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Thread: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

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    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    It's hard to overstate the place of these Albert Shutt designed instruments in the history of the American mandolin. Although some instruments of this design were demonstrably crafted by the Harmony company, others may have been made by Shutt himself in Kansas.

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    Some innovations have been recognized through the scholarship of Greg Miner and others. These include aspects that have come to define the American mandolin and distinguish it from European predecessors. Carved top, ff-holes, elevated fretboard. Just as important is the often overlooked dual tonebar placement under the top, something not present in the unbraced, pressed top instruments made in quantity by Harmony - the '2-shoulder' design.

    We think of these top braces as 'natural', but they were an original innovation by Shutt, who I believe called them 'dual bass bars' (I need to check his catalog and refresh my memory on that). Of course modeled after the bass bar of the violin, his dual top brace was very likely known, and perhaps copied by Gibson under the direction of Lloyd Loar in the designs for their Master Model archtops. Shutt did advertise in publications that LL would have surely read. It would be interesting to conduct a detailed comparison of the positioning and dimensions of these top braces between the F-5 design and the earlier carved top Shutt Artist models.


    THIS ONE is for sale at Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia. I have no connection to the instrument and have not yet examined it in person. It's only the second I've seen with the tortoise peghead overlay which may provide some clue to its place of manufacture.
    Last edited by BradKlein; Jul-27-2022 at 7:25am.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    One more note on the mandolin above. It also features the rarely seen and unique pickguard attachment original to Shutt, but not present on all or most of his carved-top instruments. (and not at all on the more common 2-shoulder Harmony made instruments that I know of) It's a removable design, and maybe Vintage Instrument owners, Fred Oster or Catherine Jacobs can provide detailed photos.

    Even though it was not widely adopted, it was a step away from simply driving a wood screw through the pickguard and into the top. And in that sense it was very forward looking. No maker today would adopt the, then common practice of screwing the guard directly into the top!
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Actually Waldo beat Schutt on the F holes. I do believe the ones built by Shutt in Topeka are the more desirable models, in my mind anyway. I'd love to know the actual story of the Harmony connection. That has always been kind of gray for me.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeEdgerton View Post
    Actually Waldo beat Schutt on the F holes. I do believe the ones built by Shutt in Topeka are the more desirable models, in my mind anyway. I'd love to know the actual story of the Harmony connection. That has always been kind of gray for me.
    The Waldos were all flat top - bowl back instruments, though, as far as I know. (and I don't know ALL ;-) ) And their use of ff-holes didn't lead directly to ... well... anything at all really. That's what makes Shutt a vastly more important contributor to the story of the mandolin. Not just the shape of the holes in the top.

    The Harmony connection remains unclear in details. But there are now documented examples of both the 'two-shouldered' design and the Shutt-labelled designs that are marked inside and/or outside as made by Harmony. So we know that the Harmony factory made some or all of both.
    Last edited by BradKlein; Jul-27-2022 at 10:26am.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Interesting, what time period are we talking about? Early 1900's? Was Shutt making carved top mandolins at the same time Orville Gibson was?

    Ah, I got my copy of "The Mandolin A History" by Grahm McDonald and it looks like he was granted three patents for instrument design between 1909 and 1914.
    Last edited by Charles E.; Jul-27-2022 at 9:56am.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
    The Waldos were all flat top - bowl back instruments, though, as far as I know. (and I don't know ALL ;-) ) And their use of ff-holes didn't lead directly to ... well... anything at all really.
    You're assuming the Shutt builds lead to the Gibson builds and that is conjecture at best. Waldo indeed was the first that I know of that offered F holes on mandolins, that's all I was pointing out. Flat or carved didn't enter the equation.
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    Registered User Charles E.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    So, Albert Shutt is credited with designing and building the first carved top, F-holed mandolin with a cantilevered fingerboard. In addition, the OP maintains he also invented non parallel tone bars. All this seven to ten years before Gibson had their first patent for the F-5. It also seems that Mr Shutt lost his patent rights or gave them to Harmony?
    My question is this...Albert Shutt lived until 1963, is there any written documentation or interviews by or with Mr. Shutt telling his side of the story? Was he upset that Gibson might have stolen his ideas? Was he disappointed with the deal he struck with Harmony?
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    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    I think that's about right, Charley. My impression is that there's not as much history of the details of Harmony's output as historical folks would like. And perhaps no surviving record of the deal struck between Harmony and Shutt. I am making a conjecture as to the influence of Shutt's instruments on Loar, but I think we can be relatively certain that Loar was aware of them. Unless I'm mistaken, they appear in The Cadenza - and I can't imagine that Lloyd was NOT a subscriber. And in turn, Shutt was certainly influenced by the Gibson f-models, which must have inspired his scrolls. NY Public Library has digitized issues from that pre 1922 time period, so maybe someone can confirm?

    Remember, very few folks in our vintage world had even heard of Shutt a decade or so ago. The first published scholarship is by Gregg Miner, and well worth supporting - >>> HERE <<<

    Mike, as for Waldo - I don't mean to get into any dispute. But I think there is an enormous difference between changing the shape of the holes in a bowlback, and the major changes that lead to a radically different instrument - which I term the American Mandolin vs the European Mandolin. I think it's analogous to the points made by James Westbrook in "Inventing the American Guitar", where he lays out the changes that Martin made pre-civil war to the Spanish guitar, laying the groundwork for a what would become a 'new' instrument.

    Lastly, I'll just point out one of the most significant differences in Shutt's instruments vs Gibson's that doesn't get discussed much. And that is the neck block, and its relation to the sides/ribs. Shutt uses the approach that would become best known in Vega's cant-top instruments. I would want to hear from experienced builders, but it seems to me that it doesn't provide nearly the rigidity or resistance to rotation that the Gibson design does.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Brad, do you have a picture of a Shutt head block?

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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Brad, thank you for the link to Gregg Miners research. A festinating read.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    Brad, do you have a picture of a Shutt head block?
    I should have a photo to share, but I may not be able to dig it up until next week. Here's a photo of the same construction, on a giant scale, on my Vega bass mandolin. Of course the cylinder back means a lot more wood in the neck block, but the principle is the same, with a solid or stacked neck block sadwiched between the front and back plates, and showing at the north end of the instrument instead of being fully 'internal' as in the Gibson and other designs.

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    James Condino says in another thread that the Vegas used a straight sided neck joint. But the Shutt designed instruments - at least the 2 shoulder Harmony built ones - use a tapered dovetail very like the Gibson design.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    I'd argue that the Schutt mandolins have zero to do with Loar's thought process. Other than the basic shape, they have nothing in common. The proportions are off & the position is a joke.

    History is filled with factory production models that one company started and everyone else jumped on board, even though they may not have been the best choice. Ask anyone who has actually worked in a factory. Most decisions are based on money and easy of production, especially with regards to forms and jigs that they already have in place. Common sense and continuing great design evolution rarely enter the equation. It gets 100 times worse when a company is sold to different owners who now have even more debt and are desperately trying to make a profit...

    Loar was a violin player. 100 years ago, a Stradivari or Guarneri was a completely different price point than they are today and he likely had access to many. It was also very likely that he studied violin construction's 300 year history and implemented that into his mandolin designs, aiming for greatness, not production mediocrity.

    The F hole shape, position, graduations, and tonebar construction on a Loar signed F5 are all very close to the classic northern Italian proportions, but being in a corporate factory environment, the bean counters insisted that he keep it within the F style mandolin shape that had already proven itself to make profit and be accepted by the general public.

    I would also bet that given the history and time period, Gibson employed several craftsmen that were trained in the European violin building traditions whom Loar was very close with. In the same way that a wise lieutenant will find a battle seasoned sergeant to teach them the ropes, a wise production manager communicate with the people who will actually be doing the work.

    We can have a separate conversation, but when you look at hundreds of Gibson instruments during this period, some are mediocre and yet some have a carving and sculpting that is wayyyyy above the others in terms of fit and finish. I believe those were made by the best of the crew and their skill set was so much better that they just let them do their thing and hoped that the others would eventually catch up.

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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
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    THIS ONE is for sale at Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia. I have no connection to the instrument and have not yet examined it in person. It's only the second I've seen with the tortoise peghead overlay which may provide some clue to its place of manufacture.
    Sorry, Brad. That is not Fred Oster's site but your link goes directly to Lowell Levinger's Player's Vintage. Here's his description:

    1913 Shutt Professional Style A-1 Mandolin EXC This mandolin made by The Shutt Mandolin and Guitar Company in Topeka, Kansas has many innovations that appeared later on Gibson's "Loar" F-5. Carved spruce top with F-holes and mahogany back and sides. Twelve frets to the body with an elevated fingerboard and elevated pickguard. It's all original from the tuning pegs to the tailpiece with a little bit of the celluloid binding missing around the bottom there. Tortoise-oid peghead overlay is the only one I've seen on a Shutt mandolin. The label is in fine shape but is placed so that it is practically impossible to photograph. Nice picture of Albert Shutt on it though. Chipboard case.
    And for your entertainment Banana has more Shutt's on his Museum Page.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    My apologies, Jim. When the 'for sale' instrument spurred my interest in sharing some thoughts, long held, about the origins of what we now call tone bars in carved archtop instruments, I didn't pay enough attention to the instrument's seller. vintageinstruments.com in CA owned by Lowell Levinger, vs vintage-instruments.com, owned by Fred Oster in Philadelphia.

    As long as I bring up folks with long experience with Shutt's designs, I'll add Stu Cohen of the Music Emporium in Boston who (I believe) helped definitively establish that some, most, or perhaps all of the Shutt-labeled instruments were made by Harmony, in addition to the pressed top instruments of a design either by Shutt or adapted from his work in some sort of business partnership.

    To be clear, I'm not arguing in any way the equivalence of Shutt's designs to the master model arch-tops produced by Gibson during Loar's tenure. But the fact remains that Shutt incorporated several important and enduring design aspects long before anyone else. And particularly his use of two, longitudinal braces to the top, starting around 1910 is worth noting.

    I do think that ALL the major contributors to the design of what I'm calling the American mandolin, were influenced by European traditions to varying degrees. It was not all advertising hype. I'll leave it to those more knowledgable than I am to make the case for just how much knowledge of previous traditions the various figures (Orville, Lloyd, Albert...) had, and how they were able to apply them.
    Last edited by BradKlein; Jul-30-2022 at 5:52pm.
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Here's a relevant catalog page that was sent to me some years ago. (I'm afraid that I don't remember the source)

    Info about the (parallel, longitudinal) 'bass bars', 'f-sound holes', elevated fretboard, and detachable 'guard plate'.

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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    Brad, do you have a picture of a Shutt head block?
    Attachment 202399

    John, I don't have an 'artist' model disassembled, but the head block uses the same principles, I believe, found on the Vega above, and on the pressed top instruments made by Harmony like this one, which I suspect is a later example, perhaps from the '40s or even later? You can see the seam, at my fingernail, where the side meets the endgrain of the headblock which runs laterally across the grain of the top and back plate. Also the machine routed blind tapered dovetail. I do not know that the neck joint was the same on the carved top instruments.

    Attachment 202396 Attachment 202397 Attachment 202398
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    The F hole shape, position, graduations, and tonebar construction on a Loar signed F5 are all very close to the classic northern Italian proportions...
    James, perhaps you can comment on the f hole shape in the carved top and pressed top Shutt designs. At a glance they seem quite influenced by European designs. Much more so than the Gibson master models, which have, what I always took to be radically modern design for their time. But I know that there are subtleties that I would be completely unaware of.

    Attachment 202400

    Attachment 202399
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
    Here's a relevant catalog page that was sent to me some years ago. (I'm afraid that I don't remember the source)
    Many years ago (2014) Jim Garber had a Sherman and Clay catalog. I spent my teenage years hanging out next door to the Portland, Oregon store.

    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/t...=1#post1249980
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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    The F hole shape, position, graduations, and tonebar construction on a Loar signed F5 are all very close to the classic northern Italian proportions...
    I'd be very interested in seeing this proposition elaborated upon with the requisite measurements, diagrams, sections, photo comps, etc.

    It's a fascinating notion, but needs some bonafide documentation for the good of the conversation here, and elsewhere.

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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Hm... photos did not seem to come up on the above posts. I'll try a repost here. Apologies...

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    John, I don't have an 'artist' model disassembled, but the head block uses the same principles, I believe, found on the Vega above, and on the pressed top instruments made by Harmony like this one, which I suspect is a later example, perhaps from the '40s or even later? You can see the seam, at my fingernail, where the side meets the endgrain of the headblock which runs laterally across the grain of the top and back plate. Also the machine routed blind tapered dovetail. I do not know that the neck joint was the same on the carved top instruments.

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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    reposting with photos (I hope)

    James, (or anyone with violin family experience) perhaps you can comment on the f hole shape in the carved top and pressed top Shutt designs. At a glance they seem quite influenced by European designs. Much more so than the Gibson master models, which have, what I always took to be radically modern design for their time. But I know that there are subtleties that I would be completely unaware of.

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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
    ...I would want to hear from experienced builders, but it seems to me that it doesn't provide nearly the rigidity or resistance to rotation that the Gibson design does.
    Now that I've seen pictures that give me some idea of what's in there I'll say it is not a particularly good design for head block stability, but the block is incorporated into those hump/points so there is quite a bit of glue surface between the block and the top and the back. It's nice (IMO) when the design itself is good structurally so strength doesn't have to come from simple overbuilding (like this huge block), but if it works it works.

    If the block was not incorporated into the point/humps they would be a lot like the crumple zones that are built into car hoods to control how they bend in a crash. That is not a recipe for stable construction in the face of string tension, so they basically beefed up a not-so-great design for enough strength to work.

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    Default Re: The Origins of Tone Bar Archtop Bracing

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    Now that I've seen pictures that give me some idea of what's in there I'll say it is not a particularly good design for head block stability, but the block is incorporated into those hump/points so there is quite a bit of glue surface between the block and the top and the back. It's nice (IMO) when the design itself is good structurally so strength doesn't have to come from simple overbuilding (like this huge block), but if it works it works.
    When looking at the Vega cylinder-back mandolins that used this head block design, I've often thought that it adds a lot of work in finishing a large expanse of end grain. And Vega's workers often seemed to do a very fine job with that. Removing shaping and sanding marks. And making such a close match with stain that it was a long time before I even noticed that the head block was exposed in that design rather than hidden by the sides/ribs. In the case of Vega, I suppose there was also the advantage of the head block stabilizing longitudinal bulge that defined the cylinder-back design.

    I don't think that Harmony spent quite so much time on finishing. And some of the carved top Shutt artist models clearly used stacked wood to make the head block. For economy, or for stability.
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