I have a few free moments and figured I’d take that time to push something extra out this week. Why not? It’s not like I was doing anything better.
Today, I’m going to start with a story – of sorts – and then tell you about a company called Washburn. It’s not a very long story*, but it’s very unlike what most people seem to remember and it’s not even remotely like what Washburn would have you believe.
*I kid. It’s actually pretty long by most standards, but not that long by my standards. Still you’re going to want a cup of coffee.
(See that? If you came in from the front page then you’d have noticed I used the ‘read more tag. I’m getting this shit dialed in! But, I digress!)
This morning began with a giant, still unpainted with our logo, truck lumbering up my driveway. I’m pretty sure the guy tasked with driving it is going to kill the transmission, but that’s a story for another time. It was followed by an old beat up Honda Accord. The truck had just two people and the car had three people in it.
Those five people would be the band. They’re a wonderful bunch of young adults and are very skilled at what they do. Unfortunately, they don’t actually know a damned thing about being in a band – even though they’ve been any number of bands for quite some time.
As you may know, I’ve undertaken the solemn duty of teaching them to actually be a functional, professional band. This includes all sorts of things, from budgeting to loading up on carbs.
For those of you who don’t know, what we do is a lot of work. We aren’t famous enough to have roadies, so we’re lugging the equipment ourselves. (Well, I’m not – but we’ll get to that.)
They have horrible diets and I don’t think a damned on of ’em has an actual fitness routine!
I kid… I kid…
That’s all just an excuse so that I could feed them breakfast and then justify making them do all the unloading and setup. I plan to wander in right about the time we do sound-check! They better have my guitars on the right stands and they better all be in tune! (I am kinda reveling in my leader position!)
I fed them a lovely breakfast of coffee, a few types of juice, and toast with a few types of jam and butter. There was also all the bacon they could eat, scrambled eggs piled high enough to warrant putting national flags atop them, and enough delicious blueberry pancakes to anchor a small bass boat.
Anyone who tells you pancakes should be light and fluffy is a dirty rotten liar. They should be thick, heavy, and laden with delicious blueberries. It’s science, bitches. Learn it! Read a damned book!
After we ate and shot the shit, going over our final plans, we waddled out to the truck to load my guitars and a small suitcase. Yes, I always carry a small suitcase to these types of events.
It’s hot under those lights and a lot of work goes into performing. I bring extra stage-appropriate clothing and I often change between sets and always change after a show. If the venue has a shower available, I’ll often take a shower before making the return trip home.
If you’ve never done it, it’s a lot of work. We have LED lighting but the venue has older stuff. I’m not 100% certain that we’ll be able to work around their existing lighting, but we should be able to. So, hopefully it won’t be too hot.
Now… I told you all that just so that I can tell you this!
One of the guitars we moved from inside my house to the truck is a very, very wonderful guitar. I want to tell you about that guitar.
One of the songs we’re playing is by a fella named James Taylor. I’ll usually play the same instrument the artist played, where such is reasonable, and Mr. Taylor plays a Gibson J-50 much of the time. While I have a J-50, I want to do something a little different. I want a more rustic feel to “Fire and Rain.”
Thus, I’ve rehearsed with a very wonderful guitar. (Trust me, there’s a point to all this!) That guitar is the one that I wish to tell you about.
It’s a 1939 Washburn Solo DeLuxe Super Auditorium 5246 and it’s actually a wonderful guitar. Don’t blame me for it being called “DeLuxe.” It was 1939 and they were weird back then. Anyhow, it looks like this:
Note: That’s not my picture. I straight up stole it from Google who tells me they stole it from Reverb. Thanks Reverb!
I can hear you now, “Alright, TheBuddha. What the hell are you on about?” Trust me, I have a point.
Why is this important? Well, mine actually is a 1939 model.
In my imagination, this is what you’re saying: “Oh, sure. So? You can buy a copy of that same guitar, right now. Washburn sells them. They’re not even expensive. They’re not even special. Hell, they’re not even all that good.”
And you’d be wrong. Well, you’d also be right – but you’d be very, very wrong.
You can buy the RSG200SWVSK which is “inspired by” the 1939 Super DeLuxe model. It even says “Washburn” on it. And, you’re right, it’s not very good. It’s not horrible, but it’s nothing special. It’s definitely not a Martin, put it that way.
See, it’s all a horrible, horrible lie.
If you ask Washburn, they’ll say stuff like this:
Washburn has been building stringed instruments since 1883.
They may even say stuff like this:
… 130 years of history is at the root of our strong foundation building high quality instruments.
They’re lying. Well, at the very least they’re being deceptive.
In 1863, two fellas named George W. Lyon and Patrick J. Healy formed a partnership. Washburn is Lyon’s middle name and that’s where the name comes from. They actually started as the outlet for a sheet music company out of Boston. A couple of years later, they started making small instruments, then stringed instruments, and then instruments with frets. They’d be fully independent by 1880.
Note: A select few of you may recognize the Lyon and Healy name from the world of harps. They still exist and still make harps. See here for more information. That’s right, they made (and still do) harps. Many moons ago, I dated a harp player. One of her harps was made by Lyon and Healy. They’re actually very reputable in that area and quite a few professionals play their harps.
Trivia: In 1912, Washburn introduced the Lakeside Jumbo model and that’s what many of us consider to be the first dreadnought size guitar.
Anyhow, the fella named Washburn (George W. Lyon) actually left the company before 1890 even rolled around. Healy would keep going and the business would grow.
Now, it gets batshit insane.
So, what’s a Washburn – specifically what’s a Washburn guitar? We don’t have a fucking clue. Seriously – we don’t know. We don’t have the slightest idea.
They frequently changed the name of a model guitar – seemingly at random. They changed designs, again seemingly at random. They probably changed the designs so much because the market was in flux around that time, but that’s just an educated guess.
They also repaired instruments – sometimes putting their name on it. They did custom jobs. They’d take a guitar from another vendor and customize that – and put their name on it. They made guitars that sold under different names. They even had guitars made for them by other manufacturing houses.
It’s a damned mess! If you decide to start a guitar collection, I absolutely will call you an idiot if you decide to make the objects of that collection Washburn. Seriously, don’t do that. It was run like patients from the asylum had control of everything!
If you’re asked, “Is that a Washburn?” You’re going to be right, at least 90% of the time, if you say, “Fucked anybody knows.”
Enter the era known as the Roaring 20s! People were flapping in zoot suits and dancing like they were possessed by demons. Alcohol was illegal – but everyone still drank. Al Capone was teaching the world how to be a gangster with style. WWI was still fresh in everyone’s memory and we still called it “The War to End All Wars.”
In short, we were a naive nation and full of a bunch of silly ideas.
Washburn was no different. Indeed, they were a pack of idiots. They were facing stiff competition and pushed the manufacturing role to the Tonk Brothers. They sold the guitar portion of their business to the Tonk Brothers in 1928 and concentrated on building awesome harps, pianos, and organs.
The name Washburn went with the guitars.
The Tonk Brothers got J.R. Stewart to buy and run the factory. They, of course, continued the trend of being colossal fuckups. The transition was a mess.
In fact, their ability to screw things up beyond belief was solidified as historical fact when they went bankrupt just two years later – in 1930.
Seriously, I’m not sure I could write a fictional tale better than this one.
After their bankruptcy, some of their assets were sold to Regal Musical Instrument Company. Except, nobody knows for sure which assets were sold. Once again, we haven’t got a clue what they were doing.
Lest you think that’s everything, I’ll add that Regal Musical Instrument Company was once owned by Washburn and was sold to someone in 1908. Regal, at that time, manufactured stringed instruments for National String Instrument Corporation and a name you should recognize. They also manufactured instruments for Dobro Manufacturing Company.
Dobro, as you should know, is synonymous with resonator guitars. In fact, many people will mistakenly call a resonator a “Dobro” even though it wasn’t made by Dobro. It’s actually just a resonator guitar – and such guitars were made by many, many companies – including some Washburn models!
Trivia: The term Dobro is a registered trademark owned by Gibson and, according to the registry, Bank of America. It’s somewhere in limbo and considered to be a generic trademark. You can call a resonator guitar a Dobro, but you’re probably going to get sued if you manufacture a resonator guitar and call it a Dobro or refer to it as a Dobro in the product description.
Where were we? Oh, we were telling you about the mishmash of idiocy that is Washburn history.
My guitar is from 1939. It’s a good thing, too. See, by the very early 1940s the sales had declined to nothing and they stopped making Washburn guitars. The name was retained, but they simply stopped making them – ’cause nobody was buying them. My guess is it’s because nobody could figure out the damned product numbers and model names, as they’d been created by a pack of drunken hyenas with an 8 pack of Crayola crayons.
Seriously, they were a mess!
Fast forward a couple of decades. Why? Well, they weren’t doing anything. In fact, they’d not do anything for a couple of decades even beyond that.
Some dude named Schlacher was a violin maker and also did repairs. He would open his own store in the 1970s. He figured out that there was a market for high-quality but low-priced guitars. (Brilliant! Surely a stroke of genius!) His name is sort of important – as you’ll see.
Around the same time, the Beckmen’s (a couple from Los Angeles, California) brought Washburn name back to life – by importing guitars made in Japan by Terada starting in 1974. At this time, they were able to get fairly decent acoustic guitars from Terada. But, let’s just agree that they weren’t all that good at running a business.
Schlacher, now hooked up with a dude named Rick Johnstone, had a business called Fretted Instruments Inc. and they purchased the Washburn name from the Beckmen couple, who’d decided to go a different direction. So, in 1977 Washburn changed hands again, as Schlacher and Johnstone purchased the name for just $13,000.
This move brought the name back to Chicago. A decade later, in 1987, Schlacher would buy out Johnstone’s part of the company and rename the company Washburn International. During this time, they continued to have their guitars manufactured by any number of different companies in Japan.
And, in reality, those guitars were fine. They were good enough quality and they were priced near the low end of the guitar pricing spectrum. They are not bad guitars.
Trivia: If you’re any good, you might get Washburn to sponsor you. They’ll give you a guitar that matches your specs, maybe make a model guitar with your name on it, and sometimes even pay people to play their guitars. And, by “good” I mean popular. If you’re a performer and play a Washburn, even on the small scale, then they may send you some gear like t-shirts, stickers, and hats. Send ’em a few pics of you, maybe a video, playing your Washburn in public – and they might just hook you up.
In 1991, Washburn started making guitars in the US again. Except, the guitars made in the US are all just their high-end, custom, one-off, or limited-run productions. They also do their prototyping and and development in the US. However, very few Washburn guitars are actually made in the US. Most continue to be made overseas, with Japan and (I think) China being the main two locations for manufacturing.
In 2002, Washburn International would buy U.S. Music Corporation. They did something called a “reverse merger” and that means they’d taken on the name USM.
In 2009, USM would be sold to JAM Industries and Schlacher would step away from the company – but start a consulting company and still consult with the music business.
Today, the Washburn name is still owned by JAM Industries. Two notable people with the Washburn sound would be Dimebag Darrell and Paul Stanley. However, that’s not important.
See, I told you all that history just so I could tell you that there is absolutely no connection between my Washburn and the Washburn of today. There’s no direct lineage. The two companies are entirely different.
Washburn will have you believe they’ve been making instruments since 1863. They’ll insinuate that they’re the same company. They’ll tell of their long history of manufacturing the Washburn guitars. The truth is, the best lineage to the Washburn name is actually a company that makes harps!
They aren’t even remotely related!
Yup… I told you that whole story just so that I could explain that there’s absolutely no relationship between the guitar I’m going to perform with tonight and the company today. They do make a model that they call the Solo Deluxe. If you’re curious, it’s model number is: RSG200SWVSK
That’s actually “inspired by” the 1939 Washburn Solo DeLuxe Super Auditorium 5246 – which is the guitar I’ll be using when the band performs a James Taylor song this evening. It’s not even remotely related to the model they’re saying is inspired by it. The company has no vast history of making Washburn guitars. It’s all a horrible lie! It’s all a marketing ploy! The only thing Washburn about a modern Washburn is the name.
Hell, even the Washburn Solo Deluxe (note the lack of capitalization for the letter L, as it was originally the DeLuxe) is only “inspired by” the original.
Here’s the good news…
As insane as the history is, as hard as it is to follow, they’ve actually succeeded. Their goal was to provide high quality instruments at low cost. Well, their goal was to do that after many, many iterations, changes in direction, bankruptcy, receivership, ownership transfers, etc…
I’d absolutely recommend people buy a Washburn guitar today. They are very, very playable guitars. They’re excellent quality for the price. They hold up well in a performance environment. They look great. They’re reliable equipment. They provide excellent tones.
In short, they’re fantastic guitars.
There’s just no damned vast history of guitar making since 1863! That’s a horrible, horrible lie. They’re entirely separate beasts and share only the name – and even that’s changed.
Also, I absolutely don’t recommend trying to collect old Washburn guitars. Being able to identify them is more like witchcraft than science. The odds are very high that you’re going to end up buying at least one that’s not actually a Washburn at all. We don’t know how many guitars they made, what models they made, what variations they made, what was built where, what was designed by who, and what factory they were made in. It’s a mystery that not even Scooby and Shaggy could solve.
Again, if a modern one catches your eye and you like the price – buy it. They’re great guitars for the money. You’ll be happy with it. They’re fine for performing and they’ll do just fine in the studio. Just don’t be fooled by the claims of a lineage and rich history. The truth is that the history is just the name and, frankly, the name was used by people who were possibly escaped patients from a mental hospital.
On that note, I will bring this to a close. I’ve got just 2.5 hours before I need to get on the road, drive for ~2 hours, and then make some noise until just about 01:00 tomorrow morning. I enjoy writing these as much as you seem to enjoy reading them.
As always, I welcome (and truly enjoy) reading your comments. If you have experience with a Washburn, do tell me about it. If you’d like me to write about a guitar, or any guitar subject, do tell me about it. I have a pretty good collection and have a pretty long history of guitar playing. Chances are, I know a little about it – and I’m probably willing to research most any topic.
If you’d like to contribute, do let me know. Just leave a comment and I’ll be in touch. It’d be great to have some other perspectives and be able to get even more content. But, either way, I hope you enjoyed this article/lesson as much as I liked writing it. Until next time…
Shut up and play us a song!