Loar’s Instruments

In November 1942, Loar’s health was failing and his documents from that period clearly indicate signs of bad times for his consulting business. To make matters worse, the uncertainty of the War years put a damper on manufacturing and investing activities. Whether Loar was closing his shop, moving to a new location, or just trying to re-group is unclear, but Loar crated his keyboard instruments and some of his fretted instruments and placed them in storage where they remained virtually untouched by human hands until 1994.

When Lloyd’s wife Bertha moved to California in 1949, she brought the crates with her. Some loose instruments went into her home while the crated instruments were placed in storage in Beverly Hills. In February of 1994, Bertha fell in her home and broke her hip. After a brief stay in a hospital in Inglewood, CA, we had her moved to a nursing home where she could receive daily care. While helping to organize her affairs at her home and make sure bills were paid, we discovered that she was making regular monthly payments to a local storage company. When asked what was being stored, she didn’t remember, and said “I paid them because the bills came and I didn’t want to be late on the payments!” With her permission, my son Mark (who was living in Santa Monica at the time) retrieved the crates and moved them from the storage facility to Bertha’s garage and finally, on March 13, 1994, I had the great fortune of opening these crates to photograph and document the instruments inside.

Crated ViviTone Clavier The instruments were wrapped in craft paper and crated onto wood pallets. Here the ViviTone Clavier is ready for un-crating in Bertha’s backyard. Tags from General Movers of Chicago were tacked to the outside of the crates with “Mrs Loar” typed on the “notify” line.


Holton Name Plate There were two Holton harpsichords, adorned with hand-engraved name plates that read: Electronic Harpsichord, made by Frank Holton & Co. Eklhorn, Wisconsin, Patents Pending. These instruments employed Loar’s U.S. Patent #2,046,333 for a string picking device, and were the first electrified harpsichords ever made.

While much is known of Loar’s work at Gibson, little is reported on his developments in keyboard instruments and I find this side of his work to be a most exciting discovery. Loar developed two unique string-excitation actions for keyboard instruments; one for plucking strings, and the other for striking metal “reeds.” The reed mechanism was the foundation of the ViviTone Clavier (what we now believe to be the earliest amplified keyboard instrument), and Loar licensed his patent for the plucking action to Frank Holton to be used in the Holton line of electric harpsichords.

Loar was awarded several patents (see Loar’s Patents) for keyboard actions, amplification systems and attack (sound-producing) systems. The ViviTone Clavier featured tuned reeds that were struck by soft hammers producing a bell-like quality unlike any instrument preceding it. The reeds were tuned by adjusting their length, and since they were not stretched like musical strings, they would never go out of tune. The find of March 13, 1994 uncovered an immaculate original ViviTone Clavier instrument hidden, but protected under an accumulation of 60 years of dust. Amazingly, as Loar had planned it, the instrument was still in perfect tune!

While the ViviTone Claviers were photographed for ViviTone’s catalogs and brochures, to my knowledge, this was the first time one had ever been documented or seen in public.

Another crate revealed one of Lloyd’s prototype keyboard systems — an abbreviated 5-octave portable keyboard — with his much heralded signature on a label stuck to one side. These instruments were accompanied by unique power supplies, amplifiers, and speaker cabinets containing prototype Webster speakers.

In order to create a vibrato effect for one of the speaker cabinets, Loar fabricated a motor-driven rotating wooden disc with openings (looking something like a fan blade) that was positioned in front of the speaker. The mounting featured exposed (un-shielded) ball bearings, crudely made drive wheels, and a v-belt and pulley system.

Loar's ViviTone Clavier Loar’s ViviTone Clavier is serial #1004 which suggests it is the 4th one made. This instrument, finished in deep red mahogany, is in excellent physical and mechanical condition.


Loar's clavier action Loar’s reed action features felt-covered hammers (the white vertical strips above the center most part of the photo) and a series of reeds that were tuned to pitch by adjusting their length and securing them to a steel bar (the grey flat surface that runs left to right).


Holton Electric Harpsichord The Holton Electric Harpsichords are Serial numbers 117 and 119. These instruments feature slide-off tubular-steel legs with casters.


Holton action A view of the string-plucking action in the Holton Harpsichords. Conventional piano tuning pins were employed for the strings. The plucking fingers are seen below the center of the photo, each with a single screw to hold them in place.


Holton Bench Speaker This speaker cabinet with wooden “H” in the grille also served as a bench for the Holton Harpsichord. The cabinet contains a single Webster speaker. A Webster amplifier was fitted inside the rear right of the cabinet.


Webster amps All of the amplifiers are driven by various types of Webster amps. The tubes were carefully wrapped in sections of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia) newspaper dated Friday, October 23, 1942.


Loar's prototype portable keyboard Loar’s prototype portable keyboard features the reed system described in his U.S. Patent #1,995,316. A coil-wound electric pickup senses the reeds’ movement. There is a carrying handle on the far side and the sticker on the front, just below the second octave C key boasts Loar’s signature.


ViviTone Clavier Speaker Cabinet The speaker cabinet that accompanied the ViviTone Clavier features a 110v motor that turns a fan-like wooden disc in front of the speaker to create a vibrato effect. The switch on the back upper right side of the speaker cabinet controlled the motor.


Gibson TB-5 Lloyd’s tenor banjo was in excellent condition; a marvelous Gibson TB-5 ball-bearing instrument with greenish Pyralin resonator, curly maple neck, Florentine gold plating, and mother-of-pearl tuning knobs.


Lloyd's viola Lloyd’s viola, a beautiful August Diehl dated 1878, boasts a Virzi Tone Producer. The tin string tubes have “Lloyd Loar” written in block letters on their sides in pencil. This viola was played for the first time in almost 60 years on October 2, 2005 by concert violist Patrick Tobin. This instrument is currently available for purchase.


Loar's Mandolin, Viola, and Saw Among the amazing discoveries (not with the crates) was Loar’s 10-string mando-viola, electric viola with hand-wound coil pickup, and musical saw. Pictures of Loar holding this mando-viola at a Gibson workbench appear in many of Gibson’s early catalogs with the heading “R & D Department.”


Loar's F5 Mandolin The amazing find was Lloyd’s F-5 mandolin. This instrument is a rather standard F5 with flowerpot inlay, flat-grain neck, W/B/W binding, Virzi Tone Producer, gold-plated hardware, hand-wound pickup and volume control knob in the fingerrest (both removed in this photo).


Speaker Parts Speaker cabinet with handle, Webster tube amp, and foot switches are finished differently from the Holton and ViviTone keyboards. The fact that the connector matches the connector on the mandolin’s pickup leads me to believe that this was the amplifier he used with his F5 mandolin.


Through a series of email exchanges, I was fortunate to locate Mike Brown, an antique radio specialist in Mesa, Arizona. Mike picked up the amps, went over them part by part, rebuilt what needed rebuilding, and returned them to me in Arroyo Grande, California. I am deeply indebted to Mike for his great work and care of these amplifiers. In the summer of 2005, Mike brought the repaired amplifiers back to my home where, for the first time, we were able to hear the ViviTone Clavier as Loar heard it. The tonal quality resembled a piano with the added chime-like attributes of a calliope. Sustain was good with steadily decreasing amplitude (as opposed to quick peak-and-decay). In the background we could clearly hear the hum, static, and erratic noise typically associated with the poorly shielded analog devices of the period. The noise frustrated us a bit, as I am sure it must have frustrated Loar, but our grounds of comparison to today’s amplifications systems gave us a reference that Loar did not have. The Clavier was in perfect tune, and I was excited to have its voice fill our home.

University of South Dakota, National Music Museum
In September, 2005, the ViviTone Clavier and the Holton Electric Harpsichords were donated to the permanent collection of the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota.

And, in October 2007 I was invited to the Museum to do a presentation on The Lore of Loar and a chance to see the ViviTone Clavier and amplifier on display. Click here to learn more about the Loar collection at the National Music Museum.

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