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Strings Magazine

December 1999
by Bianca Soros

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he Roaring Twenties was a period of blatant disregard for laws, boundaries, and traditions. It was also an age of invention, in the world of music as well as in science and business. In 1923 Igor Stravinsky was in Paris composing "Les Noces (the Wedding)." Early in 1924, 25-year-old George Gershwin stole the show at a concert in New York called "An Experiment in Modern Music," where he performed his first large-scale work, "Rhapsody in Blue." In Kalamazoo, Michigan, a brilliant acoustic engineer named Lloyd Loar, who was working for the Gibson guitar company, invented the first solidbody electric viola.

   The exact time period during which Loar built this viola is not certain. It could have been as early as the early 1920s, while he was working as an acoustical engineer for the product-development department at Gibson, or as late as the early '20s, when he was launching his own Vivitone guitar/mandolin company. It is an amazing and original instrument no matter what its exact vintage. The solid back spruce panel is shaped in the silhouette of a viola and is finished in the Gibson "Cremona-brown" brushed varnish. The body is triple-bound in ivoroid like a guitar, rather than traditionally purfled. The electronic control box and reinforcing spine are made out of mahogany, and the fingerboard is ebonized maple. An endpin extends from the body-the instrument was designed to be played gamba style. The scroll design is modernistic and has a machine-age appearance.

   Loar's design causes bowed-string vibrations to travel through a conventional viola bridge that sits on a cantilevered steel plate. The plate vibrated on top of a wound magnetic coil, resulting in transduction of the string vibration into an electromagnetic signal. The signal is sent to a conventional amplifier, resulting in a resonant tone. (The design was inspired by early loudspeaker technology, which utilized a reverse idea: a steel plate was driven by an electromagnetic field, which in turn was amplified by a horn drive.) Like the soundpost in a violin, the treble side of the tone bar can be raised or lowed to supply an appropriate amount of vibration resistance for bass and treble balance. Loar was granted a patent for this revolutionary invention.

   Loar was an accomplished composer and concert soloist and was awarded first prize for solo cello in the American Composers' Contest in 1921. As a concert artist, he regularly performed throughout the United States and Europe. But he also had extensive training in physics and acoustics, and in 1925 he became a professor of acoustics at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Loar was granted a total of nine patents for his musical inventions over the course of his career, and he went on to develop and market one of the first electric guitars through Vivitone.

    The viola has recently been restored at Washington Street Music in Santa Cruz, California by current owner Hank Risan, luthier and writer Rick Turner of Turner Guitars, and violin maker David Morse. Morse describes the instrument's sound as "open and articulate," while Turner calls it "amazingly rich. It rivals the best of modern amplified violins." (Special thanks to Turner and Morse for sharing their extensive knowledge regarding the physics of this remarkable instrument.) Risan has offered to loan the viola to the San Francisco Symphony, whose concertmaster may use it in an upcoming performance.End

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