1919 Luther Oliver Six String Banjo-Guitar
Acquired by Shane Speal, Feb 2023.
This homemade banjo-guitar was handmade by Luther Oliver (1904-1987) of Western Watauga County, North Carolina in 1919. He was only 15 years old when he built it.
(Above) Inventor, Luther Oliver later in life with his many inventions. Several musical instruments are pictured, including his dulcimer-autoharp. Photo originally by Frankie Oliver Stokes, daughter of Luther Oliver and facts about his life come from the book, Community and Change in the North Carolina Mountains compiled by Nannie Green and Catherine Stokes Sheppard.
Oliver was known as an inventor, or simply put, as a person who would make anything he needed in life. During the Depression, he needed a hand plane, so he created an entire jointer from the scraps of a Model-T Ford! Although this particular banjo-guitar was one of his earliest creations, it shows advanced skill and could even still be playable, had the soundboard not warped over time.
This guitar represents some of his early work, and features a body crafted from a section of drum shell with a masonite soundboard and thin plywood back. A hand machined aluminum ring serves as trim around the hoop. He salvaged the bridge, tailpiece and tuners from a Stella (or similar) acoustic guitar.
The neck is attached to the body with a corner brace and, much like a banjo, an internal metal dowel rod that runs from the neck to the butt of the instrument. You can see the dowel inside the rear sound hole. Music was an important part of Oliver's life. It is said he had a beautiful tenor voice and loved to sing worship.
The oak neck is hand-carved with a 24" scale length. The frets were salvaged from another guitar. There are a few frets with two shorter pieces making up the length. The width measures 1 3/4" at the nut. Oliver hammer stamped fret dot markers and added chord letters corresponding to the note on the low E string. This makes me suspect he could have tuned this in open tuning and placed a finger across for each chord. As shown in an earlier photo, Oliver invented a dulcimer-autoharp hybrid that allowed chording from keys that would press down on the strings. Dulcimers are tuned in open chords, and this instrument might have been as well.
The headstock is signed and dated "LUTHER OLIVER 8 19 19" (August 19, 1919) I'm always excited tto acquire a folk art instrument that is signed and dated. It brings the history alive!
A side shot shows the sparkle drum shell used as the body. Oliver most likely cut this down to a 3" width. The holes in the sides are where drum lugs were originally installed.
I attemped to re-string and bring the guitar up to pitch. However, the Masonite soundboard is just too warped and does not retain its shape. The tailpiece pulls and buckles the soundboard. I was able to get one string tuned and was suprised to discover that Oliver had proper fretting and intonation on the instrument!
Luther Oliver was known as a dreamer first and thus, an inventor. His greatest joy was taking nothing and making something. His shop was filled with scrap metal and wood, and Oliver knew exactly where each piece was located.
I purchased the Luther Oliver Banjo-Guitar from a Gettysburg PA resident after a musician friend forwarded a Facebook marketplace ad to me. That owner had bought it from another collector several years earlier who was also from the Central PA area.
Luther Oliver was an employee of Appalachian State University for 25 years. The university displays a 12 gauge shotgun he created from pieces of metal salvaged from the rubble of a administration and gunstock made from chestnut wood from a salvaged cabinet, also taken from ASU.
1919 Luther Oliver Banjo-Guitar
From the Shane Speal Collection
Currently in private collection. To be showcased at the Cigar Box Guitar Museum inside Speal's Tavern at a later date.