Documenting history as well as my experiences with repairing and restoring vintage guitars.

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  About      Gustav Adolph Carlson was born in April of 1869 in Sweden. As is often the case, his early life in the old country is unclear. ...

G. A. Carlson - Chicago, Illinois (1896-1902)



    Gustav Adolph Carlson was born in April of 1869 in Sweden. As is often the case, his early life in the old country is unclear. He immigrated to the United States in 1891 and settled in Chicago, a booming city with a considerable Swedish population. In 1895, he married a fellow Swede named Alma Malinquist and by Februrary of the next year they had their first and only child, Pearl Lillian Judith Carlson [1].

1895 Sanborn map showing 6011 S. Halsted
Two families lived at 6011 and a large outbuilding would've been ideal for a workshop.
Image Credit: Library of Congress

    The earliest reference to Gustav is found in the 1896 City Directory where he was working as a guitar maker and living at 6011 South Halsted Street in the Englewood neighborhood [5]. In the absence of surviving literature from the years prior, his formative years in Chicago are unknown. I can reasonably assume, from my research on other luthiers of the period, that he would've had been apprenticed to a carpenter, cabinetmaker, or joiner as a boy and brought those, marketable, skills to the new world. Chicago had one of the largest populations of musical instrument manufacturers in the country, rivalled only by New York, which would've offered a wide selection of large firms and independent builders with whom to learn from.

The Storefront

    By 1897, he was operating out of 741 West 63rd Street, a few blocks south of his house, and listed as working with musical instruments [2]. Interestingly, his building number changes to 750 in 1898 and 753 in 1899 [3][6]. I can't say I entirely understand why it changed each year but perhaps numbering was more a loose suggestion until Chicago standardized and renumbered their streets a decade later. Perhaps Gustav was actually moving his shop and tools to the neighboring building each year but I find that hard to believe. By the 1900 census, his residence was listed as 755 West 63rd Street and he was working as an 'instrument manufacturer' [4]. I do believe he moved into this building as it was three stories, compared to the single level at 741, and would have plenty of room for a family to live above a business. 

1895 Sanborn Map showing the 700 block of W 63rd Street
Image Credit: Library of Congress

    I won't suggest drawing a connection between the address on the label, his address in the directory, and try to conclude the date of manufacture unless a Carlson instrument surfaces with an altered label or different address. I believe the story behind this to be far more simple if we place ourselves in his shoes. Gustav, having just signed the lease on a storefront, would've sought out a printing shop in the directory and placed an order for a stack of paper labels with his name, occupation, and address. As an investment, tossing the inaccurate labels would've been foolish and a customer walking down the 700 block of 63rd Street would've found him anyways.

Taking the 9 to 5

The Chicago trail ran cold after the census but surprisingly there was a hit in Denver, Colorado for Gustav and "Emma" in 1910. Gustav was working for the Pullman Company, the railroad giant. It took a while to detangle the mess of information and it turned out that Pearl, their daughter, was the link connecting the families. It's a unique name. They first appear in Denver in the 1903 city directory living at 399 Williams Street and working as a carpenter. By 1905, they are living at 3406 Humboldt Street and by 1910 they are living at 3408 Humboldt [8][9].

Manufacturing instruments is a tough business. Its expensive in materials, tools, and time building for a clientele that often makes their living with gigs. I believe Gustav learned of an employment opportunity, utilizing skills he already had, and simply couldn't refuse an opportunity for a steady paycheck. Or perhaps he was chased out of town for cheating at cards. I'm just speculating.

Gustav worked for the rail company until his retirement and when Alma passed, in 1944, he moved in with Pearl and her husband Albert Sorenson. His date of death is unclear and, through this research, I really understood how even paper records are prone to human error or omission. Alma was thirteen years younger than Gustav and nine years younger than what was originally claimed in the 1900 census. That age difference is supported in each census from 1910 to 1940 but her tombstone references her, likely incorrect, birth date. Their daughter Pearl Lillian Judith and Gustav's birthdate are the only consistent facts.


I would safely place the production of G. A. Carlson's instruments, on 63rd Street, between 1896 and 1902.

Gregg Miner's incredible website,, features two articles about Carlson's instruments. His knowledge pertaining to harp guitars and how they evolved makes the articles very well informed. He has a collection of black and white photographs showing harp guitars with the bands and musicians that played them and was able to connect historical photos with photos of Carlson instruments that have surfaced in the modern era. He notes four possible Carlson instruments including two that he knows to have survived. I am in the process of repairing a previously unknown example, the fifth G. A. Carlson harp guitar to be identified on the internet.

Construction of one Carlson harp guitar

Gregg Miner includes images and descriptions of the details and structure of the Carlson guitars that he has seen, including the Carlson that he currently owns. This instrument differs in a few ways from the guitars that Gregg has observed but it still shows enough of the tell-tale signs of Gustav's hand. He didn't build each guitar exactly the same, there was some experimentation and evolution.

This instrument was sitting in a damp environment, the tail end has water damage and the back has fallen off. There are previous repairs and modifications which need to be addressed but the core of the instrument is still there. The top is constructed from four pieces of spruce, I'm no good with identifying specific species, and finished in a french polish. The back and sides are birdseye maple and finished in a varnish, like a violin. It has the most curious bridge, its a large piece of mahogany (likely cuban) with integral through holes which connect to the tailpiece. The bridge is secured to the tailpiece with split nuts.

I was surprised by the bracing inside this guitar, it's the largest bracing I have ever seen in an instrument and I couldn't be happier. Instruments from this era were, primarily, built for gut strings and were braced very lightly. Once steel strings became mainstream, they found their way onto many guitars including those that definitely weren't built for it. This guitar was built stout enough to support the extra tension and I am certain that helped guarantee the survival of this guitar. Each longitudinal brace is 9/16" wide by 3/4" tall with about 1/16" in variance. These braces are rectangular and burnished to a dull sheen. The bridge plate is a 1/4" piece of walnut. The tail block reinforcement has since fallen off and been lost. 

Here is a closeup of the upper bout. The dovetails were cut with a handsaw and don't quite meet the centerline of each neck. The soundhole reinforcement braces are large, which is excellent. And the 'popsicle' brace between the neck block and first brace is a nice addition. Martin wouldn't use it until the late 1940s.

Here is a bug I found in one of the braces, not cool little buddy. You can also see that the back braces are carved very flat and the edges are more crude. This will come up in my restoration blog as I believe the braces to be original but tampered with.


[1] 1900 Census -
[2] 1897 City directory -
[3] 1898 City directory -
[4] 1900 Census -
[5] 1896 City directory -
[6] 1899 City directory -
[7] 1910 Census -
[8] 1910 Denver city directory -
[9] 1905 Denver city directory -

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