Before the advent of electric pedal-steel guitars and mechanically amplified acoustic guitars like the plaintive Dobro and the gleaming National resonator, musicians by the tens of thousands tried their hands at Hawaiian-style playing with acoustic lap-style guitars. Some of these instruments were standard six-strings fitted with taller nuts and saddles to make them easier to play with a bar, but others were specially made for playing this music.
The Weissenborn Style 4 is the high-water mark of the acoustic steel-string guitar for lap-style playing. The 1925 example seen here features an all-koa body and a hollow, square neck that contributes to the guitar’s volume and tone. The body, rosette, neck, and headstock are surrounded with rope binding, a spiraling marquetry of alternating pieces of light and dark wood. Instead of frets, which are unnecessary with slide playing, the fingerboard has wooden inlays at the fret positions.
In one of those tales that can only happen in America, the original Weissenborns were made in Los Angeles by a German immigrant who based his design on one by a Norwegian counterpart. Hermann Weissenborn, seen on the label of this instrument, formed his company in 1923 to construct these guitars, closely modeled on Chris Knutsen’s “New Hawaiian Family” line. Weissenborn built these distinctive instruments until the shop closed following his death, in January 1937. By then, the electric guitar had taken over and the acoustic lap-steel guitar was obsolete until players such as David Lindley, Bob Brozman, and Ben Harper reintroduced listeners to the joys of these unique instruments.
To learn more about these makers and their instruments, read Chris J. Knutsen: From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family by George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.