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Review: From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen, History and Development of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar by George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most

Review: From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen, History and Development of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar by George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most

Reviewed by Jonathon Peterson

Originally published in American Lutherie #62, 2000 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013



From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen, History and Development of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar
George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most
Noe Enterprises, 1999
ISBN 978-0967483306

The first time I ever saw a harp guitar, I was smitten. It was made by a man named Chris Knutsen in the early 1900s in my hometown, Tacoma, Washington. I was so infatuated and curious that, when I began branching out from guitar repair into guitar-building-and-repair journalism, I did some research and wrote a couple of articles about harp guitars (American Lutherie #29 and #34; and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three). At the time I was doing that research, I was still very active as a repairman, and one day a guy walks into my shop with a Viennese-looking harp guitar with six sub-bass strings. His name was Dan Most, and he shared my fascination. In fact, he had the bug worse than I did. The culmination of his interest is this book, which he co-wrote with George Noe.

These guys did their homework. Dan has told me that their basic approach was to disregard conventional attitudes and rumors about these instruments and their maker, and look for hard evidence so that they could reach their own conclusions. Their investigation took more than six years. In the book’s preface the authors write, “We have spent countless hours in libraries, museums, the National Archives, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and visiting all of the addresses known to us as Knutsen’s. We have immersed ourselves in immigration records, census records, city directories, books, magazines, and newspapers. As we progressed, each new clue resulted in facts falling into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, permitting us to reconstruct the events of Knutsen’s life in the 20th century.” George Noe’s background is as a patent attorney, so researching public records for evidence of the history of design development is right up his alley. Dan is a luthier and collector of Knutsen instruments, with lots of experience in their repair and restoration.

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In Memoriam: Hammond Ashley

In Memoriam: Hammond Ashley

Passed on May 1, 1993

by Dave Wilson, Peggy Warren, and Jonathon Peterson

Originally published in American Lutherie #34, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

Hammond Ashley died on May 1, 1993 at the age of 91. We have lost an advocate for fine music and fine musical instrument making, and a good friend. Music was always an important part of Ham’s life. He played banjo in a dance band while studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Later, when working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Europe, he bought a bass and began learning to play. Years later, while working in Seattle as an engineer for Boeing, he played bass with the Highline Symphony, a group he helped to found. At the age of 80, Ham’s hearing deteriorated so he couldn’t hear directions from the conductor, so he took up the cello, which can be played without a conductor in smaller groups.

He had a woodworking background, too. Ham had his own cabinet shop 1928 and specialized in custom antique furniture reproductions and fine interior woodwork. His clients included Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, Jerome Kern, and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein.

After the Christmas 1963 layoffs at Boeing, Ham planned on having an active retirement. With a background in engineering, woodworking, and music, lutherie seemed a natural choice. He set up shop under the airport’s landing approach and worked on a little of everything — organs, pianos, and even furniture. But the second floor was devoted to lutherie. He ended up having a whole new 30 year career.

His lively interest in advancing the science of sounds led him to explore both the old and the new. Making, restoring, and repairing included experiences with many varieties of stringed instruments including gamba, bass, cello, viola, violin, the eight members of the “new family” of violins, rebec, sitar, sarod, crwth, and harp. But his specialty was the violin family, particularly basses. He worked with Carleen Hutchins of the Catgut Acoustical Society, and was an active member of the GAL.

Dozens of people worked for and with him over almost 30 years. Ham set the pace. You might see him elbow-deep in papers at his desk, or working with the plates and winding up with glitter all over his face, or all bent over, with curled up hands, carving a scroll, varnishing a bass, or talking with customers, many of whom became friends. At age 90 he cut his hours down by taking more than an hour for lunch, and so putting in less than 44 hours a week.

Ham made music by playing, by his craftsmanship, and by making instruments usable and available to others. Joyful noises came from the house over the years as Ham had fun making music with others.

Ham knew what he liked, and generously helped himself, as he in other ways helped others. Friends were invited to stay to lunch or overnight on the spur of the moment. He treated others as he’d like to be treated, giving them the freedom to be themselves. When asked if something was all right with him, he’d say something like,“Whatever works for you,” or, “Don’t undervalue yourself or your work, or others won’t appreciate what you do for them.”

Ham was well educated, interested in a wide variety of subjects, and had a wide variety of friends. He was a woodworker, a builder, a storyteller, a figure-it-out scientific kind of person, a thinker who worked with his hands, a courteous, determined, matter-of-fact, down-to-earth gentleman. He was greatly loved, and he will be missed. Hammond Ashley Associates, Inc. will continue under the guidance of Dave Wilson and Paul Hammond Ashley, his grandson.

— Dave Wilson and Peggy Warren

Photo by Michael Darnton.

Ham called the Guild office a few weeks ago to let us know he was dying, and to say goodbye and thanks for everything. I asked him how he was feeling about it, and he said he was tired, that he was ready. He said he missed his wife. They were married for 63 years. She died in 1991. He said there was to be a party at his house. He was so matter-of-fact.

I went up there with my wife, Ruth. He was sitting in a wheel chair, looking very content. There were kids running around, and co-workers, family and friends eating and talking, having a good time. Not a tear in the house.

Ham and I talked. It was like every other conversation we had ever had. He had such grace and dignity, such honesty. We shook hands, and said goodbye.

I learned a lot from Ham, almost none of it about stringed instruments. What a man! I loved the guy.

—  Jonathon Peterson

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In Memoriam: Robert Lundberg

In Memoriam: Robert Lundberg

June 25, 1948 – March 3, 2001

by Jean Gilman, Lora Lundberg Schultz, Dorothy Bones, Ben Lundberg, Michael Yeats, Günter Mark, Cyndy Burton, Jeffrey R. Elliott, and Jonathon Peterson

Originally published in American Lutherie #66, 2001 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013

Rushing to Explore Life

by Jean Gilman, Bob’s mother

 

From the time he was young, Bob was rushing to explore life. He wanted to learn everything and do everything. When he was nine, we moved to the country. He immediately climbed into the rafters of the old barn and caught a beautiful barn owl, which he brought down for us all to admire before he let it go. He climbed up the silo and caught two bats which he kept in the refrigerator for several weeks so they would go into hibernation. He leaped from roof to roof of the outbuildings. He seemed fearless.

Our rural community had an annual Corn and Potato Festival to celebrate the harvest. There were competitions for the children — catch a chicken, sack races, climb a greased pole. They announced a competition for boys to pick up a single bale of hay with a skip loader and return to the starting point. Bob decided to enter. He had used a skip loader a few times, but was competing against farm boys who used them every day. He won by fifteen or twenty seconds. I asked him how he did that. He had watched our neighbor boy Harry picking up hay and thought if he had used a combination of scoop-and-tilt action he could load it faster. This competition gave him a chance to test his theory, to the chagrin of the farm boys.

Baby Bob and Mom. Photo courtesy of Jean Gilman.

Bob attended Summerhill and returned knowing how to cook, make wine, pick locks. He also had an English boy’s long haircut. The principal at school told him to get his hair cut or be suspended. Bob dug in his heels and refused. A battle ensued. Faced with a lawsuit, the principal withdrew his objection to Bob’s long hair. Without saying anything to us, Bob got a haircut the next week.

He worked at his father’s veterinary clinic to earn money for hobbies. He learned to sky dive, scuba dive, sail, pilot a plane, fix cars, race dirt bikes. He studied Eastern religions, and memorized Eliot’s The Waste Land to audition at Pasadena Playhouse.

Bob told me that what made his life good were two mentors: Ted Bergeson, his high school art teacher, and the Rev. Walton Cole, his minister at the Unitarian Church in Pomona.

Probably His First Apprentice

by Lora Lundberg Schultz, Bob’s youngest sister

 

Tagging along after my older brother was my favorite thing to do. Whether I was watching him scale the inside of our silo to pluck a sleeping bat from the top or fashion a plaster mold of his own hands in wet sand, I was always mesmerized and quickly learned the art of silence in the presence of a Master. I was probably his first apprentice!

The Lundberg kids: Bob (10), and Anne (7) are behind Lora (4), and Tommy (2). Brother Ben was either new or not yet born. Photo courtesy of Lora Lundberg Schultz.

Bob had secret places, high in the towering eucalyptus trees and hidden deep under the lively activity of our house, all inaccessible to me, as unreachable as he always was. His “laboratory” was in that storm cellar, and I still remember the day my thin arms could finally lift the storm door, that heavy and wide barrier, without him! I descended the cement steps into the shadows with trepidation, not so much out of fear of being caught, but more of what I might find in that dim and dusty place where my brother spent so many tireless hours... some chemicals, a crystal radio he had built, and odd tools lying on his workbench. The bats were later found hanging upside down from a wire shelf in my mother’s refrigerator, their tiny eyes squeezed shut in a Bob-induced hibernation.

When Bob was older, he went to a school called Summer­hill, in England, and he returned home on the cusp of Britishmania, propelled by the music of our generation. He had long hair, a British accent, and a love of ground pepper and of tea. All of the high school girls were instantly in love. I remember a carload of girls passing Bob and me in his sporty, black Fiat Abarth, with their horn blaring, heads out the windows, long hair streaming, “We love you, Bob!” He turned and looked at me with a satisfied smile and said, “Someday this will happen to you, too.”

Because It Was There

by Dorothy Bones, Bob’s childhood friend

 

Bob Lundberg and I were best friends, as well as cousins. We were always in trouble when he would come to visit. Mostly, we rode horses — raced one another and anyone else — on the sandy flats or up the steep hills to overlook the vastness of the high desert where I lived. We were, of course, always admonished to avoid playing around “the dam” — a mighty cement reservoir span ’cross the steepest gorge — and so we decided one day, at age six or seven, to ride the six miles up the wash to the dam. Arriving in the hot afternoon, we tied the horses and slid down the sides on our rumps, until our feet hit the solid curve of the dry spillway. We ran across it, climbed the rusting iron-bar steps to the adjacent upper level, and hollered for joy as we attained the middle. On one side, the little pond that flash floods and winter storms often would fill to the top; on the other, a 200-ft. drop to the wash. The wind blew our laughter down the canyon, and we felt like Sir Edmund Hillary must have, and for the same reason — we climbed it because it was there! Bob’s daring eyes and smile askance tempted us to do most everything my parents ever forbade, but, of course it was always his fault! I miss him in my life.

The Truck

by Ben Lundberg, Bob’s youngest brother

 

My brother Bob was ten years my senior and was in a world far removed from my own. Sometimes, if I was lucky, Bob and our cousin Eddy would take Tommy and me out on their dirt bikes to play hide-and-seek in the corn fields by moonlight. Those dark night rides with corn leaves slashing at my bare arms and legs, the wind whipping against my face, and the screaming engines are still vivid in my memory.

I was three when he rebuilt his first vehicle, a 1938 flatbed Chevy truck. Bob had been driving farm vehicles since he was ten, for haying and hauling, weeding, and taking salt blocks around the pasture. He was tired of riding the bus, so he talked our Mom and Dad into letting him buy the truck for $25 from the farmer down the road. They never thought he would get it working. After all, it had been rusting away in the field for who knows how long. However, a few weeks later he had it up and running. My parents were surprised, but figured if he could get it to work, and pay for gas, he was capable of driving safely. I love this story, because it sums up the way Bob went about things. He didn’t mess around. He got things done.

Continuing Resonance

by Michael Yeats

 

I’ve met few people in my life who could wear the word “brilliant,” and Robert Lundberg could. In addition to being one of the greatest instrument makers I’ve had the pleasure to know, he was also a good friend. Through analysis, wit, and humor, days in and out of the shop became days well spent.

Personally, I owe my place in our community to Robert Lundberg; I began building instruments with Bob in 1975, and although I didn’t continue making lutes, the years I spent with Bob gave me a foundation not just in training and teaching, but in a broader view, they established an approach to and basic conceptualization of problem solving. My level of success as a bow maker in New York City is a direct result of Bob’s influence twenty-six years ago on a naïve kid from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, and our friendship begun then is one of my most cherished possessions.

Robert Lundberg was one of a few exceptional people promoting a free exchange of knowledge, out of a desire for us all to achieve the highest standards of work. The current high level of American instrument making exists today partly due to the influence of Robert Lundberg’s generosity. His quest for knowledge and command of it is as great a legacy as the number of fine instruments he’s created.

As a true Renaissance person, his passion touches not only our community of instrument makers, but all the other communities he was involved in. If you’ve ever lost a close friend or loved one, you know how their being continues to resonate in your life consciously and unconsciously, and, like the proverbial drop of water in the pond, Bob’s presence and influence continues outwardly, not only to the people who knew him personally, but through them to others who never had the opportunity to know him, and on.

He will be deeply and profoundly missed, but I know Robert Lundberg will always be present in the deeds we do and the accomplishments we all achieve.

Teaching a Generation

by Günter Mark

 

When I first met Bob, at the 1979 lute-making course in Erlangen, he had to argue with some instrument makers who doubted almost everything he said about lutes. Lute makers then were trained in 20th-century lute making with thick tops, single strings, guitar-like sound, and they claimed tradition on their side. But tradition in real lute making was interrupted during the 18th century, and it was makers like Bob who started a new tradition in going back to the roots. Bob was one of the foremost experts in this field, having seen and measured nearly all of the extant lutes. He read through all sorts of stuff related to lutes and instrument making in general, and discussed his findings with other makers and players. Through his lute building courses in Erlangen, he taught a whole generation of lute makers in Germany.

And what was different to German luthiers: Bob did not have “secrets.” He shared all of his notes, his experiences, and his thoughts with us. I learned from him that not a certain trick will make a good instrument, but that it is the result of your own ability, attitude, and knowledge.

Bob and his first wife, Ellen, in Europe during a summer of lute research in 1971. Here they are in Nuremberg. Photo courtesy of Ellen Leatham.

When he showed us things, it all looked so easy. I know now that he was the most skilled woodworker I ever met. It was his perfectly controlled balance of power and delicacy that I always admired, and I remember strongly his attitude of, “just do it, don’t fuzz around!”

When I worked with Bob in Portland in 1982 and 1983, I was in apprentice’s heaven. His knowledge, his openness, and his flawless technique were almost intimidating, but also very inspiring. He let me study his big black book with the photographs and measurements of all these lutes in European and American museums. I read through the various treatises and articles about lute making, violin making, wood treatment, toolmaking, varnishing — it was all there. Bob had a broad knowledge of instrument making, lutes only being a small part of it.

Why make it right if you can spoil it — one of his ironic comments. Why do it in time if you can have stress up to the last minute — my answer. We had a good time, and I left as a friend. Wish I could see him back.

Giving Everything

by Cyndy Burton and Jeffrey R. Elliott

 

Anyone who knew Bob appreciated how he loved teaching and sharing his knowledge. We were very fortunate to be within range both by being part of the GAL and by living in Portland. He wasn’t easy to reach; he often didn’t return calls. But when he was present, he was completely with you and willing to give everything he had. A recent memory: Bob came to consult on a very old guitar that was here for restoration. The back was off, revealing the history of many repairs, both competent and not. Interpreting a black light’s glowing reflection on the many trails of hide glue was the key to the story. Bob was like a precocious child with a jigsaw puzzle. Very slight differences in shading taken with other painstaking observations revealed “the truth.” The reasoning required to unravel this complex puzzle might appear convoluted to anyone other than a forensic scientist. As we pondered the instrument, he inspired a growing confidence that stayed with us through the rest of the project. We treasure many other similar memories of our far-too-short time together.

Excellence

by Jonathon Peterson

 

In the late ’70s, after a glorious stab at being a professional ballet dancer had failed in the make-a-living department, I decided to be “realistic” and become a guitar repairman. I fixed factory-made guitars, cheap violins and cellos, mandolins, electric basses, the odd double-neck or harp guitar, and the like. I was doing good work, but other than factory standards, I really had very few examples of fine workmanship against which to judge my efforts.

Then, while attending one of the first handmade musical instrument shows in Portland, Oregon, I saw, on an unattended table, something which ultimately changed my life: a snakewood, ebony, and ivory Baroque archlute. I was awestruck. Speechless. It was so clean, so tight, so directed, so authentic, so ultimately human, and, in a way, so out of place and time. I possessed no historical context, no art or craft context with which to understand this thing. Who did this? How did they do it? Why did they do it? I tried to conjure up some plausible reason for showing up at the builder’s door. (Gee mister, I saw your really cool thing at the show. What was it? How do you do that?) I didn’t even know the right questions to ask. I found out that the builder was Robert Lundberg, and that is all that I knew about him for several years.

14-course Baroque archlute, 1990. These three photos courtesy of Linda Toenniessen.

Most of what I know about Bob’s life before I met him I learned at his memorial service. He seems to have devoured his youth in big bites. He outgrew high school, dropped out, and went to study engineering at community college instead. He worked for a while in a fabrication shop building race cars. He souped up and raced his own ’40s Chevy with a modified GMC straight-6. Bob told me that guys would show up at the track with their small-block V-8s thinking they were hot stuff (not the word he used), and he would blow their doors off — then he smirked, obviously still enjoying the thought. He attempted a solo flight across the country when he was just in his teens, but ran into a storm and had to be talked in by a flight instructor. He was a boat builder. And then he got interested in lutes.

Finding very little published material with any depth on the subject, Bob spent a good deal of time and energy early in his lutherie career combing through most of the major museums and collections in Europe and America, attempting to discover how and why the lute builders of old did what they did. On one six-month trip to Europe, he measured, photographed and/or documented about 140 different instruments.

Bob studied violin building with Paul Schuback in Portland, Oregon, and lute construction with Jacob van de Geest in Europe; did conservation and restoration work for the Smithsonian and other museums; and read seemingly everything related to the subject. He could have been just a scholar, or just a conservator, or concentrated his substantial talent solely on instrument building, and he would have been at the top of any of these fields, but he did all of these things and more. His energy, his work ethic, his creativity, and the depth and breadth of his skill, knowledge, and experience were remarkable, to say the least. He was the most accomplished artisan I have ever met.

This photo is from a January 8, 1972, Oregonian newspaper article about Paul Schuback and his shop. The caption reads, “ROMANTIC — Modern reproduction of small tenor lute, Renaissance instrument of 13 strings, has mellow, bell-like tone. Apprentice Bob Lundberg hopes to craft these amorous instruments. Staff photo by Wes Guderian.” Photo courtesy of Paul Schuback.

In 1978 he began teaching an annual seminar on historical lute construction in Erlangen, Germany. Sometime in the mid-’80s Bob and Tim agreed to collaborate on a print version of his course for American Lutherie. His historical lectures were reworked and published, then Tim put a camera in my hands and asked if I would like to go and take some pictures of Bob building lutes. Would I ever! To finally have a chance to be in his shop and watch him work! Besides parenthood, it was the funnest and most interesting job I’ve ever had. Over a period of five years we spent dozens of hours photographing his building procedures. It was amazing the amount of work he could accomplish over the course of a couple of days. He never seemed hurried. I never saw a misplaced chisel, knife, or saw cut. He didn’t fuss. You simply do this, and then you do this. “That’s good enough,” he’d say. Good enough, indeed! He was so organized. It all looked so easy. It was all so excellent.

Bob was fun to be around, and I always learned new things. We talked about instruments, cooking, art, cars, plants, woods, finishes, family, religion, metaphysics, and much more. He was intensely interested in everything he did. I never asked him a question on any subject that he didn’t have something interesting to say or a useful direction in which to point me, and he always had questions for me. What started as a working relationship changed to friendship and love over a period of time.

Bob helped me with lots of projects. For instance, last summer I was trying to develop a print version of Paul Schuback’s 1995 GAL Convention violin-making workshop (“An American in Mirecourt,”), but was having difficulties with the tape recordings. Many audience questions were inaudible, and the answers would often be something like, “Hold your tool like this, and cut this way, going from here to here...” I wanted to hand Paul a readable document to work on. Bob had spent a year and a half working in Paul’s shop in the early ’70s, so after doing the best I could, I asked Bob for help. He said sure, and I made the drive. He made breakfast for us, and then took about an hour to go through the transcript with me. After months of struggling, it suddenly all made sense.

Paul had given me the notes he had made as a teenage apprentice on the sequence of procedures for making a violin, and I thought that they would make a nice addition, but wasn’t having any more luck with Paul’s notes than I’d had with the transcription. I asked Bob if he could help me make sense of them, and he thought for a minute, looked at the ceiling and said, “Hmm, well first you make the form...” and he proceeded to list and explain Paul’s building procedures from beginning to end, off the top of his head. I later rewrote my notes, sent them to Paul, and he approved the seventy-five-item list with just two minor clarifications. Bob had not worked in a violin shop or made a violin for almost thirty years! But the really amazing thing is that he could just as easily and accurately have been talking about construction procedures for any of a number of other instruments, or some aspect of their historical development, of restoration protocol and procedures, of varnish making or French polishing, or peg making, or tool design and construction, or details of instrument collections throughout Europe and America, or marquetry, or of welding, or fiberglassing, or engine building, or woods, or Pacific Northwest Impressionist painters — the list goes on and on. He had an incredibly organized mind, a thirst for knowledge, and he loved to work.

Robert Lundberg with a newly finished lute in July 1993. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.

I found out about his cancer through the grapevine and got upset with him for not telling me. He was a private guy, and this wasn’t the first incident. He fought like hell, again and again. We talked about life and death. He said he felt good about his life, and about the family and work that he would be leaving behind, whenever that might happen. About death, he said he felt a little fear, but that he was curious. He was always curious. The end was hard — a second, nastier form of cancer required a very serious operation, and he was starting to get better, but all of a sudden it was over.

When I think of the quality and quantity of work he accomplished in his too-short lifetime — of his level of craftsmanship, of his very conscious focus on using work as a path towards self-realization, of the depth and breadth of knowledge he accumulated in the wide range of subjects in which he had interests, of the unblinking way in which he faced death, and of his strength and determination to not give in to it — I am left with the same awestruck, dumbfounded feeling I had when I first viewed that archlute, and with a pain and inspiration in my heart which I will carry for the rest of my life.

Two Lundberg lutes which were displayed in “The Harmonious Craft,” a juried show of instruments by some of the best American musical instrument makers, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute, in 1978–1979. Left, a 10-course Renaissance lute after Michielle Harton, 1976. Right, an 11-course lute after Magno Dieffopruchar, built in 1974. Photo courtesy of Linda Toenniessen.
Planing a spruce soundboard in his home shop, 1989. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.

Shortly after Bob’s memorial service I went to visit his wife, Linda, and his daughters, Tabitha and Branwyn. Linda and I went into Bob’s shop, where he and I had spent most of the time we had together. There were the familiar workbenches, the tools in their racks on the walls, and instruments in various stages of completion — projects he couldn’t finish. There were also stacks of boxes and tubes containing drawings, wood and other vestiges of his work, things that he had been reorganizing when he had the energy — the evidence of his reevaluation of time and work, and of his efforts to make things easier for his family should the worst happen. As Linda and I stood there hugging each other, she pointed out some of the personal notes which he had tacked up on his walls, the way most of us do, to remind us of our better intentions. Many of these had been up for years, but I had never taken much notice. The one Linda said was her favorite was a single typewritten line on a small slip of paper taped to the front of a cabinet. It said, “We all have to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.” Bob had amended the first words, with a pen, so that it read, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

I think of Bob every day, of how he enjoyed and used his life, of how intensely he wanted to live and work, and I think of that scrap of paper. Perhaps time will dim these memories and the heightened awareness that they engender of the gifts of life and of the preciousness of our time here on earth. I pray that it will not.