate stress on the soundboard and allow for a more resilient top. You need to consider these were some of the largest guitars ever manufactured by anyone. Sizes up to 21" wide! This rod system came into play on most if not all PS's that where in access of 16". It is found on 14" and 15'', but I believe the Larsons well intended all their larger guitars to incorporate this system. There is a lot of surface area on a 19" and 21" guitar. The rod idea would certainly help relieve tension from the pull of the strings. In the two rod version, the larger rod is fixed (non-adjustable), and runs closer to the underneath of the top. This would push or act as a truss rod and keep the body rigid, the smaller rod, (the adjustable), wrapped around the neck heel and relieved forward pull on the neck caused by the tension of the strings. These rods working in unison would make for one solid, and well intended for, steel string guitar! Another interesting thing I have found, and am very fascinated by this, when the guitar is played the rods vibrate. I'm sure this was not intentional, but just as an open string would vibrate, the rods pick up sympathetic vibrations which add to the unique tone and beauty of these guitars.
Over the years my Larson collecting has lead me to make some great connections. The Larson circle is quite small, and we all got to know each other, or at least what instruments we had, and/or gravitated towards. I first meet Bob Hartman in the mid 1990's. Bob is the grandson to Carl Larson. Bob's knowledge of Larson instruments is superlative. He has seen and studied so many great examples. He has helped them gain recognition with collectors, and has written several informative books. Prior to Bob's books there was no documentation of these fine and sometimes mysterious instruments. I am very grateful to him for sharing his knowledge, and all the history he has gathered, and made available.
For many years, since the acquisition of my first Euphonon, I've questioned why there were not more instruments being built using such innovative construction techniques as the Larson Brothers. Possibly the Larson creations were just a little ahead of their time. With small production totals compared to the big makers, just not enough instrument to fall readily into hands of players, and collectors. I had this dream for many years, building guitars in the Larson tradition, but where would I start? My background in woodworking and Graphic Design might certainly give me the edge needed, but what an undertaking. My passion for guitars would soon unlock this door. I had already acquired quite an array of tools. I sold the big stuff to get the more suitable tools needed for guitar making. I had made over the years drawings of Larson body styles, bracing patterns, inlays, etc. at least enough to produce one guitar, so now the big decision. Where would I get the funds!? It was apparently time to part with my Larson collection. It was tough, but I knew what lie ahead would in the long run be more rewarding. One of my first customers was Dave Portman. Dave not only purchased part of my collection, but he owns a few of the first handmade guitars I produced. Dave has become a friend over the years, and has helped very much in the early part on my business. Dave not only has allowed me access to his collection for drawings and measurements, but also created the name of my business. New Era Guitars. Dave's knowledge and collection have been great inspiration.
Upon completion of my first three guitars, I called Bob Hartman. Bob up to this point was not aware I was a builder, and I wanted to show him what I was up to and where I wanted to go with my idea of making Larson Reproductions. Needless to say Bob was quite thrilled to meet. It was a great meeting, and Bob was very impressed. Impressed enough to give me his endorsement! Bob makes trips to my shop with his repair work, and we talk guitars, and make plans for new additions to my line.
I am now fulfilling that 20+ year dream. I have had a great response form my customers, and my build list is continually growing. It's a tough market to crack, and a long slow journey ahead, but the craft, and rewards are endless.