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20th Century Guitar
Rara Avis -- 1895 Washburn Lyre Guitar

March 2000
by Bianca Soros



Link to 20th Century Guitar Magazine

rt Nouveau (1890-1914) was a predominant international movement in art and architecture that was characterized by the use of curved asymmetrical lines based on plant and flower motifs. It developed as a reaction to the conventional prudishness of the Victorian period (c. 1840-1900). The movement produced such products as drawings from English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898, furniture from Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), and jewelry and glassware by Frenchman Rene Lalique (1860-1945) and American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). Hector Guimard (1867-1942) also designed the Paris metro in the Art Nouveau style.

   During this artistic hotbed of creativity and design, the uniquely shaped Washburn model 804 lyre guitar was born. It is extremely rare, and this guitar built in 1895 is the only surviving example known to exist. Lyre guitars were particularly popular in France in the 1800s. This particular lyre guitar is much more functional, as most were intended for culturally refined customers who used them more for decorative purposes than for playing. The lyre guitar has an impressive sound, utilizing "terz" tuning where the instrument is tuned a third higher than standard guitar tuning. The higher register makes the lyre guitar a sweet-sounding accompaniment instrument for singers, and it still sounds great today when used to play modern styles such as rock and roll and folk music.

   The Washburn model 804 features select Brazilian rosewood back and sides and an Adirondack spruce French-polished top. The back is adorned with single-ply binding, while the top is more ornate with its 4-ply binding and herringbone rosette. Other notable appointments include gold-plated, 3-on-a-plate tuning gears, a fancy engraved ivory endpin, steel-string construction including modern-style x-bracing, and a Durkee patent bridge. This type of bridge is one of the best bridge designs for acoustic instruments because the strings go through the bridge only, which prevents the bridge and bridge plate from cracking. George Durkee, Washburn's shop foreman, designed the bridge in 1887.

   The carved fan- or shell-shaped bridge was mainly included on Washburn's top-of-the-line models. The description in Washburn's 1894 catalog claimed that the lyre was "striking in appearance" and "the tone is something wonderful and far exceeds that of many instruments of larger size with full scale length." The catalog also mentions how the "arms" give the guitar added power. The lyre's original list price was $65. The lyre's arms are reinforced with a crossbar putto figure-a representation of a cherubic, winged infant of no distinguishable gender, symbolizing devotion. The angel represents the messenger of God in Christianity and was thought to have existed before the creation of the world. The shape of the lyre originates back to ancient Greece. In Greek mythology, Apollo-the half-naked, handsome, masterful young god of the sun who symbolized music, poetry, healing, and prophecy-played a lyre. End

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