These birch FHCM guitars must have been produced in their thousands from around the early 1920’s to 1935.
They are a ladder braced ‘O’ sized guitar (13 1/2″ wide) and originally were given away with a mail order course of how to play slide guitar ‘Hawaiian’ style. However it was realized by many of the early blues masters such as Blind Willie Johnson that birch guitars, with their raw sound, were great for playing the blues. At the time these guitars could probably have been picked up quite cheaply from some of the many students of FHCM who gave up playing and never finished the course!
These days they command good prices because of their reputation of sounding like those early blues recordings. Red was a popular color but there was a variety of stains from almost black, to red, to orange to natural wood.
They generally have a loud bass with prolonged and high-pitched trebles, typically in a way that expresses grief or sorrow. They have been described as having a ‘growling’ tone.
This particular guitar was owned by Vintage Blues Guitars (VBG) of Lancaster, PA and then sold to the owner I bought it from. When I acquired the all Koa model I sold this on. Regrettably so. In truth, I have regrets about most of the guitars I’ve sold!
Some more photos:
Here is a youtube posting of Bruce from VBG playing and talking about this very guitar:
Although this guitar is no longer for sale, Vintage Blues Guitars always has some wonderful instruments in their inventory, and these FHCM guitars are often in stock.
One more example from the Sold Archives of Vintage Blues Guitars (used with permission:
From the Vintage Blues Guitars description: “This example (of a First Hawaiian Conservatory Birch guitar) is pretty much all original. When we received it, the gold instructional paper was still on the fingerboard. The body is birch, stained orange. The neck is poplar and the fingerboard is maple, now dyed black. The four position markers were under the paper. The top and sound hole are bound in white celluloid. The end pins are likely maple with pearl dots on top, and are original to the guitar (one looks like an old replacement). The bridge is maple painted black. The end pin is missing.
The body measured 13 1/2″ across at the lower bout. Scale length is ~ 25″ (short scale). The fingerboard measures 1 13/16″ across at the nut and string spacing is 2 1/8″ at the saddle.
The action is set at 4 & 6/64″, and the guitar plays very easily. We’ve never been disappointed in the FHC sound, and this one really sings; punch mids, ringing highs and a surprisingly warm and open bass.”
BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON: 1897-1945.
It is reputed that the Gospel Blues singer, Blind Willie Johnson, in his only photograph was playing a FHCM birch guitar. Johnson is credited as one of the most influential practitioners of the blues.
Johnson’s slide guitar playing, particularly on his hymn “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is highly acclaimed. This composition was selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. This song was also one of only 27 chosen to send on the Voyager probe launched in 1977 to the far reaches of the universe. (BTW the first photograph in this clip below at 1.30 is Blind Willie McTell, Not Blind Willie Johnson).
Blind Willie Johnson was deeply religious and a preacher and the majority of his 30 recorded songs are gospel songs about Lord Jesus and his Christian faith; “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole”; “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”; “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying”; and “Let Your Light Shine On me” to name a few.
Johnson died a pauper in 1945 and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that he became more widely known. He is now accepted as not only influencing many blues artists but others such as Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin, Eric Clapton and Sinead O’Connor who have also covered his songs.