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Wilkanowski Arch Top Acoustic Guitar (1937)

An important instrument.

Wilkanowski Arch Top Acoustic Guitar (1937)

Wilkanowski Arch Top Acoustic Guitar (1937), made in Brooklyn, NY, amber varnish finish, Lombardy poplar back and sides, spruce top, maple neck, ebony fingerboard.

One of the most interesting and unusual American guitars ever created. Willi Wilkanowski was a well-known Brooklyn violin builder who at the height of the "archtop era" created a very limited number of these unique and striking guitars, almost certainly for local sale. While the guitar superficially resembles a small cello with a six-string neck, all the forms and design elements are unique. Only a handful of these guitars are known to exist, and no two appear exactly alike. This particular guitar, signed and dated "W. Wilkanowski 1937" is earlier than any other known referenced example, and is certainly one of the first built.

Wilkanowski was born in Poland in 1886, and was a full-fledged violin maker by the age of 17. After coming to the United States he built violins for the Ditson Company of Boston and New York, and then for the Fred Gretsch Company in Brooklyn. A 1940 Gretsch Jobber Catalog offers Wilkanowski Artist Model violins priced from $50-$150 described as "his own personal work…no other hand touches them." While some sources claim Wilkanowski worked in Boston during the 1920's and early 1930's, he was listed as a violin maker and seller in Brooklyn in 1933, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the shop was at that location well before then. The 1942 book "KNOWN VIOLIN MAKERS" by John H. Fairfield estimates his production to that point as being 5000 violins and 100 violas, which would be prodigious for an individual or even a small workshop. At some point in the late 1930's, Wilkanowski became interested in the archtop guitar either on his own or thru a customer request and from his violinmaker's perspective approached guitar design in a most unorthodox way.

Wilkanowski's guitars all seem to date from between 1937 and 1941. Some bear labels and some do not, others like this one are signed and dated on the back. Some carry the name "AIRWAY" and/or a stylized letter "W" on the headstock. Several guitars are labeled "Wilkanowski and Son"; what role his son played in the making of the instruments is unknown and no known violins are so labeled. Most of the guitars carry no serial number, but several do.

All the guitars are built to the same general shape and size using the cello-like form, but variations include headstock shape, presence or absence of a logo, fingerboard inlay, top ornamentation, soundhole shape, types of tuners and hardware, and exact body width. Wilkanowski's guitars seem to go thru a rapid evolution of features in a short time, as is typical with completely handmade instruments, but whether these resulted from customer input or the builder's whims is unknown. The same 1942 estimates list 30 guitars as having been made to that point, selling for $400 each, and no evidence suggests any were built after that. Whether Wilkanowski examined contemporary guitars from Gibson or his fellow New York builders Epiphone and D'Angelico is unknown, but he must have been aware of these types of archtop instruments and gotten some general ideas from them. Certainly the quoted price reflects that he felt his instruments were the equal of a Super 400 or D'Angelico New Yorker. It is also unknown as to whether he had any input into or was influenced by Gretch's Synchromatic line, which was being designed and launched at this time.

This particular Wilkanowski guitar is both a spectacularly well preserved example and unique in several respects. It features a grafted aluminum scroll painted in faux wood grain on the headstock which we have never seen the like of on any other instrument. The paint is carefully matched and blended into the curly maple headstock both front and back and is certainly original. As most Wilkanowskis have a flattened oval headstock crown (not unlike the familiar Ovation design) this is a unique and probably early feature. The headstock has a pronounced rounded spine on the back, with the tuners recessed into either side. The neck has a full "V" contour and the back is unstained and lightly sealed, in the violin builder's manner. The rosewood fingerboard is ebony bound with a bone nut and has large pearl dot inlays, with a gentle point at that body end.

The body is in the standard Wilkanowski pattern, with cello-like points where the upper bout slopes down towards the waist. The "F" holes are segmented somewhat like early Epiphones but otherwise violin styled. The top is very fine-grained spruce, the back has a very dramatic flamed pattern and both are very highly arched. Top and back are multibound with a thick strip of flamed contrasting lighter wood in the center. The pickguard is black composite, attached to the neck by a wooden fairing and pinned at the lower bout point by a screw and spacer. The bridge is hand carved rosewood with adjustment wheels and a sloped ridge on top for compensation. Tailpiece and tuners are Grover products typical of New York made guitars of this era, the tailpiece is engraved "Grover Deluxe" and is very similar to a model often used by Gretsch. The ebony endpin is violin styled.

In some ways this guitar has a very modern aesthetic, foretelling later developments in archtop guitar design. All bindings are wood, unlike virtually all other top line guitars of the era which were swathed in layers of plastic binding and pearl ornamentation. The instrument exudes a "classical" sort of style, with the beauty of the tonewoods allowed to be the primary attraction. While very unlike the Gibsons, Strombergs and D'Angelicos of the 1940's, this relative austerity prefigures the direction archtop guitar design has taken since the 1970's. Later Wilkanowskis have wooden tailpieces and even pickguards, further prefiguring much more recent designs. The sound of this guitar is sharp and quite loud, and it projects extremely well.

We are quite pleased to offer this guitar for sale from its original home of Brooklyn NY, where Wilkanowski built the instruments he is remembered for. We also have two Wilkanowski violins currently for sale, either of which would make a fine display companion to this guitar.
 
Overall length is 41 1/2 in. (105.4 cm.), 16 1/8 in. (41 cm.) wide at lower bout, and 3 1/8 in. (7.9 cm.) in depth at side, taken at the end block. Scale length is 24 3/4 in. (629 mm.). Excellent original condition, this guitar has never been modified or altered in any way as far as we can tell. There are several repaired grain cracks off the F-holes running towards the lower bout of the type typically seen on violins. One deep ding into the wood on the upper treble bout. The finish has some areas that appear to have reacted with another surface (possibly a case lining) on the sides and back, and some light chipping but is overall very fine. The metal scroll has noticeable finish chipping on its spine. There is some playing wear on the back of the neck but this guitar did not see extensive use. The guitar plays well with a medium-high action (consistent with use as an orchestral guitar) and could be easily set up with a lower action by substituting a thinner bridge top, if desired. We have left the guitar as original as possible in view of its historical significance. Excellent Condition.

Item # 1825
 
This item has been sold.


 
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