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1939 Larson Brothers Prairie State Archtop
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Body size at lower bout: 17" Scale length: 25 1/2" Nut width: 1 11/16" Body depth: 4"
Materials: Bookmatched quartersawn solid spruce top; tiger flame maple back, sides and neck; solid ebony fingerboard; block mother of pearl fingerboard inlays; 7-ply top binding with 1/4" mother of pearl inlay; pearl torch peghead inlay; 3-ply back binding, bound fingerboard and headstock.
Hardware: Original hardware includes open back tuners with oval keys; beveled faux-tortoise pick guard; trapeze tailpiece; compensated adjustable ebony bridge.
Notes: The Larson Brothers, Carl and August, immigrated to Chicago from their native Sweden and hired on at the Maurer instrument works around 1893, eventually acquiring the firm by the turn of the century. Visionary and prolific, the brothers produced a full line of fretted instruments under a variety of brands, names that have become legendary in American guitar history: Euphonon, Dyer, Stahl, Stetson, Knutsen, Champion and Prairie State in addition to the Maurer line. One of the first builders to specialize in steel stringed instruments, the Larsons pioneered key innovations in guitar design, many of which were awarded patent protection, and the firm prospered until the death of August Larson in 1944.
While Larson flat tops have become some of the most treasured vintage steel string guitars, even knowledgeable collectors may be unaware that the brothers produced a very limited number of archtops as well. This example of a Prairie State archtop, produced in 1939, is one of only a handful known to exist. Its 17" body is constructed of unusually vivid fiddleback maple, with a quartersawn bookmatched sold spruce top, arched under tension in Larson's signature technique. The long scale 25 1/2" neck is of solid maple as well, and is cantilevered over the body at the fingerboard extension in classic archtop style. The triple bound soundholes are configured in a uniquely curvilinear fashion, and the body is trimmed in a phenomenal 1/4" of solid mother of pearl. What's really interesting, however, is what's under the hood.
The bracing of the Prairie State is a unique hybrid, with a pair of ladder braces in the upper and lower bouts, and an X-brace which intersects under the bridge area between the soundholes. The X braces are a 3 ply sandwich, with two pieces of spruce flanking a harder wood, presumably mahogany, a design that has been adopted by a number of contemporary builders seeking greater strength and rigidity in soundboard support. Most intriguingly, the neck is connected to the endblock with a narrow metal rod, banjo style, an innovation intended to distribute neck tension more evenly throughout the body, stabilizing the instruments and facilitating neck adjustments.
Taken together, these design innovations combine to produce an in instrument with a voice that is singular, and utterly remarkable. The extra body depth and proprietary bracing open the voice to greater sustain and bass response than conventional archtops, while the tensioned top, tailpiece and pressure bridge create projection and attack far in excess of typical flat top guitars. Unusually versatile, it's not hard to imagine this guitar equally at home with jazz standards, western swing and gypsy tunes: indeed, a recent visitor discovered the Prairie State archtop to be an unusually expressive slide guitar, performing a stirring medley of Blind Willie Johnson tunes. Go figure.
Well played and well loved, this example shows all original amber blonde finish with the sort of typical playwear one associates with a long career: some scattered pick wear and checking to the top and smooth thumbwear on the neck, but surprisingly scant buckle wear on the exquisitely figured maple back. Several grainline dryness cracks are tightly sealed on the top, and the action is smooth and low over a set of freshly dressed medium-tall frets. Astoundingly, this big beauty weighs in at a mere 5 lb. 2 oz, and the voice is accordingly phenomenal: huge and open, with deeply resonant bass response and sustain, detailed balance up to the highest register, and volume to burn. The body is very well balanced, and has a very comfy gentle D neck profile, notably contemporary in feel.
We've never seen, or heard, another like her. And don't expect to anytime soon. One only: call now.
Setup: 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.
Case: Original deluxe brown arched plush lined hardshell case.
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