Lloyd Loar’s contributions to string musical instruments ranks among other musical geniuses such as Antonius Stradivari, Orville Gibson, Leo Fender, and Christian F. Martin. The legacy of their craft and the contributions they made exceed the merits perceived in their time, and they established the criteria by which all string musical instruments are measured today. But one might suggest that Loar was just a cut above the rest. His approach to the science of music (to which his patents attest) and the acoustical properties of the instruments he created, bear no equal. He was one of the earliest pioneers to amplify instruments electrically, and in his search for excellence, he created a keyboard instrument that would never go out of tune. (When I uncrated one of Loar’s personal instruments 50 years after he packed it for storage, it was still in perfect pitch – every note!) Possibly even more important is that this was an electric keyboard whose design was decades ahead of its time.
What further separated Loar from the rest is that he was a musician – not a luthier – with an overwhelming interest in instrument construction, a rich understanding of musical acoustics, and the knowledge to design instruments that produce elegant tone.
The Early Years and Education
Lloyd Allayre Loar was born on January 9, 1886 in Cropsey, Illinois, a tiny farming town about 120 miles southwest of Chicago. A town small enough that there are no signs that say “Welcome to Cropsey” when you enter from either side on the main road. (The current population is about 200.) Lloyd was the son of George F. Loar (1858-1953) and Clara Moore Green Loar (1860-1929) who were married on November 24, 1884. Lloyd, the oldest of three children, had a brother Raymond (born July 10, 1888 and died in 1905 at the age of 17), and sister Madelon (born April 21, 1900 and died in 1940). Like Lloyd, Madelon was interested in music, and both she and Lloyd were influenced by their father. Madelon married banker Cress. V. Groat on September 12, 1931, but little is known of the Groat family other than they lived in Peoria, Illinois.
Lloyd’s father, George, was born near Waynesburg, Pennsylvania and moved to Fairbury, Illinois, another small farming town nine miles north of Cropsey when he was nine years old. Lloyd’s mother, Clara, was born in Vinton, Iowa. George was the postmaster of Cropsey; a job which left him with sufficient time to be a partner in Loar and Hayward, druggists. Around 1889, George sold his interest in the drug store, and he and Clara moved their family to nearby Lewiston where he dabbled in real estate in Gibson City (a coincidence, but no relation to the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Limited that Lloyd was to work for years later), operated a sanitarium in Peoria, and re-entered the drug store business in Lewiston. Lewiston was to be their final home, and George, Clara, and son Raymond are laid to rest in the cemetery in Lewiston. George and Clara were members of the Presbyterian Church in Lewiston, and George was a member of the K. and F. Lodge. It appears that Lloyd had a excellent role model; his father was also a teacher, a proactive innovator who developed many drug remedies, and a talented musician who, as the family records say, “could play almost anything.”
Some members of the Loar family in 1897. Back row (L to R): Clara Loar, George Loar, Emma Loar Gaddis. Center row (L to R): Raymond Loar, Lloyd Loar. Front row (L to R): David Loar, Thomas Loar, Laura Loar. Lloyd was 11 when this photo was taken. Sister Madelon was born three years later.
Lloyd attended Lewiston High School from 1899 to 1903 and showed special interest in physics and geometry, in which he likewise received good grades. While in high school, Lloyd began performing in local music programs. At age 18, he entered the Oberlin Conservatory (Ohio) to study harmony, orchestration, canon, counterpoint, fugue, music theory, and piano. By 1906, when Lloyd was just 20 years of age, he was performing skillfully and professionally on Gibson mandolins in both solo and concert settings, and he was equally proficient on piano, violin, viola, and mandola. He was the leader of the Oberlin Mandolin Club for two years, and from 1906 to 1910 he performed in concert under the management of the Chicago Musical Bureau
In 1918, when he was in Europe to work as a concert entertainer for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in support of the war effort, Loar studied under Monsieur Paul Vidal, Professor of Composition at the National Conservatory of Music (Paris), and he attended the National Institute of Radio Engineering in Paris. Lloyd continued his education at the Chicago Musical College in the second and third ten-week sessions of the 1919-1920 school year studying Harmony with Louis Victor Saar, and composition with Felix Borowski (then president of the Chicago Musical College). And, in 1921 Lloyd received his Master of Music diploma in Theory and Counterpoint from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. That same year Lloyd Loar won first prize in a contest for American composers staged by the National Federation of Music Clubs. He was a member of the Acoustical Society of America, a patron of Delta Omieron National Music Fraternity, a member of the Masonic Order, and was active in Kiwanis International.
In 1906, at 20 years of age, Loar was performing professionally with an unusual Gibson three-point F2 mandolin that had no lower body point. During this period he was a member of the Fisher Shipp Concert Company whose members included Loar, Fisher Shipp, Etta Goode Heacock, and Louis G. Karnes.
Entering the business of music
Loar’s interest in physics and music came together in the early 1900s when he made his first mandolin. (While various documents suggest that he built this instrument, there is no factual data available regarding the instrument’s design, features or whereabouts.) He later purchased a Gibson F2 three-point oval-hole mandolin from Gibson that he used in many of his performances. The instruments Loar played were always different in some way. His three-point mandolin had no lower body point and boasted an unusual fretboard guard that provided similar functionality to a scalloped fretboard. (See Loar’s Contributions.)
In 1906, Loar met a female singer named (Sally) Fisher Shipp (1878-1954), the leader of the well-known Fisher Shipp Concert Company, and he was invited to join her ensemble. They performed on numerous concert tours, occasionally billing themselves as the “Gibsonians” (a name used by small touring musical groups organized and sponsored by Gibson to promote Gibson products). Various photos of their ensemble show Lloyd with a wide array of Gibson instruments, including an unusual 10-string pear-shaped mando-viola with
f-holes and a Virzi Tone Producer.
Lloyd’s and Fisher’s relationship blossomed and they were married on May 21, 1916; a marriage that lasted only eight years and they had no children.
Loar’s personal and professional relationship with Fisher Shipp was blossoming, leading to their marriage in 1916. Even when Loar was promoting the “Gibson Orchestra,” Shipp was included as the vocalist. Here Loar (second from right, front) is performing on an F4.
The year 1911 marked the time that Loar began his official relationship with The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. of Kalamazoo, Michigan as a performing artist, a participant in many Gibson traveling “Gibsonians” bands, an advisor, and a music composer. By 1913, Gibson was publishing some musical arrangements that Loar had prepared for the company. Loar had ideas to improve Gibson’s mandolin construction, and it wasn’t long before Loar presented himself as a candidate for employment to Lewis Williams, one of Gibson’s original investors and stockholders.
The Fisher Shipp Concert Company, ca. 1925. Here the ensemble featured Loar (L), Dorothy Crane, Fisher Shipp (standing), James H. Johnstone, Nell VerCies, and Lucille Campbell (Nell is holding Loar’s 10-string mando-viola).
By 1914, Loar was engaged as concert master for Gibson’s various ensembles, writing and arranging much of the music they performed (see Loar’s Music). His assignment was to ensure that the demonstration of Gibson’s instruments by the various traveling groups would entice audiences with the best of Gibson’s voicing, elaboration of musical content, and, of course, the intricacy of the ensemble’s performance. Loar arranged more than 35 pieces of popular classical music that included the integration of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th mandolin and/or banjo (tenor and plectrum).
Fisher Shipp Concert Co. banjo ensemble, from left: Crane, Shipp, Loar, Johnstone, Campbell, VerCies. (Loar is playing an MB5 mandolin-banjo and Nell VerCies has Loar’s TB5. See “Loar’s Instruments”
Loar also began his fame as a musical instrument developer while working for Gibson. Although there is little question that Orville Gibson himself was the seed for the 100+ years of great instruments that have grown from his creativity, Orville’s ideas were further cultivated by numerous loyal Gibson employees who followed after Orville’s departure from the company in 1918. The list of these contributors is too long to include here, but one name stands out from all the rest: a young man named Lloyd Loar.
In early 1918 (two years after Orville Gibson left the company he founded to move back to Franklin County in upper New York State), Loar received a contract assignment at Gibson as acoustical engineer and also became responsible for various business management functions. However, the impact of World War I and the potential of studying music in Europe motivated him to sign a one-year contract with the AEF to be a “concert entertainer” for the troops in Europe during WWI. Thus, he answered the call to General Pershing’s request for businessmen and entertainers to support the war effort in Europe. Loar had a Red Workers Permit (RWP) – a form of passport issued to all non-military personnel going to Europe during WWI – that he obtained through the Y.M.C.A. He left the United States on November 1, 1918, arrived in France on November 8, and reported for duty on November 9. But before Loar could rosin up his bow and perform for the troops, the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 and the War was over – Loar’s work there was done before it even began. After six months into his AEF contract, Loar was able obtain a discharge. In his Red Cross records, his Reason for Leaving is entered as “illness – honorable discharge” and under Plans for Return it is entered that he was “undecided, probably returns to former work, concert musician.”
This is the photo used on Loar’s Red Workers Permit, a form of passport that was issued by the Y.M.C.A.
Since the war was over and his services were no longer needed in Europe, Loar took advantage of his time there to study with Paul Vidal at the National Conservatory of Music and attend the National Institute of Radio Engineering, both in Paris. He stayed in Europe two months after his discharge and upon his return to the States in June of 1919, Lloyd went back to Gibson as a contractor working as credit manager, design consultant, and again as acoustical engineer.
His most obvious contributions to Gibson were the design and development of the “Master Model” instruments: the H5 “Master Model” mandola, F5 “Master Model” mandolin, K5 “Master Model” mando-cello, L5 “Master Model” guitar, and “Master Tone” (later to become “Mastertone”) banjos. While it is uncertain whether the product names actually were derived from his nickname, or vice versa, to his peers at Gibson and to the music industry at large, he was known as “Master Loar.”
When Loar was working in Kalamazoo, he lived in this 2-story home at 315 Woodward.
Loar’s arrangement as a contractor with Gibson was that he would have July and August free each year to perform concert tours. As an outcome, today we find very few “Master Model” instruments that were signed and dated by him in late July or during the month of August. Further, since there were no hand-tuning properties that could then be attributed to the banjo body, none of the Mastertone banjo models bore a Lloyd Loar “tuned by” signature label.
Loar’s involvement at Gibson went beyond being acoustical engineer and instrument designer. Here he participates as musicologist in a 1924 sales agent meeting (standing in back of room, center, to right of blackboard). Note the music notation on blackboard; most probably depicting the range of Gibson’s instrument line.
Comparing Loar’s employment, performance schedules, educational history, and the dating of his signature labels in Gibson instruments, the dates seem to suggest that he was away from the plant about as much as he was there, at least during the very early 1920s.
Loar’s first 10-string Gibson-made mando-viola had a pear-shaped body and featured an oval soundhole. The instrument was similar to the size and construction of the H2 mandolas of the period.
About 1920, Lloyd had Gibson construct a custom pear-shaped mando-viola with an oval soundhole and features that were similar to the H2′s of the period. It was a unique instrument that united the qualities of the mandolin and viola: a “mando-viola” boasting five courses (two strings each) that he tuned Eb, C, F, Bb, and Eb (treble to bass).
This photo of Loar was published in many of Gibson’s early catalogs and entitled “R&D Department.” It shows Lloyd with his 10-string mando-viola (shown below), at the Gibson factory on 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, MI, ca.1924. From careful investigation of the building, it appears this photo was taken on the ground floor, along the western wall. Loar was about 38 years of age at the time this photo was taken. Click here for a close-up view of Loar’s workbench.
Several years later, as the features of the F5 mandolin and H5 mandola were taking shape, Loar had a second custom mando-viola constructed. This second instrument also featured a pear-shaped body but also took advantage of the new features of the Master Model instruments: f-holes, properly graduated soundboard and backboard, longitudinal tone bars, tap tuned body, and elevated fretboard extension. And, this second mando-viola included a Virzi Tone Producer. Loar’s mando-viola with f-holes is seen in the photo of Lloyd in the “R&D Lab,” a photo that found its way into many of Gibson’s early catalogs. This instrument, including Loar’s musical saw (hanging on the back wall behind him in this photo) and electric viola, were fitted in a single case, and was in my private collection for 15 years. (If you are interested in hearing the mando-viola, I loaned it to David Grisman for use in the “Wayfaring Stranger” cut on his album entitled Dawg Grass that was released in January, 1982.)
Loar’s 10-string mando-viola, electric viola, and musical saw were kept in one carrying case.
Loar was highly motivated by the work of the great violin makers and sought to include their features in the development of his fretted instruments. And, it was these features that made Loar’s fretted instruments outstanding. These included: fully graduated soundboards and backboards, a minimum-thickness area (today referred to as a “recurve”) around the entire soundboard, longitudinal tone bars, tap tuned body, f-holes, longer necks (i.e., access to a greater playable range of the fretboard) that connected to the body at the 15th fret, elevated fretboards (above the soundboard), ebony fretboard extender, increased neck pitch from 4° (of the F4) to 6° to achieve a 16° string break angle (over bridge), resonance tuning (sizing) of air chambers, and a classic “Cremona” finish. While all of these attributes are important, I believe his major contribution was the introduction of tap tuning. This process ensured the correct stiffness of the soundboards, backboards, and tone bars by tuning them to specific notes. Realizing that stiffness and pitch were inextricably related, tap tuning ensured reliable and repeatable construction from instrument to instrument. Further, the size of the f-holes was adjusted to tune the air chamber to a specific note. Here, Loar drew from both the great acoustical engineers of the day as well as from the much heralded violin makers. In his Physics of Music class at Northwestern University (1930-1943) Loar spoke of Stradivari’s tuning process: His greatest improvement, and one which took much research to discover, was attuning the tops and back. He would set the pitch so that the front was a quarter of a tone higher [than the backboard]. This tuning feature, as adapted by Gibson under Loar’s guidance, is what sets these instruments apart today. It is also what made them difficult to produce in a manufacturing environment and ultimately lead to the demise of the tap tuning process at Gibson after Loar’s departure from the company at the end of 1924. (Structural tuning returned to Gibson in the 1970s under the watchful guidance of Richard Schneider and Dr. Michael Kasha in the introduction of the Mark Guitar, and again in 1978 when I was invited to champion the introduction of the F5L mandolin.)
Lloyd’s work on banjos was equally astute. Loar developed a new banjo design with a hollow tubular tone chamber supported by spring-loaded ball bearings. This instrument was the foundation of the heralded Gibson Mastertone banjo line and the many pot-assembly hardware derivations that were to follow.
It is important to note that Loar was not the first to suggest the use of f-holes, elevated fretboard extensions, and arched soundboards and backboards on mandolins. Another instrument designer named Albert Shutt of Topeka, Kansas filed for a patent that claimed these features on December 6, 1909 and was granted U.S. Design Patent 40,564 on March 8, 1910 – a patent that had a life span of seven years. In essence, these features were on the market and accessible to the public long before the development of Gibson’s F5 mandolin, and it meant that Gibson could begin using these features on mandolins, mandolas, and guitars as early as 1917 when Shutt’s seven-year patent expired. While we know nothing of the relationship between Gibson, Loar, and Shutt – if any – it begs the question of just how many of these ideas came directly from Loar and how many were borrowed from Shutt. Regardless, Gibson was a well-established instrument company and had the manufacturing and marketing muscle to include these features in their instruments to expand its mandolin and guitar business.
On April 3, 1923, Lloyd was given Gibson stock certificate No. 269-A for 31 shares of stock. The certificate was signed by Lewis Williams, secretary, and John Adams, president.
Many believe that Lloyd Loar was a luthier who built instruments at Gibson and then signed them. While it is true that he signed the labels, Loar was not a luthier, and he did not work at Gibson as an instrument builder. He was a musician who had an intense interest in musical acoustics, and in his role at Gibson, he guided the design and development of several instruments and accessories. With the exception that Loar was employed by Gibson as a contractor, his contribution to Gibson’s instrument line was similar to that of Les Paul (1915-2009) whose ideas and input led to Gibson’s growth and expansion in solidbody electric guitars. And, of course, numerous other musicians have had relationships with Gibson through the years resulting in models being named after them. Coincidentally, Les Paul played a Loar-signed F5 mandolin.
Les Paul’s influence on Gibson’s development of musical instruments was somewhat similar to Loar’s, although Lloyd worked for Gibson (which Les Paul did not). Among other Gibson instruments, young Les is seen here holding a Loar-signed F5 mandolin and two L5 guitars.
Loar became enamored with the work of violin distributors and makers Joseph and John Virzi of New York. The Virzi brothers promoted their line of fine German violins, and as an outcropping of their instrument sales business, they created and patented a “complementary amplifier” called the “Virzi Tone Producer.” The Tone Producer is a thin wide-grain spruce disc, .090″ thick, that is suspended inside the instrument and attached with two feet to the bass bar (soundboard) on violins, violas, bass viols, and similar instruments. The Tone Producer enhances the overtone series and adds richness and fullness to the instrument. (With the mandolin’s attack-and-decay method of sound production, the Tone Producer sacrifices some of the mandolin’s amplitude. However, the reduction of amplitude is not as evident on violins due to the continuous energy production of the violin’s bow.) Loar had a Virzi Tone Producer installed in his August Diehl viola and wrote an article about its benefits that appeared on one page of the Virzi catalog. As a result of his experience, he recognized the Tone Producer as a beneficial feature for Gibson’s line of mandolins, and many F5s, H5s, and L5s as well as some F4s and a few A-model instruments made by Gibson in the period of 1923-1925 boasted the Virzi Tone Producer as an accessory feature.
Loar’s personal viola was made by August Diehl (1852-1922) and Loar had it fitted with a Virzi Tone Producer. Loar wrote about the benefits of the Tone Producer in Virzi’s 1929 catalog. In October 2004, after 62 years of storage, this instrument was once again played in public to the delight of many. See “His Viola’s Voice.”
Some believe that it was Loar’s involvement with Virzi that led to his sudden departure from Gibson. Others believe it was his strong desire to get Gibson motivated to manufacture electric instruments. After years of research and in-depth study of his personal documents, I cannot find any proof that either of these was the case. We do know through Loar’s correspondence that he did not enjoy working in business where “profit” was the important issue. And we know that venturing into electric instruments would have been a major departure from Gibson’s 25-year tradition of building and marketing acoustic string instruments. However, regardless of whether Gibson resisted the movement to electric instruments, whether the Virzi relationship presented some kind of conflict, or whether Loar was anxious to work on keyboard instruments, he was highly motivated and needed to move on. It is interesting to note, however, that when Loar left Gibson at the end of 1924, the Virzi Tone Producer was cancelled as an accessory to Gibson’s line. It was done so quickly that they didn’t want to wait to remove it from the next catalog printing; the word “CANCELLED” was rubber stamped across the Virzi Tone Producer page. But this didn’t end Gibson’s relationship with Virzi as some believe. In fact, in January of 1925, Gibson announced that it was the sole distributor for Virzi violins, violas, cellos and basses in the United States. And in the early 1930s, Gibson itself was manufacturing violins.
Gibson’s 1925 accessory catalog was well into print production when Gibson decided to discontinue the Virzi Tone Producer at the end of 1924. Rather than reprinting the catalog, the pages for the “Tone Amplifier” were stamped “CANCELLED”.
Julius Bellson, one of Gibson’s early employees who wrote a book in the early 1970s about Gibson history, once shared with me that Lloyd couldn’t get along with Gibson management, but I have no factual data to support this. In fact, Lloyd had an excellent relationship with company executive Lewis Williams. However, Ted McCarty, Gibson’s president from 1948-1966 knew Loar, and he said that Loar was a highly-motivated and demanding individual who would have been difficult for anyone to work with.
Regardless of the reasons or causes behind his departure, Loar’s mind was ablaze with creative ideas, including his desire to improve the amplitude and tonal qualities on instruments other than fretted string instruments. In December of 1924, after more than five years as a contractor and two decades as a performer on Gibson instruments, Lloyd Loar left Gibson to pursue other interests.
Loar’s tenure with Gibson ended in December 1924. This photograph of Loar with an early pre-truss rod F4 mandolin was one of the last of him that appeared in Gibson catalogs (this from the 1923 “M” catalog).
In 1925, Lloyd Loar began working as a design consultant for the Gulbranson Company of Chicago – a piano manufacturer – and applied for the position of Professor of Acoustics in the Music School at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois – a position he hoped would parallel his friend Karl Gehrken’s position at Oberlin.
It was during the period of 1925-1943 that Loar focused diligently on amplification systems and keyboard actions. Loar’s interest in structural tuning branched over to pianos, and on December 24, 1928, he filed for a patent for tuned tone bars on a piano soundboard. This was to be the first of his 14 U.S. Patents. However, the Great Depression (1929 – ca. 1934) was just around the corner, and his patent, U.S. Patent 1,798,212 was not granted until March 31, 1931. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, Loar’s work at Gulbranson ground to a halt. As by some stroke of very good luck, he was hired as a professor at Northwestern University and was very fortunate to have an income at a time when employment was very scarce. (Historically, it is interesting to note that in times of recession, the music industry has experienced short falls and generally has been affected, but not fully decimated.)
In 1925, Loar was writing a regular monthly column on musical acoustics for the Jacobs’ Orchestra Monthly, a prominent music magazine of the time. By 1926, Loar began arranging music for Joe Nicomede’s publishing company, Nicomede Music Co. of Altoona, Pennsylvania. (Joe was a Gibson devotee and popular performer.) Loar’s published work included three tenor banjo method books, four volumes of orchestral violin “system” books, a violin method book, two tenor banjo folios, two method books for tenor banjo bands, an Overture Orpheus, a U.S. Army Band March music book, and the Lustspiel Overture arrangement.
Loar’s books were published by fellow musician and publisher Joe Nicomede of Altoona, Pennsylvania. In addition to Nicomede’s talents as a guitarist, he was a marketing entepreneur who collaborated with Luigi D’Andrea (the founder of D’Andrea Inc., a flatpick manufacturing company now run by grandson Tony D’Andrea) to develop imprinted flatpicks, the first of which was customized for Nick Lucas (Nicolas Lucanese).
ViviTone and Acousti-Lectric
On November 1, 1933, Loar and close friend Lewis Williams, a former Gibson executive (in fact, the individual who hired Loar into Gibson) and five other local businessmen founded the ViviTone Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan for the purpose of the “manufacture and sale of wholesale and retail musical instruments, acoustic and electric products, including research, consulting services and financing such business.” This was a broad-based business plan that allowed Williams and Loar to venture into virtually any aspect of the music industry. The ViviTone product line was very aggressive and included: mandolins, mandolas, mando-cellos, mando-basses, violins, violas, violin-cellos, double basses, ViviTone Claviers, and Spanish, Hawaiian, tenor, and plectrum guitars. Many of these instruments were amplified employing Loar’s coil-wound pickup design. ViviTone acoustic guitars were unusual in that both the soundboard and the backboard were made of spruce joined on the edges by a thick laminated maple rim. The company was very prolific, and design features changed so fast at ViviTone that many instruments of the same model were found with different features.
Loar struck up an excellent relationship with Gibson executive and original investor in Gibson, Lewis A. Williams. Loar convinced Williams that it was time to leave Gibson and start the ViviTone Company to produce acoustic and electric instruments that featured Loar’s designs and patents. This photo was taken of them in Chicago in 1935. (Loar is on the right.)
On January 23,1934, three months after the formation of ViviTone, Loar, Moon, and Williams pursued a second round of financing. To accomplish this, they founded the Acousti-Lectric Company, also in Kalamazoo. The new company had an identical charter to that of ViviTone, and a goal of raising an additional $33,000 (over $540,000 in today’s economy) from the same seven stockholders that formed ViviTone. No information is available regarding their ability to raise the full amount of the offering. In February of 1936, the company moved its headquarters to 6330 Gratoit Avenue in Detroit, with Loar spending most of his time at his home at 1321 Fargo Avenue in Chicago. Photos of Loar’s personal ViviTone clavier, an electric full-keyboard instrument that used tuned reeds (round vibrating bars) instead of strings, can be found in this web site under “Loar’s Instruments.”
ViviTone founders, Loar (left), Walter Moon (middle), Lewis Williams (right).
Loar developed several keyboard instruments and was awarded several patents for keyboard actions, amplification systems, string plucking systems, and attack (sound-producing) systems. These inventions included the ViviTone Clavier a piano-like instrument that was electrically amplified, and featured tuned “reeds” or “chimes” producing a bell-like quality unlike any instrument preceding it. Each of the reeds was individually tuned to the correct frequency and the reeds were struck by small felt-covered mallets activated by a normal keyboard action. The reeds were in close proximity to unique coil-wound electric pickups which led off to an amplifier. Unfortunately, the amplification systems of the day hummed and were noisy with static, and were poor by comparison to the pure tones of an un-amplified instrument. As a result, the noisy ViviTone Clavier did not win the favor of musicians who tried them. Regardless, Loar was way ahead of the competition with his development of electric keyboard instruments in the mid-1930s.
While many schools and performers wanted to try the ViviTone clavier, few wanted to buy one. These included artists like Percy Grainger and institutions such as the Dushkin School of Music (Winnetka, Illinois), Sherwood Music School (Chicago, Illinois), University of Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin), and the Central Washington College of Education (Ellensburg, Washington ).
For those organizations who purchased or tried the instruments, there were concerns about the inconsistent keyboard action in all keys, a “hum” in the amplifier, and differences in tonal qualities at various ends of the musical spectrum. Loar was called upon to make numerous service trips to solve these various problems, and many of these institutions were far away in light of the means of travel of the time. One can only imagine that the traveling and frustration Loar experienced managing these service complaints was very draining.
There is little doubt that Loar was highly motivated with interests at many levels, but all centered around music. His wife Bertha once reflected that “… Lloyd was very driven and couldn’t sit still.” Looking back on his accomplishments, it is clear that Loar was always working on more than one project at a time, and one can only wonder who the man was inside the name Lloyd Loar.
In addition to assigning his patents to Acousti-Lectric Company (the company he and Lewis Williams founded in Kalamazoo), he also licensed his string plucking patents to Frank Holton & Company of Elkhorn, Wisconsin who began producing a line of portable, amplified, harpsichord-like instruments.
During the remaining years of his life, Lloyd continued to teach at Northwestern University where he met his second wife Bertha Snyder, a student in his Physics of Music class. While Loar taught three different courses during his 13-year tenure at Northwestern, only this class focused specifically on musical acoustics. Northwestern’s 1943 summer session catalog listed this class as:
C25. The Physics of Music (4). The scientific side of music. Composition of tone; tone color or timbre; sound waves; vibration; resonance; acoustics of various wind and stringed instruments; the piano and pipe organ; voice acoustics; radio. 2:30-3:30. Mr. Loar. Fisk 315.
In 1943, C25. The Physics of Music became a four credit class (most other summer classes were three credits). Click here for a detailed listing of Loar’s Classes at Northwestern.
On April 30, 1939, Lloyd married Bertha Snyder, a student of his music theory class at Northwestern University. Lloyd was a dapper dresser as seen in this photo of Lloyd and Bertha on their wedding day.
It is interesting to note that one of Loar’s mentors, Felix Borowski, from whom Loar studied Composition, was a fellow faculty member during Loar’s tenure at Northwestern.
Lloyd and Bertha favored spending their sunny but humid Sunday afternoons at Chicago’s Roger’s Park (ca. 1939)
One of the wonderful pieces of memorabilia that Bertha kept through the years was a lab notebook prepared by a student in Professor Loar’s last Physics of Music class he taught. In addition to the course description above, Loar touched on the importance of tuned air chambers, bodies, and apertures, and he voiced his dislike for the tonal qualities of members of the “lute family” – which includes guitars and mandolins; the very instruments Loar worked so diligently to advance while at Gibson. The class began on Wednesday, June 23, 1943 but Lecture 12 was never given as Loar became ill and died six weeks later. (In the fall of 2007, I transcribed this notebook verbatim and scanned all of the original illustrations. The Physics of Music class notebook is now published and available directly from us.)
Loar’s work even reached the pages of Webster’s Dictionary. Over a period of many years, Loar was a “sub-consultant” to his friend and mentor, Karl Gehrkens, the author of a book entitled The Fundamentals of Music. Gehrkens was a professor at Oberlin College who was also G.&C. Merriam’s Special Editor for Music during that time. (Merriam is the publisher of Webster’s Dictionary.) Loar helped with the technical definitions of various musical devices and acoustical systems and his rich correspondence to Gehrkens clearly indicates the depth of Loar’s understanding of musical science and how the piano key action works.
If one had to sum up and highlight Loar’s most significant and enduring contributions to acoustic instruments, it would have to be in the area of structural “tuning.” This art of tuning was not merely adjusting the strings to the correct notes but rather tuning the various structural components of the instrument to specific pitches so that the whole instrument, working as a coupled system (acoustically speaking), produced the best tones possible from each of its parts. To accomplish this, soundboards, backboards, tone bars, f-holes, and air chamber sizes were adjusted so that each element was tuned to a specific note. And, in Loar’s day, these notes were part of concert pitch C=256 (where A=431). With the entire instrument assembled, and strings tuned to the concert pitch of that time, the parts of the instrument responded harmonically rather than discordantly to the strings’ energy. The tuning suppressed any unwanted “beats” or overtones thus bringing forth the best dynamics and tonal qualities of the instrument. Further, the use of C=256 accidentally causes the bodies of these instruments to be tuned ¼ tone off today’s concert pitch; an attribute that contributes to the incredible richness of these instruments. This was an attribute that Loar could not have foreseen since concert pitch A=440 was not adopted until 30 years after Loar’s death. It was a gift he gave without knowing. (Today, concert pitch is predicated on A being 440Hz [cycles per second] more commonly written as A440. However, concert pitch did not always use A440 as the reference. For more information on the tuning reference Loar used in 1925, click here to download a free study entitled What Was Loar Hearing?)
Loar did not create tap tuning as some suggest. Rather, he studied the tap tuning process employed by the early violin makers, and he sought to bring it and other attributes of the violin to the non-bowed string musical instruments at Gibson, and later to the string instruments he created for Acousti-Lectric and ViviTone. Had the timing been different, he and Carleen Hutchins (1911-2009), the founder of the CatGut Acoustical Society, would certainly have shared some marvelous ideas on tap tuning.
Although Loar’s achievements gained him great fame in the area of musical acoustics, he is little known for his great contribution to electric instruments, specifically the coil-wound pickup. His earliest instrument that featured this pickup was a solidbody viola that he built ten years before the introduction of solidbody electric guitars. This same patent depicts a pedal device with volume controls and an on-off switch. While Lloyd strove to achieve power and amplitude in the instruments he designed, he also appreciated the frustrations of being heard as an acoustic performer. As a result, he installed a pickup on his personal F5 mandolin and developed a simple “effects pedal” – the first of its kind – to control the amplifier and the speaker’s mechanical vibrato system.
Loar’s F5 had a coil-wound pickup attached at one end to the fingerrest, and a small plastic foot at the other end that was screwed into the soundboard. A volume control knob was installed into the fingerrest and a metal-shielded cable lead away to a phono-jack. The pickup did not work when I got this instrument and, unfortunately, I’ve never been able to appreciate what Loar was hearing on his amplified F5.
In a letter to me dated February 12, 1983, Bertha said “He also played the mandolin so beautifully. [But] After Lloyd built the harpsichord, however, he played the harpsichord instead. Then, after he finished the clavier, he was playing either the harpsichord or the clavier.”
World War II approaches
In the late 1930s, on the heels of the Great Depression and in light of the deepening political unrest in Europe, Loar and millions of Americans entered a difficult financial period. While music was still an important interest and occupation in bad times, the unusual features of the ViviTone instruments were not as quickly adopted as Loar and Williams had hoped, and the line did not win the favor and support of serious musicians – a critical component that could have made their company grow. Business slowed to a standstill, and by 1938, Loar was relying primarily on his income from teaching ($400 per month) and writing.
After the ViviTone years, and during the time leading up to his death, Loar worked as a consultant for Frank Holton. Loar bore the responsibility of both designer and investment relations manager, attempting to garner funds from such famed piano manufacturers as Rudolph Wurlitzer (where Loar met Ted McCarty) and W. W. Kimball. But the timing was bad and the uncertainty of world economics and political unrest led to a lack of funding. Loar was stressed and his negotiations were at a standstill.
In 1939, Frank Holton decided to sell his piano manufacturing business, and Loar worked diligently to help him find a buyer. Loar’s correspondence file (about 150 documents and drawings) is filled with “sorry, we’re not interested” letters, but Loar appears to have plodded on with this endeavor through mid-1940.
In the summer of 1940, Bertha and Lloyd were driving to Iowa to spend a week with her mother and father in Burlington. “We were in an intersection and had the right of way. I vividly remember the accident,” Bertha recalled. A car came from the left, ran through the intersection, and smashed into the middle of their car, where Loar was seated. The two of them were badly shaken up and Lloyd severely injured his left leg. The injury kept Lloyd from performing or being as active in work as he would have like (several letters in his file offer their condolences for his injuries and hopes that he would soon recover). Bertha hit her head on the window, and years later, Bertha often referred to the bump she still had on her forehead and broken right middle finger that came from that accident. She often commented on how it troubled her piano playing.
Loar’s efforts in marketing the ViviTone and Holton line of electric keyboard instruments and in finding investors to help continue research and development were not bearing fruit. Several manufacturers turned him down based on the uncertainty of the issues related to World War II and during a period of industrial crisis where all efforts and attention were turned to manufacturing war goods. With Lloyd’s business failing, Bertha remembers Lloyd being reserved and sullen in his later years. “Even his enjoyment for a good cigar dwindled,” she recalled.
In October or November 1942, just one year prior to Lloyd’s death, Loar, frustrated from a decade of negative responses to his futuristic designs, ceased development on his electrical keyboard instruments, carefully wrapped them in newspaper, crated them, and placed them in storage.
At 4:00 on Tuesday morning, September 14, 1943, at age 57 Lloyd Allayre Loar passed away while at his home on 1321 Fargo Avenue, Chicago, Illinois with his wife Bertha at his side.
On the inside of the remembrance card, Bertha wrote the following poem: My husband – loving, kind and true, Has gone from me because of other work to do. He told me this before he left, that he would be in another existence doing his best. My husband – understanding, noble, sincere, Leaves a beautiful memory I will always revere. Bertha Snyder Loar
Facing the need to notify many of Lloyd’s friends and business associates of Loar’s passing, Bertha sent out this announcement.
Loar’s instruments remained in storage in Chicago until Bertha moved to California in 1944 and had the crates shipped and moved to a storage facility near Los Angeles.
In 1992, I was on a business trip to Philadelphia and called Bertha from the airport; she didn’t answer the phone. When I called back 30 minutes later and she still didn’t answer, I was concerned – Bertha was always home – and I called a neighbor to see if she was there. And, it was very fortunate that I called; the neighbor checked Bertha’s house and could see her on the floor through the back door window. Bertha had fallen and broken her hip almost 20 hours before and couldn’t reach the phone to call for help. She was severely dehydrated and in great pain. The neighbor immediately called for an ambulance and had her taken to a nearby hospital, and I modified my return flight to go directly to the hospital rather than to return to my home.
From that point on, Bertha was never able to return to her home and entered a nearby convalescent home where she could receive care. Over the next several years, I assumed responsibility for managing her affairs. One day, I came across an invoice from a warehouse in Los Angeles. It was for storage of several crates (which I didn’t know about at the time) and the account was past due. I brought the invoice to Bertha and asked her what it was for and if she wanted me to pay the invoice. She said she didn’t remember what was in the crates, but commented that she “always paid them on time.”
In February of 1994, my son, Mark, who lived near Bertha and helped out occasionally, moved the crates (with Bertha’s approval) from storage to Bertha’s garage. On March 13, 1994, I had the wonderful opportunity of opening these crates to photograph and document Loar’s instruments inside. I don’t know the experience of making a discovery during an archeological dig, but the adrenalin rush I felt when extracting every nail from the crates, carefully removing the packing paper, and removing each instrument with the most delicate care is one I will never forget.
I had always thought that Loar was buried in Chicago but from his death record and various obituaries, there was no indication of where he was interred. When helping with the preparation to sell Bertha’s house, Mark made a startling discovery and immediately called me and asked, “Dad, where was Lloyd buried?” to which I replied, “I’m not really sure.” “Well, Dad,” he said, “I hope you’re sitting down because I’m holding Lloyd in my hands!” (While my two sons never met Lloyd, they knew Bertha and heard so much of “Lloyd” that they were on a first-name basis.) It seems that Loar had wished to be cremated upon his death and to have his ashes spread in Lake Michigan, near Rogers Park (Chicago, Illinois). But, Bertha could never carry out that wish and until that day in 1994, his ashes remained in her closet with a note from Bertha to Lloyd saying that “Lloyd said he would like his ashes disposed of in Lake Michigan at Rogers Parks near where we livd. I do not seem able to do this.” While Loar was never brought back to his beloved Illinois and to the lake site he so much enjoyed, we saw to it that his ashes were finally laid to rest, 51 years after his death.
Lloyd Loar’s contributions to acoustic and electric string musical instruments continue to go unrecognized by many. For the holders of Loar-signed instruments, his work lives on in the voice of the instruments they cherish. For many performers who are not fortunate to own a Loar-signed instrument, the hope of playing a “Loar” is ever present. And, for luthiers who follow the art of mandolin construction, there is nothing so pervasive as the goal of capturing that magical appearance and tone of a Loar-signed instrument from the Gibson/Loar era.
From studying the depth of his work, one gets the sense that in his eyes, the thing we hold so dear – the “Loar-signed mandolin” – was just an insignificant blip in his massive outpouring of creativity. Loar’s patents, letters, and drawings reveal a highly motivated individual with a thought process that never stopped – always searching for what lay beyond truth and excellence in musical instruments. Sadly, he could only share 57 years of his insights and creativity with us.
Much of Loar’s original music has been lost forever, but the memories of his work will endure in the instruments that bear his signature, in the hearts of those of us who admire and respect his contributions, and in the photographs and documents in this web site, as long as these bits and bytes shall live.