Maurer, Prairie State, & Larson Brothers

RARE BIRD by George Gruhn
November 1984, Guitar Player

WHEN CONSIDERING fine acoustic steel-string pre-World War II American guitars, names such as Gibson, Martin, and Epiphone come immediately to mind. Each turned out thousands of instruments a year. In contrast to today, there were very few private makers whose work equalled the quality of the large companies. Two well-known private builders of exceptional instruments of that period were D'Angelico and Stromberg. Another distinguished name, though maybe not as well known, was the Larson brothers of Chicago.
Carl and August Larson were Swedish immigrants who went to work for the Robert Maurer Company just before the turn of the century. Maurer was a music teacher in Chicago who established the Maurer Instrument Company, but it is not known whether he actually built instruments himself. In 1901, August Larson took over the company as president, with himself and Carl as the only two employees. They kept the Maurer name, but built instruments under the names WLS, Dyer, Euphonon, Stahl, and Prairie State, as well. Their two-person shop produced an amazing number of instruments, although their total output was, of course, small in comparison to that of the big companies, so there are not many Larson brothers instruments available today. Most of these tend to turn up in the Chicago area.
To my knowledge, the Larsons made mandolin-family instruments and guitars almost exclusively, although they made some tiples, harp guitars for the Dyer company, and three prototype electrics custom-ordered by Les Paul in 1934. I have seen only one catalog of Maurer and Prairie State instruments, which dates from the early '30s, offering a line of mandolins and flat-top guitars as well as detailing several of the unique features of their construction. Larson guitars were among the earliest actually designed for steel strings.
The Larsons were quite innovative in design and construction, especially in bracing and reinforcement of their guitars. The larger top braces were often laminated for strength, and their Prairie State line had steel reinforcement tubes from the neck to the end block, as well as a "straining rod " that ran from the end block through the neck block and outside to wrap over the heel! They also built some of their student models with adjustable bridge saddles and necks so that the string height could be altered at will.
The guitar pictured here has no label, stamp, or brand to identify it as a Larson brothers instrument; however, the work of a fine craftsman is as distinctive as a signature. Standard-model Larson guitars characteristically have a serial number stamped in ink and the name brand burned into the center back brace, but their custom-order guitars weren't marked at all (which is extremely rare for a fine instrument).
This model is quite large for the time, but not for Larson. Their steel-strings came in a wide variety of sizes, measuring from less than 12" wide to over 20". This guitar is 16" wide, 4-5/8" deep, with a fingerboard 1-11 /16" wide at the nut, and a scale length of 25-1/2". It is very similar to the Euphonons the Larsons built in the late '30s and early '40s.
The top is spruce, and the back and sides are Brazilian rosewood. The neck is a two-piece mahogany laminate with rosewood/ spruce/ rosewood sandwiched in between for strength. (Larson guitars never did have truss-rod necks; during this period, Gibson had the patent and the only truss-rod necks.) The guitar has a thick ebony fingerboard and a flat pyramid-end ebony bridge, with a bone nut and saddle. While the tortoiseshell pickguard appears to be inlaid, as were many on Larson brothers instruments, careful inspection reveals that it is actually overlaid. (The edges have been carefully tapered and coordinated so as to appear inlaid.)
Typical of Larson designs, the top is X-braced, with the "X" and one of the upperbout braces being a three-ply laminate of spruce/rosewood/spruce. A second upperbout brace, the soundhole reinforcement braces, and the tone bars are solid spruce and all are carved to taper at the ends. The small bridgeplate is maple, and there are six back braces. The overall result is a very strong guitar that is still not too heavy.
The ornamentation is typical of Larson instruments. The headstock is solid (denoting a later model) with a flower pattern inlay of pearl and abalone. On the fingerboard, a combination of dot inlay and engraved fancy inlay is very characteristic of Larson guitars. The open-back tuners are nickel-plated with chrome buttons.
But the most significant design feature is obviously the extremely square and slightly asymmetric body shape. This shape most closely resembles the Euphonon guitars, but this is the squarest and strangest I have ever come across -- possibly the result of a custom design. The shoulders are not rounded at all, and even more bizarre is the fact that they are canted slightly forward from back to front. In other words, while the back of the guitar measures 19-1/ 4" long, the top is less than 19" -- 18-7/8" to the left of the fingerboard, and 18-15/16" to the right. So not only do the shoulders slope forward, but the left slopes more steeply than the right. In addition, the waist of the guitar is narrower across the top than across the back by 1/8".
Whether the slant of the shoulders is intentional, I don't know -- nor can I figure out why the body is so visibly asymmetric -- but nevertheless, the overall effect is a guitar that is beautiful, if slightly bizarre, in appearance, and great-sounding. The heavier, laminated bracing produces a sound quite different from other pre-War flat-tops -- a bluesy, twangy tone with lots of sustain. It is interesting to note that, fine as these guitars are, no modern builder has incorporated the Larson brothers' designs in contemporary instruments.
All Larson guitars were flat-tops, although some had f-holes instead of a round soundhole -- the top was not carved, just slightly bowed. I have seen only one cutaway model. The Maurer Company went out of business in 1944; Carl Larson died in 1946, August in '47. Robert Hartman, Carl Larson's grandson, is preparing a book entitled Guitars & Mandolins ln America, Featuring The Larsons' Creations. It will be published by the appropriately named Maurer Company (Box 94743, Shaumburg, IL 60194).