Olga and I are string-a-holics. One of our more unusual instruments is a hundred-year-old1 German lute guitar,2 given to us by Magali and Sjoerd. Their excuse was that they aren't musicians and it should be played; excuses aside it was a very generous gift and we thank them for it.
So what kind of instrument is it? It's a crossbreed, a round-backed lute-type body with the neck and string setting of a guitar. Apparently these were popular in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here's some more information posted by an Australian lutenist; he says its a folk music revival instrument.3 You can buy new ones here and here. Apparently they turn up pretty often second-hand too (here's one in the US, and 1930s and 1940s models in the Netherlands). There's even some youtube footage: a Scherzo and some Bach.
It's a short scale length (63cm, give or take) and would do very nicely for a travel guitar. I'm sort of faking it in this picture; there's a string missing and the action is so high that fingering that far up the neck puts it horribly out of tune.4
The action is so high because the neck has been broken and no longer points in the right direction. That's the first thing we need to get fixed, before we put new strings on it -- short of replacing the neck entirely it will never be as good as new, but it's worth the effort to make it playable. Replacing the neck entirely (besides being too expensive) would mean giving up this extraordinary headstock, which is the same piece of wood:
It's basically the same width as the neck (hence the cramped access to the machine heads), and the only use I can think of for the curl at the top is so you can hang the instrument from a rack, unless it's just decorative.5
The fretboard is scalloped. In this shot you can also see the extreme action, and a wooden strap peg on the back.
Here are a couple of detail shots of the bridge. All the string pins are wooden; four are machine-turned (presumably the originals) and two are hand-carved.
There's no maker's mark anywhere I could find, and Sjoerd didn't know much about its origin (German, his grandfather I believe). They seem to have been quite popular, judging by the number that turn up when you start looking for them. The lack of markings and the wide ribs say "mass-produced" to me, but of course I don't really know.
I hope at some point to have updated shots, when we've taken the strings off and given it a cleanup -- and eventually, with the neck realigned and the action lowered, maybe even some recordings.
If anyone can tell us anything about this lovely instrument we'd be very interested!
Thanks first of all (obviously) to Magali and Sjoerd. A friend of Olga's (γεια σου Γρηγόρη!) thought it might be a liuto cantabile -- this one is very similar (in particular the headstock) but the string setting is different (five courses, while ours is six single strings). He also corrected me on "factory-built" (didn't really exist at the period we think it comes from, although I'll stand by "mass-produced"); he thinks the tuning pegs might not be original, which we're looking into.
1 We don't actually know the age. It belonged to the grandfather of the guy who gave it to us, so it's probably a bit younger than that. ⇑
2 Or guitar lute, or guitar-lute, or ... you get the idea. ⇑
4 That's my excuse for the expression, anyway. There's no excuse for the beard, I know. ⇑
5 A friend of Olga's tells me this is bunkum, and googling around found me lots of similar curls -- they turn up on mandolins (and mandocellos and family-relations) from around the same period also. On the other hand, the curl leaves a perfectly semi-circular slot, and if you hang it off your finger the strings end up near-as-dammit vertical. If it's coincidence it's an elegant coincidence, is all I can say. ⇑