By Derek See
Like so many other innovative artists and artisans, the work of German immigrant Hermann Weissenborn (1863–1936) has taken on far greater importance after his passing. After spending several years repairing pianos and violins in New York City (from around 1902 to 1910), Weissenborn set up shop in Los Angeles, where he began building stringed instruments. In adapting the principles of hollow-neck guitar design from Norwegian immigrant Chris J. Knutsen, Weissenborn’s refined version of hollowneck Hawaiian guitars produced a full, rich tone favored by Hawaiian guitar players in the early part of the 20th century.
Weissenborn’s move to Los Angeles was certainly well-timed, as he was able to take advantage of the Hawaiian-music bug that had bitten the mainland. Travelers to the Hawaiian Islands had discovered the music, and the Hawaiian exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 cemented the Hawaiian music boom that ran through the remainder of the 1910s and ’20s.
In addition to his famed square-neck Hawaiian-style guitars, Weissenborn also made a small number of round-neck Spanish, plectrum (four strings and the same scale as tenor banjo), and tenor guitars, as well as some highly coveted ukuleles. This early concert-size model is possibly the finest example known: its condition is superb and the beautiful koa wood is breathtaking. The “V” pattern in the book-matched back is especially attractive. Weissenborn instruments are certainly not as meticulously built as modern instruments, but the uke’s exemplary tone trumps any rough edges. Weissenborns of all shapes and sizes were built lightly, and this uke is very loud and sweet sounding. It is surprising that there aren’t more known Weissenborn ukuleles, given the popularity of the instrument throughout his time as a builder, but perhaps Weissenborn was simply too far overloaded with orders for guitars at the time.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GRANT GROBERG/GRYPHON STRINGED INSTRUMENTS
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Ukulele magazine.