In the 1930s Hawaiian music was tops in popularity. The ukulele and lap-steel or Hawaiian guitar was everywhere. The very first electric guitars were built for Hawaiian style slide playing. All the big guitar companies, including Gibson of Kalamazoo Michigan, built several guitars specifically for slide playing both acoustic and electric. Most of the acoustic models were similar to Spanish guitars in their look but featured several significant structural differences. Gibson-made Hawaiian guitars have necks that join the body at the 12th fret instead of the 14th. The necks are wider and fatter and often do not have a truss rod. The internal bracing of the Hawaiian models is heavier allowing for the higher string tensions required for slide set-up. In the case of the Roy Smeck model the fingerboard has no frets, just simple cream lines to mark their position. The saddle of the Hawaiian guitars is straight across as their is no need to compensate for proper intonation. The nut and saddle height is about twice the height of a Spanish guitar as well.
Roy Smeck was a popular Vaudeville entertainer skilled on banjo, uke, guitar, and slide guitar earned him the nickname "Wizard of the Strings." He played guitar behind his head long before Jimi Hendrix. His name was used to sell many instruments made by the Harmony company of Chicago (check out the Roy Smeck Professional on our site). Gibson got in on the marketing action in 1934 by introducing two artist guitars, the Roy Smeck Stage De Luxe and the Roy Smeck Radio Grande. The Stage DeLuxe featured Honduran mahogany back and sides, spruce top, rosewood fingerboard, and a sunburst finish for a price of $50. The Radio Grande was the same dimensions and construction with rosewood back and sides, fancy "Nick Lucas" inlays, and a natural finish for a hefty sum of $100. Today there is a cult following for converted Hawaiian guitars and they are popular among professionals such as Jackson Browne and Norman Blake. More Hawaiian guitars seem to turn up in better condition due to the lack of interest in slide playing over the past seventy years. Many of these sat untouched for years as a result. This particular instrument is in exceptional condition, crack free and all original.
For the conversion of the 1935 Stage DeLuxe, the first step is to remove the neck. To make this guitar playable we need to tip the neck back at a steeper angle. In order to aid in loosening the fingerboard-end we let a damp rag sit on it overnight. To loosen the fingerboard Tom prefers a a heavy antique iron. Using a pastry spatula he carefully works with the grain of the wood to get the fingerboard loose. Paying attention to the run-out of the grain is crucial to avoid excess tear out in this stage.
Next a small hole is drilled through the fingerboard and into the dovetail joint. To steam of the neck, Tom uses a modified espresso machine rigged with a hose and a large needle. Steam is injected into the neck joint and slowly the old hide glue is softened. It takes several minutes and a great deal of patience and feel to work the neck loose.
There is no substitue for experience when it comes to removing a neck. There are many ways to permanently damage the guitar during this brute but delicate step. After minutes of steaming and working the neck joint finally gives up and the neck pops free from the body. The care that we take to remove the neck yields a perfect separation with no chips, cracks or tear-out.
Stay tuned for the next step of the conversion. We will post updates as we do the work.