Christiaan Oyens - Weissenborn

The forefathers of the National, Dobro and consequently pedal steel guitar were conceived and built by Chris J. Knutsen and Hermann Weissenborn as early as the first decade of the last century.

Hermann C. Weissenborn a German piano and violinmaker immigrated to New York around 1902. In 1910 he moved to Los Angeles where he mainly did repair work on instruments until the end of the decade. With the Hawaiian music boom of the early 20's, Weissenborn started making ukeleles, flattops and eventually his captivating Hawaiian steel guitars.
With their raised string action, frets flush with the fingerboard, square hollow necks and featherweight koa wood construction the Weissenborns offered both greater volume and sustain than conventional Spanish neck guitars for Hawaiian lap steel playing. Due to their sweet timbre, expressive tone and eye-catching design these guitars were an instant hit and stayed in demand until the advent of the Nationals and Dobros. Hermann Weissenborn died in 1937 amidst debts and declining business for his shop.

It is important to credit Chris J. Knutsen for the original square neck, rope binding and overall design of the Hawaiian steel guitar. Knutsen, another immigrant born as Johan Christian Kammen in Norway on June 24, 1862, started building Hawaiian steel guitars as early as 1908. Both Knutsen and Weissenborn (as well as the Schireson brothers) built Kona style guitars almost exclusively to a Mr. Charles S. DeLano starting around 1915.

DeLano held himself out as an "instructor of Hawaiian steel guitar" and most likely sold many guitars to his students, after 1923, the Konas were built exclusively by Weissenborn.

It is impossible to determine just when Weissenborn began to experiment with his own designs in crafting Hawaiian steel guitars, there are some noteworthy differences though between his and Knutsen's Hawaiians.

Most of the Knutsens have spruce tops, all have lateral or diagonal bracing on the back, also due to his eccentric building skills many of his guitars used some crude solutions such as: wide number of screws, brackets, wing nuts, sheared-off tuning machine plates, odd-shaped nuts and dressmaker's seam tape rather than wood strips to reinforce ribs and butt fitted back plates. H. Weissenborn's guitars however, used mainly koa tops, he used X bracing exclusively and also adopted 4 different models or "styles" as he would advertise them, creating a growing scale of ornamentation from basic to fancy.

Other vintage Hawaiian steel guitars worth mentioning are the Schireson brand: Lyric, Mai-Kai and Hilo, mostly made by Oscar Schmidt. Also the Brinks (Brink was a Michigan violinmaker who appeared to have experimented), Greenfields and according to preeminent Weissenborn researcher Ben Elder ("after the Weissenborns and Knutsens, the next best vintage acoustic steel I've played") the Mastertone Special, an absurdly cheap looking model made by Gibson from about 1939-42. Of course none of these instruments compare sound, feel or look wise to a Knutsen/Weissenborn Hawaiian.

Thanks to players like David Lindley, Ben Harper Bob Brozman and Jerry Douglas today the Weissenborn guitar - more than 70 years since the last one was manufactured - is enjoying resurgence. It is now used for virtually any musical style. From country to rock, Hawaiian to blues and now Brazilian music as well! The downside to the Weissenborn's renaissance and its renovated demand (specially among collectors) is that prices have gone sky high. Luckily many wonderful luthiers and guitar makers have come up with their versions of the expensive originals.
I have been hypnotized by this instrument's sound from the very first day I heard it. It has the sound I only heard previously in my dreams and it allows me to come up with very unusual ideas for my compositions.

Below you will find quotes from Weissenborn players, pictures of the different original models and some links to their contemporary builders.

For any further information on the Knutsen Hawaiian Steel Guitar please refer to Gregg Miner's excellent site on Chris Knutsen: www.harpguitars.net/knutsen/hawaiians.htm

 

"I have been playing and recording with these profound instruments since the 1970's, when I found my first one for $50.00. Hermann Weissenborn was a mad genius, and though his instruments seem a little crudely made, he was actually experimenting very intentionally in his search for sound. These instruments have magical qualities of sound, both bass and treble, with amazing sustain AND great speed of response. This is due to several factors, not the least of which are dimensional-- i.e. the depth and tapering of the back-to-top distance, also the slight curvature in all directions of the top and back. These instruments are unbeatable for Hawaiian, blues, Indian, and almost ANY style of music. Weissenborn also made the deeper bodied solid neck Kona guitars, which are also very good, especially for bottleneck slide playing, but I prefer Weissenborns for most applications."
"Playing a 'Weisenbourne' is like playing an entire band. There's all the bass you'll ever need, a rhythm guitar and a slide guitar lead. A compact, self-contained home entertainment unit!"
"I used to play bottleneck on Dobros and Nationals, but when I started playing lap slide, the Weissenborn was the logical next step. It is the greatest sounding acoustic instrument ever made. I play it for that reason. It has the depth of a cello and the edge of a Strat. You have to be as accurate as the cellist for the intonation. You can't play a little too high or too low or else you're out of tune. The hollow neck Weissenborn can't be fretted, and the strings are high off the neck. Since it doesn't have the metal resonator, it doesn't have that metallic tone. Its belly, back and side are entirely made of Koa wood, which is a wood only of the Hawaiian Islands. It is now an endangered wood, so you cannot cut the Koa tree. I'm drawn to its resonating sound. It is very expressive. I stick with the Weissenborn, it says something new to me everyday. Every time I pick it up it sings something new. The Weissenborn is the sound that is in me. Nothing else can channel the spirit of my music."
"What's cool about the Weissenborn is that you can play it in a variety of different styles of music. It isn't really genre-specific as long as you give it room for the sound to come through the track."

"I can't give you a very good quote, but I like them (Weissenborns) for the natural woody tone. My style 2 thin body Weissenborn is a very rich sounding guitar. The Kona is the cornerstone of my small collection - a clear, warm, natural (and quiet) sound. But with good mics or the right amplification system, you can use that sound in almost any setting."

"The Weissenborn slide guitar has the gift of human vocal quality; a richness that captures both sweetness and edge. Under capable hands, it will give your music a life that speaks of emotions and colors, experiences and journeys - this is what happens to me every time I play a Weissenborn, whether in a studio or just in my living room. Truthfully, I can't think of any other way of expressing how much I love to put a slide bar to a Weissenborn."
 
 
 
 
 
Bill Asher is the founder, owner and master builder behind Asher Guitars. He makes beautiful koa copies of the Style #1 and style #4 Weissenborns. He also makes the Electro Hawaiian models Ben Harper uses in his live performances. These electric lap steels made with flamed figured koa with herringbone binding include two Asher custom lap steel pickups. These guitars through through a Marshal cabinet scream with marginal feedback.
Luthier Bill Hardin makes these impressive Weissenborn and Kona copies. Hawaiian lap steel virtuoso Bob Brozman favors these high quality guitars, which are at the top of the price range. This is a very nice site, worth checking out.
A fine builder of both acoustic and electric lap steels from Australia. Ben Harper commissioned the interesting SK8Lap from him, that's right, a skateboard lap steel!
 
Site by German builder Andreas Cuntz. Solid construction and excelent choice of woods for these guitars.
Alaskan born builder now residing in Tasmania. His Hawaiian guitars combine the acoustics of the Weissenborn and resonator guitars with carbon fiber braces. The neck inlays have an impressive and innovative design.
David is a wonderful and experienced luthier. His guitars are made of fine Hawaiian Koa wood and they sound fantastic! You can customize your order any way you please. He has made guitars for David Lindley and Ben Harper, in fact, he used to repair guitars at the instrument shop of Ben's grandfather, Charles Chase. I have a style #1 and it's a rich, warm sounding instrument, you can hear it on "Mississipi No Sertão". Dart's guitars are at the top of the price range, but they truly are worth the investment. He is a great guy to discuss the history of these instruments also.
A wacky and innovative blend of a square neck Weissenborn and a Gibson Flying V, she calls it a Flying Veissenborn. Cool.
Belgian luthier Emmanuel Romont makes many fine instruments including beautiful copies of the Weissenborn style #2 and #4.
Canadian builder. Don Rooke of The Henrys (a true Weissenborn virtuoso) uses these. The Hawaiian King model is a mesmerizing instrument.
Ken makes several types of guitars. His Acousteel model looks impressive with it's innovative design.
More a copy of the Hilo than a Weissenborn. This is also a nice, inexpensive guitar for the beginner.
German luthier Manfred Pietrzok makes these fine instruments. One is a neat mixture between a Dobro and a Weissenborn. Good site for European players to order from.
Marc was a partner of the K&S Guitar Co. He's a very experienced luthier and his site always has fine second hand instruments for great prices.
Richard Mermer is a true guitar craftsman. His instruments combine solid construction, excellent choice of woods, beautiful finish and innovative design. I highly recommend his site. He is very well informed about the history of these instruments too. Check out this beautiful Baritone Hawaiian guitar he came up with. He says he tunes it to open B (B-F#-B-D#-F#-B)!!
A fine builder who makes his guitars entirely from yellow cedar (Alaskan Cypress) with a Mexican wood used for the trim work, fingerboards and bridges. He makes his guitars in two categories: the Weissenborn and the Knutsen.
Mike Dotson makes an interesting hybrid guitar blending the Weissenborn's shape with the extra volume of the resonators. He calls it the Weissonator.
A builder of Hawaiian steel guitars based in Italy. These guitars offer solid craftsmanship, great variety of woods and beautiful finish. Most of them are copies of the style #4 with rope binding.
Only Weissenborns I know of made in New Zealand. These instruments have a Mahogany body and Rosewood fingerboard. He has some interesting Custom options. Paddy uses nice Gotoh tuners and will place frets on the guitar if asked.
This link is for ordering the different steel bars and capos available. Paul Beard is a Dobro builder and you can order these products directly from his site.
Australian luthier. There's not a lot of information on his site just a couple of pictures of his Weissenborn copy.
These are very nice, inexpensive guitars. I recommend these for players that are interested in lap steel playing and don't want to spend too much. I have a style #3 and it's a great sounding guitar. They have David Lindley as an endorsee.
Australian Luthier who builds many different instruments. His Deluxe Series Weissenborns may be ordered in a variety of quality woods such as: Blackwood, Maple, Bubinga, Zebrano, Wenge and Paduk. Any of these with a ebony fingerboard and bridge.
Ukelele maker Tony Graziano makes this beautiful Weissenborn style guitar shown here in Koa wood with Holly binding, a Rosewood finger board and a Koa bridge.
 
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