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Mid-30's S.S. Stewart Presentation Archtop
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Serial #: NSN
Body size at lower bout: 16" Scale length: 25" Nut Width: 1 3/4" Body depth: 3 3/8"
Finish: Original sunburst finish, nitrocellulose type
Materials: Handcarved bookmatched solid Adirondack spruce top; arched flamed maple back and sides; one-piece Honduras mahogany neck; solid Brazilian rosewood fingerboard with block pearloid inlay; ornate floral abalone peghead logo inlay; checkerboard top binding, bound fingerboard and body; solid bone nut.
Hardware: All original gold hardware includes Grover Sta-Tite open-back tuners, engraved trapeze tailpiece, bound bakelite pickguard, adjustable compensated ebonized maple bridge.
Notes: Samuel Swain Stewart was a Philadelphia banjo teacher who opened a factory there in 1879, and quickly became one of the nation's leading banjo manufacturers. A tireless enterpreneur, Stewart published sheet music and instruction manuals, and by at least 1883 was circulating his own 'Banjo and Guitar Journal' as well. Just before the first World War, the Stewart company was acquired by Buegeleison & Jacobsen of New York City, who outsourced production of Stewart instruments to a variety of manufacturers. CMI of Chicago (makers of Regal, Kay and Harmony) was the most prolific of these, and produced a wide variety of entry-level models under the Stewart brand until at least the Second World War. What is less well known is that B&J also contracted with Gibson, Martin, and other premium builders from time to time to produce models of true professional quality. But what we never knew, until this intriguing guitar showed up, was that one of those builders was Vega of Boston, the renowned manufacturer of presentation quality banjos and guitars.
When the banjo market cratered at the end of the Roaring 20's, the major builders shifted their production to archtop or 'orchestra' guitars, as the early big band rhythm sections took shape. By the early 30's, Vega had a full line of professional quality guitars whose 'C' model prefix affirmed their carved body construction. This remarkable guitar shares the basic design of the mid-30's Vega C-56 and 66, with its 16" full depth body, 25" scale, finely carved parallel braced Adirondack spruce top, and appointments like the art deco-styled bound bakelite pickguard. B&J appears to have specified cosmetic touches for what must surely have been their presentation grade guitar, including the checkerboard binding, and most distinctively, the exceptionally ornate peghead inlay. Stewart banjos were renowned for their extravagant pearl work, and this guitar continues the tradition exuberantly, with an intricate floral motif and logo inlaid in brilliantly colored abalone, set in a headplate of deeply grained Brazilian rosewood.
But beyond the stunning looks, several features make this instrument of particular interest to the contemporary player. The generous 1 3/4" fingerboard is a rarity in archtops of the era, having been abandoned by Gibson by the early 30's, only to emerge in recent decades as the preferred dimension for many top builders. The 16" body is comfortable and deftly balanced, and is now favored by many performers. The 25" scale anticipated the Gibson Johnny Smith by some three decades, and has been adopted by Benedetto, Sadowsky and others as a default fretboard length. And finally, at an astounding 4lb. 5 oz. the instrument is by far one of the lightest archtop guitars we've ever held: an absolute marvel of construction, still rock solid after some eight decades. And as experienced players know, 'light makes right', especially where tone is concerned. The delicately carved, well aged Adirondack soundboard ranges from open, resonant bass, to clear, brilliant highs, with sparkling natural reverb in the upper register, and power aplenty under the hood.
Based on its Vega counterparts, we'd estimate this guitar would have been built sometime between 1934 to around 1938. Happily, the instrument has been preserved in exceptionally fine condition, with all original finish, binding and hardware, including the gold trapeze tailpiece, engraved with the company's logo. The arched maple back shows handsome quilted figure, and the deep Cremona sunburst finish is remarkably free of pick, buckle, or thumbwear. The body shows no cracks or repairs, and even the original fretwork is in notably fine condition, with smooth low action over a gentle C profile neck, nicely solid in the hand.
A model so rare we've never seen another, this unique instrument combines elegant looks, wonderful playability, and exceptional rarity in one incomparable package. Don't hold your breath waiting for the next one: call now.
Setup: The frets have been precision leveled, recrowned and polished; bridge height adjusted; bridge compensation set; string slots at nut and bridge inspected and recut as necessary; bridge foot contour inspected and fit to top as necessary; bridge radius inspected and recurved as necessary; bridgewheels and tuners lubricated; fingerboard and bridge oiled; body and neck cleaned and hand polished.
This instrument is strung with medium gauge bronze strings (.013-.056). The guitar will accommodate lighter or heavier gauge strings, according to preference. String action is set at 5/64" to 6/64" at the 12th fret, with moderate relief for acoustic playing with medium strings. The action may be lowered or raised to your requirements with the adjustable bridge.
Case: Deluxe black plush lined hardshell case.