Saturday, March 03, 2007

My Sweet May-Bell

In my post, Vintage Need Not Be Pricey, I said I would devote an entire post to my sweet May-Bell. Well, here goes… May-Bell guitars were marketed during the Great Depression by the Slingerland Company of Chicago. Dave Kolars has done extensive research on Slingerland and May-Bell instruments and shares a lot of information and photos at

I bought my May-Bell from a sweet (yet feisty) elderly lady in Oregon who has since passed away. Her name was Crystal. She bought, repaired, and sold (at a very modest price) many old parlor guitars: pre-war Stellas, Regals, etc. She was not in it for the money, but for the love of the instruments and the music they produced. She was known and loved by people throughout the USA and perhaps the world.

I’m not sure what model my May-Bell is, nor was Slingerland expert Dave Kolars. Dave said it is like the model 75, but the model 75 is all mahogany. My May-Bell has a spruce top and mahogany sides and back. Inside the soundhole is stamped:

Violin Craft

I assume that 1933 is the year that whatever model it is was introduced. Perhaps “Violin Craft” was the model name. I thought this may have even been something Slingerland came up with for the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. After all, the exposition was in 1933 and Slingerland was based in Chicago. We know Gibson designed a guitar for that exposition (See my post, The Gibson Century Model Style L-C). Maybe someone out there has some information about this May-Bell.

In any case, I paid Crystal $121.00 for my May-Bell. The neck was slightly warped, so I addressed the problem by having my luthier friend, Paul Gorman Meadors, level the fretboard and refret it which he did for $75.00. The result: a perfect player for $196.00.

Now let me tell you about May-Bell. She is small (38” long and 13 and 5/8” across the upper bout)—just the right size really! She is 12 frets to the body, and as I have shared in other posts, I love 12-fret guitars. She is not over-embellished, but she does have some nice binding around the contour of the top, the soundhole, and the fretboard. On the rosewood fretboard are nice mother-of-pearl inlays. So the quality of May-Bell is vastly superior to so many of the cheap guitars made during the depression era. She is so light she feels like balsa wood in my hands. So comfortable to play—like we were made for each other.

So, how does May-Bell sound? Well, Crystal described May-Bell’s sound as “spanky,” and I don’t think I could improve on her description. The arched top gives cutting power. When I’m jamming with people and picking lead parts (with a flatpick) on May-bell, the crisp notes are easily heard even if the background instruments are pretty loud. Yet, because of the round soundhole, she does not sound like an arch-top that has f-holes. There is a hint of that mellowness and resonance characteristic of a good flattop. Her sound is sassy, but not trashy. Complex. Sometimes I hear a hint of banjo in May-Bell; at other times a hint of Dobro. I’m sure a finger-picking blues player would love her—but she is a great flatpicking guitar too. When I pick fiddle tunes on May-Bell, I love the separation of the notes and the quick decay of each note. Yet there is something more going on. There is a lovely “aftertaste” after each note through which May-Bell seems to say, “I’m a bit more refined than you probably thought I was.” I love my sweet May-Bell.