By the time he died in 1994, Roy Smeck was in his nineties and many years removed from his heyday as a performer, which began in the 1920s. But known as the ‘Wizard Of The Strings’ he was still a legend to several generations of musicians, who were not only inspired by his virtuosity but also helped along by his numerous instructional books, covering everything from banjo to ukulele to several varieties of guitar.
Born in turn of the century Reading, Pennsylvania, Leroy Smeck first began to appear professionally on the vaudeville circuit. He knew he wasn’t much of a singer, so he developed his act in a different direction. He played several different stringed instruments, often using tricky styles and little added dances. It seemed to appeal to fans and by the mid-1920s he was making records and even appearing in early sound films. He was the first music video star.
He filmed “Stringed Harmony” for DeForest Phonofilm in 1923, using DeForest’s groundbreaking but poor quality sound-on-film technology. Three years later he made a film called “His Pastimes” for Vitaphone using the sound-on-disc system (which synchronised a disk with a film projector). He played Hawaiian guitar, banjo, ukulele and harmonica, and the seven-minute performance made him a star. His most impressive video came in 1933, when he appeared in a Paramount short with split screens featuring Smeck playing four instruments together, thereby laying the foundation for sound-on-sound and multi-track recording.
Smeck’s eclectic style included playing just about every stringed instrument around, including less-common ones like mandolin, lap steel guitar, and his own invention, the Vita-Uke. His repertoire encompassed every genre from jazz to country, often with a Hawaiian influence, and as the years passed he attracted quite a following. His countless instructional books began appearing in the 1930s, and are still available even now.
In his later years Smeck slowed down in performing but continued to inspire newer artists. In 1985 his name was again front and center when a documentary titled The Wizard Of The Strings was nominated for an Academy Award, and even after his death he was still being honoured by several different musical Halls of Fame.
He was probably the most successful endorser of musical instruments prior to Les Paul, but his best-known models were the novelty Vita-ukes of the 1930s, a budget-line Recording King lap steel from Montgomery Ward (made by Gibson) and cheap Harmony electric Hawaiians of the ’50s. He did have a pair of Gibson signature models in the mid ’30s, but both were acoustic Hawaiians, introduced at a time when most Hawaiian-style players – including Smeck himself – were going electric.
Gibson would later ship lap steels directly to Smeck, presumably for his students, The were basically following the EH-150 specifications except for color and binding style, "V" end ebony fingerboard with white/black binding, dot inlays and black peg-head binding.
This is therefore a vintage and extremely rare 1936 Gibson Roy Smeck Special lap steel guitar. Gibson custom made 14 of these lap steel guitars for the Roy Smeck's School of Music. So this is a beautiful piece with a lot of history, and it was part of the batch of special white-finished instruments provided by Gibson which Roy Smeck also used with his band. He can be seen playing his guitar in a short video from the ’30: Farwell Blues.
According to Gibson ledgers, Roy Smeck only received two special 7-strings models; one 8 string special while the rest of his white specials were all 6-strings. The guitar has faded to a yellow color, but when opened one can still see the original white color.
According to A.R. Duchossoir's book in which this piece is found, he writes, 'Factory records show that, between 1936-1937, a further ten EH-150's were custom-finished for the Roy Smeck School of Music. Apparently, seven of them were painted all white, like the Master's instrument...whereas three others (including two 7-strings) were done with black-painted sides and a headstock adorned with the words 'Roy Smeck' instead of the mention 'Roy Smeck Special' that is found on the all-white instruments.’
This guitar was sent to Roy Smeck on the 16 December 1936 for him to sell through his school. Apparently this one did not sell and Gibson sent it later to a pawn shop where they seemed to dump a number of odd and even experimental instruments. This one was sent there on the 10 January 1941.