Musician and luthier Todd Cambio established Fraulini Guitars (https://fraulini.com) to offer traditional performers’ instruments modelled after the classic designs of the early 20th century. As a result of his research into the instruments used by such legends as Lonnie Johnson, Nick Lucas, Lydia Mendoza and Blind Willie McTell, Todd has acquired an in-depth knowledge of such long-neglected brand names as the Chicago-based instrument manufacturers, Lyon and Healy, Harmony, Stromberg Voisinet, Regal etc, the New York workshop of Raphael Ciani and the remarkable 12 string guitars built by Guadalupe Acosta in San Antonio, Texas.
So, who better to put together a piece focusing on the instruments played by Eddie Lang before he became associated with Gibson in the mid 1920s?
Todd graciously agreed to write Part One of our feature on Eddie Lang’s guitars and the result appears below.
Part Two will look at the Gibson guitars Eddie played from the mid 1920s until his untimely death in 1933.
If you crave something different from the usual Martin/Gibson clones, we recommend that you visit Todd’s website (https://fraulini.com)!
The Pre-Gibson Years
Eddie Lang, the Father of Jazz Guitar, is associated with the Gibson L-5 archtop more than any other model. Developed in 1923, the L-5 was a cutting edge guitar with a minimalist design, elegant curves and a striking sunburst finish. It was an exquisite instrument – modern, yet at the same time, somehow timeless.
Though likely intended to be part of the mandolin orchestra, the L-5 might have been designed to meet the needs of Eddie Lang. A cutting edge instrument for a cutting edge player.
Eddie would not have an L-5 until around 1928, by which point he already had a very successful career and had established himself as the number one guitar player in the country.
So, what was Eddie playing before he got his hands on an L-5? Most folks would answer that question by saying: “an L-4,” and that would be the end of it. But Lang didn’t get an L-4 until the mid 1920s and he had been playing professionally for seven years prior to that.
In reality, Eddie Lang had used a wide variety of guitars before he got his hands on a Gibson. As he developed the art of jazz guitar, Eddie was photographed with a number of different instruments and though photos don’t identify the guitars definitively, there are enough clues so that one can make educated guess as to the makes and models that he was playing, as well as the period in which he was playing them.
Eddie’s first guitar was made by his father. As he told the British magazine, Rhythm: “Most people start their musical education at an early age, and I, being no exception, started at the very tender age of one and a half years. My father was a maker of guitars in the old country, and he made me an instrument that consisted of a cigar box with a broom handle attached, and strong thread was used as the strings.” At the age of seven or eight, his father gave him a real guitar.
Eddie’s father is often described as a violin and/or guitar maker and while he may have done that work in Italy, it does not appear that Domenico Massaro practiced that trade in Philadelphia.
Domenico first shows up in the 1898 Philadelphia City Directory listed as a labourer, living at 724 South Marshall. In the 1910 Census he was living at the same address and is listed as a labourer working for the railroad. The 1920 Census lists him as a foreman for the railroad. Railroad work was a common occupation for Italian immigrants in the US.
In 1918 Eddie started his professional career, joining the band of drummer Chick Granese, who had a residence at Schott’s Cafe in Philadelphia. Eddie was playing banjo in the band and as Nick Lucas stated, “banjo was the instrument, the guitar always got second billing.” In 1920 Eddie joined Charlie Kerr’s band. He was said to have been hired as a violinist but was soon featured on banjo and guitar. A photo from his time with Kerr’s band shows him playing a banjo.
Eddie went on to play with a variety of dance orchestras. He performed quite a bit around Atlantic City, where a number of young jazz musicians had congregated. Eddie’s childhood friend and musical partner Joe Venuti was in Atlantic City along with Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Mike Trafficante and many others. The group of young musicians would fish during the day, play gigs at night and gamble after hours. Eddie was photographed with the Silver Slipper Orchestra during this time. He is holding a banjo in the photo but a guitar is lying on its side on the ground next to him. The photo is rather grainy and the guitar is at an unfortunate angle, making it impossible to identify. It’s clearly a flat top guitar however and though it’s hard to make out any details, it appears to be either a grand concert or 000 size.
Eddie was photographed in 1923 or 1924 playing with the Scranton Sirens. In this photo he is playing a small parlour guitar. It is a fairly generic-looking instrument with no distinct markings that would give away the manufacturer. Considering that nearly every guitar manufacturer offered a parlour size model, identifying the guitar would seem to be impossible. On closer examination however, an oval label can be seen through the soundhole. Two of the more prominent manufacturers to use oval labels at the time were Vega of Boston and Regal of Chicago and I think that this guitar is likely a Vega parlour model.
In 1924, in an Atlantic City jam session, Eddie met the St. Louis novelty band, The Mound City Blue Blowers, who were riding high with their hit record, Arkansas Blues/ Blue Blues, that they had made with Brunswick. The band consisted of Red McKenzie on paper and comb, Dick Slevin on kazoo, and Jack Bland on banjo. The Blue Blowers played a mixture of blues and hokum. They immediately recognized that Eddie filled out their rather thin sound and offered him a job at $200 a week. Eddie reluctantly accepted and would commute between New York, when he was needed for theatre or recording dates with the Blue Blowers, and Atlantic City, where he continued to play music, fish, and gamble with his friends.
He was photographed with the Blue Blowers in 1924 playing a large auditorium-size guitar. Guitars like this were often made by Italian immigrant luthiers working in New York and also by the Oscar Schmidt company in Jersey City, New Jersey. Eddie’s guitar was probably a New York made Galiano. These guitars were usually between 15 ½ inches to 15 ¾ inches wide in the lower bout and had scales ranging from 26 to 26 ½ inches. They were quite large for the time and were popular with Italian musicians who would often tune them down a full step in order to play with clarinet players. By tuning down to D, a G shape would have them playing in F while a C shape would have them in Bb, common keys for a clarinet which was popular at the time. Guitar players beyond the world of Italian music were often attracted to these guitars, thinking that their larger size translated into more volume. Nick Lucas played a similar guitar, as did country music pioneer Ernest Stoneman and various members of the Hawaiian group Kalama’s Quartet.
Eddie was photographed on a ship bound for England for a tour with the Mound City Blues Blowers in June of 1925. Though the photo is not of great quality, some features of the guitar he is holding are still clear. First of all, it is larger than a parlour guitar, likely a grand concert or 000 size. The other detail that is evident is a uniquely shaped headstock with what appears to be a small point at the top. To me the guitar looks like a grand concert Washburn, with what was called a “single dome” headstock, which was introduced in 1925.
Eddie cut a number of records with the Blue Blowers and the band toured England and theatres throughout the US together. He eventually left the band to reunite with Joe Venuti and his circle of friends in New York and Atlantic City. It’s hard to justify listening to two guys play kazoo and paper and comb for days on end, when Joe Venuti, Bix Biderbeck, Frankie Trambauer, The Dorsey brothers, Adrian Rollini, Arthur Schutt, Red Nichols and many others were waiting in the wings! From that point on, Eddie became one of the most in-demand jazz musicians in the country and he began to redefine and elevate the role of the guitar.
The next photo we have of Eddie with a guitar was taken in 1926, with Red Nichols & his Five Pennies. Again, the photo is of poor quality. The camera used probably wasn’t very good and the image was overexposed. However, the details that can be made out may help identify the guitar. First off, it is quite small and looks like a parlour guitar. Secondly, it is quite dark, so it is likely an all-mahogany or all-koa model. Thirdly, the fret markers are quite small and it’s evident that there are two markers on the seventh fret. This particular detail helps to narrow down the make and model and I think that it is a Weymann Style No. 635. This was an all-mahogany parlour guitar measuring 12 ¼ inches in the lower bout. Weymanns were made in Philadelphia, Eddie’s hometown and it seems like a logical choice for him, though it’s surprising that he’d choose a parlour guitar to accompany a six-piece band with horns! It’s also surprising, considering that he was reputed to have his Gibson L-4 at this point and chose the Weymann over it for this setting.
In the span of about five years Eddie Lang had been photographed with five different flat top guitars. Maybe he was searching for the perfect instrument, or maybe he was a guy who liked different guitars? Considering that prior to getting his L-5 around 1928 Eddie had recorded such classics as April Kisses, Prelude in C# Minor and A Little Love a Little Kiss, as well as duets with Joe Venuti like Wild Cat and Stringing the Blues, it makes you wonder what guitars he was using on those recordings.
The fact that nearly 100 years later Lang is so strongly associated with the Gibson brand is a testament to the brilliance of Frank Campbell, Gibson’s Sales and Advertising manager. Campbell recognized that musicians like Eddie Lang and Nick Lucas were redefining the role of the guitar and he made sure that they had a Gibson in their hand while they were doing it, or after the fact. After Lucas had made his ground-breaking recordings ‘Teasin’ the Frets’ and ‘Pickin’ the Guitar,’ and after he had become a singing sensation, Campbell approached Lucas and offered him his own signature model. As Lucas said, “At that time, the guitar was practically obsolete – it was going out. They had to do something. But by the same token it (I) was coming in, so they made a guitar for me called the Nick Lucas model.”
Though the details of the deal Campbell had with Eddie are not as clear, it’s likely that something had been worked out. Eddie started appearing in Gibson’s catalogues with his L-4 as early as 1928, the same year he is said to have acquired his first L-5.
The truth is, Eddie Lang was such a great guitarist, he could get whatever sound he wanted with whatever guitar was in his hands. He was not bound by the strict standards of modern players and gear enthusiasts. He would play a classical piece on a steel string guitar with a flatpick and make it sound absolutely brilliant. He was, of course, a genius.
Jazz Masters of the 20’s by Richard Hadlock, p. 239-254
Lost Chords by Richard M. Sudhalter p. 149-158
Eddie Lang, the Formative Years 1902-1925 Parts 1&2, by Nick Dellow
Washburn Prewar Instrument Styles, by Hubert Pleijsier p.93
Image of Weymann Style No. 635 is from the 1925 Weymann catalog and is courtesy of Charles Robinson. Charles has an excellent website with lots of information on Weymann guitars. https://www.leavingthisworld.com/category/weymann-guitars/
Interview of Nick Lucas by Jas Olbrecht, Guitar Player Magazine December 1980
Thanks to Richard Barnes and Enrico Borsetti for their input.