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  1. #1

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    From Wikipedia:

    Guitar maker A. H. Merrill, for example, patented in 1896 a very modern looking instrument "of the guitar and mandolin type … with egg-shaped hoop or sides and a graduated convex back and top."The instrument featured a metal tailpiece and teardrop shaped "f-holes," and strongly resembled the archtop guitars of the 1930s. James S. Back obtained patent #508,858 in 1893 for a guitar (which also mentions applicability to mandolins) that among other features included an arched top, which were produced under the Howe Orme name.



    The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
  3. #2

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    Last edited by Jabberwocky; 02-23-2018 at 07:32 AM.

  4. #3

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    Why those photos, Jabber?

  5. #4

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    My point is that at least two people were making archtop guitars before Orville Gibson's patent of 1898, and one of them, Merrill was also using f holes back in 1896.

    Not to take anything away from Gibson or Loar, but it's interesting to learn that other people were trying similar things before the Gibson patents.

  6. #5

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    Never heard of those guys, thanks for the reference.

    I suppose almost nothing is invented without major influence from other ideas.

  7. #6

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    Really very interesting Rob...

  8. #7

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    It is, Mike. I'm not at all Gibson bashing here - I recognise the incredible tradition they have made. I guess there are many of us here who believe that Lloyd Loar added the f holes, and, hey presto, the classic jazz archtop was created. I'm thinking that those late 19th-century models were not very well thought out or crafted, then Gibson moved in with the Loar models. Of course, my understanding is that the Loar archtop guitars were not big sellers until after he left the company, but I'm very far from being knowledgeable about such things.

    This being jazz, it's not the original idea that matters so much as what YOU do with it. That said, I wonder if the early archtop guitars were used for playing classical and popular music, as were the early American mandolins. I know some US mandolin specialists who curse the day bluegrass players discovered the modern classical mandolin, and turned it into a folk instrument

    Whatever, I'd like to read more about messers Merrill and Back.

  9. #8

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    I've just located Merrill's patent describing the arched top and back, from 1896. Long, but worth a read:


    (No Model.)
    No. 555,651. Patented Mar. 3, 1896.
    SPECIFICATION forming part of Letters Patent No. 555,651, dated March 3, 1896. Application filed May 24,1895. Serial No. 550,542. (No model.)
    To all whom it may concern.-
    Be it known that I, ALBERT HERVE MER- BILL, a citizen of the United States, residing at Atlanta, in the county of Fulton and State of Georgia, have invented a new, original, and
    vuseful Musical Instrument, termed a Chordola, of which the following description, in
    connection with the accompanying drawings, is a specification. a
    My invention relates to a stringed musical instrum ent of the percussion class, of the guitar and mandolin type, in that it is in-. tended to be picked by the fingers or a plectrum of horn or metal, the tones thereof having a peculiar and distinct character to itself and harmonizing more perfectly with the tones of the violin or bow family of musical instruments than any other stringed instrument heretofore made or used, and possessing greater carrying power or penetration of tone than any of the similar classes of stringed instruments, rendering it avaluable and useful addition to the musical world for solo, concert, and orchestral work. I attain this re sult by making a body or sound-box with eggshaped hoop or sides and graduated convex back and top, to the upper extremity of which and as a continuation of the main air-chamber is a smaller secondary air-chamber, both said air-chambers being necessary tov obtain the required tone. To the upper end of the secondary air-chamber is attached the neck, and 011 the top surface of the neck is fastened the finger-board, furnished with metal frets at the proper intervals to produce the tones and semitones. At the upper end of the neck is the carved head or scroll, furnished with any number of pegs or keys (according to the number of strings used, my preference being six to eight) to stretch the strings to the proper tension in order to obtain the notes or tones desired. The lower end of the fingerboard does not rest upon nor touch the top of the body or sound-box, but projects over it to any sufficient distance for the required number of frets.

    The top and back of the body or sound-box of this instrument are concave upon their inner surface and convex upon the outer, and are made thickest near the center, which is the point of least vibration or greatest resistance, and thinnest at the edge where they are glued to the hoop or sides. Such graduation has never before been applied to instruments of percussion. The back is made solid, but in the top or sound-board on each side of the bridge, so called, over which the strings pass (and the position of which bridge determines the length of string to be used and the position of the frets upon the finger-board) and near the edge of the top, is out an f or sound hole of peculiar but necessary shape, and on each side of the projection of the finger-board in the secondary air-chamber is another sound-hole of different shape. These four holes are for the purpose of emitting the sound-waves produced in the body or soundbox by the vibration of the strings communicated to the top by the bridge and are of just sufficient size and of proper shape to produce O natural, (as termed in the language of music,) the true acoustical tone of such instrument, and if said holes are varied in size or form the tone will be changed.

    Upon the thickest portion of the top or sound-b oard stands the bridge,having two legs or feet and furnished upon its upper edge with a metal wire or fret over which the strings pass. At the rear of this fret is a slight upward proje'ction of the wood, through which are cut slots of sufficient number to accommodate the number of strings to be used, and which slots prevent the strings from moving and rattling when being played upon.
    On the inner or under side of the top or sound-board, with its strongest parts directly under the two legs or feet of the bridge, are glued two bars of wood, pointed at each end and widest in the middle, running longitudinally with the grain of the top or sound-board to strengthen said top in sustaining the weight or tension of the strings when tuned for playmg.

    At the lower end of the body or soundbox of the instrument, and attached to the hoop with a small'screw or screws, is a metal tailpiece, so called, bent at an obtuse angle that it may not touch nor rest upon the top or sound-board, to which is fastened one end of the strings used, the other ends being attached to the pegs or keys in the head of the instrument, heretofore described.

    All taken together, I have a neat, compact, useful, and artistic appearing instrument of peculiar tone and shape having an entirely original and different character from that of any instrument heretofore made.

    For a better comprehension reference must be had to the accompanying drawings, forming a part of this specification, in which like symbols indicate corresponding parts, and wherein- Figure 1 is a front elevation of the complete instrument in its necessary and therefore preferred form, in which A represents the body or sound-box; O, the fretted fingerboard attached to the upper surface of the neck and projecting over but not resting upon nor touching the body or sound-box; D, the carved or scroll head, through which and projecting from its upper surface are the pegs or keys a a a a a a; E, the bridge, and F the tailpiece or string-holder. b b b b are the sound-holes, in form as shown.

    Fig. 2 is a side elevation showing the swell in the top or sound-board and back, B the neck, and G the hoop or sides.

    Fig. 3 is a longitudinal cross-section of the instrument, showing the arched or concavoconvex form of the top or sound-board and back, (represented by II and I,) graduated thickest in centers and thinnest at edges; also the projecting finger-board C and the bars of wood K strengthening the top H, c showing the strengtheningblock inside each end of the body or sound-box and f f showing V- shaped linings to strengthen joinin gs of hoop or sides with top and back.
    Fig.4 is an interior plan view of ihe top,
    showing the four sound-holes Z) Z) I) I) and the two supporting-bars K K.

    Fig. 5 is a longitudinal section of the top or sound-board, showing longitudinal bars or braeings K and the manner of graduation. The point of greatest thickness of both top and bars or bracings lies immediately under the bridge E, and the graduation is made with this point in View.
    Figs. 6 and 7 are the front and end views of the bridge, L L representing the legs or feet which rest upon the top or sound-board to support the strings, and cl the wire fret in the bridge, and g is the projection of the wood above the fret, in which are cut the slots 0 0 1: c o 0, through which the strings pass and are held in place.
    What I claim, and desire to secure by Letters Patent, is-
    In a stringed musical instrument of the percussion class the combination of an egg shaped main air-chamber, or body, with a smaller secondary air-chamber, the raised neck with scroll, or carved head, and the projecting fretted finger-board, the graduated concavo-convexback and top, or sound-boari'l, the said top having the four f, or sound holes of the form shown, and the longitiulinal bars, or bracings, upon the concave side; also the bridge with its two legs, or feet, fret and slots, the purposes of all of which are substantially herein set forth.
    ALBERT HERVE llll lltlllllll.
    RoBr. LEE Avnnv, CLYDE L. BROOKS.

    Not Loar, Not Gibson: Merrill and Back-screen-shot-2018-02-23-15-57-23-jpg

  10. #9

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    Okay, it looks a bit odd, but it has a violin-scroll head, and a body shape I've seen on some classical guitars from the 19th century. Reminds me of some viols I've seen. Remember, this was designed with steel strings in mind, to play classical and popular music. Well, I find it interesting. Doesn't seem to have taken off, though. Or did a young Lloyd Loar see one in his youth?

  11. #10

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    Here's James Back's guitar. The patent ( Howe-Orme Patents ) describes something which looks like the guitars Jabber shared earlier (now I get it, Jabber!). 1893 makes it the earliest of the guitars discussed in the original post.

    Not Loar, Not Gibson: Merrill and Back-h_o_guitar_patent_draw-jpg

  12. #11

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    My understanding is the Loar’s goal was a baritone instrument , like a mandocello, that would fit in a mandolin quartet. It was only later that the archtop gained prominence in jazz and came to replace the banjo in jazz groups. At least that’s what I remember reading somewhere.

  13. #12

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    That makes sense, historically. The mandolin and banjo were hugely popular, especially in orchestras and smaller ensembles.

  14. #13

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    I will admit that I got a little aroused when reading “perculiar but necessary shape”.

  15. #14

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  16. #15

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    A sort of joke there.

    Thanks for posting this. Great stuff, and notable that so much of the capability of a plucked archtop is described.

  17. #16

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    Comparing the patent drawings, the Loar design seems something of a synthesis, witting or not; and in any case, a wonderful thing for us archtop enthusiasts. Thank you for your research, Rob!

    I might add that the Merrill design looks intriguing. I wonder if any examples are extant and/or in playable condition?

  18. #17

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    Tuning in late, Rob. NK Forster, Stefan Sobell apprentice, talked about being influenced by Howe Orme guitars and their arched tops. His guitars show a modern interpretation of the design.

  19. #18

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  20. #19

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    Quote Originally Posted by ptchristopher3
    I will admit that I got a little aroused when reading “perculiar but necessary shape”.

  21. #20

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    Jabber’ ,

    We should both be troubled to find the same things funny.

  22. #21

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    Rick Turner mentioned a Howe Orme guitar as par of the inspiration for the design of the Turner Model 1 as used by Lindsey Buckingham et al. As I understand it, the effect of the shape is to break up standing waves and wave reflections inside the guitar, in his view.

    Legendary Luthier Rick Turner on Howe-Orme Guitars | Collectors Weekly

    My goodness, that guitar in the video linked by Jabs sounds wonderful!

  23. #22

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    There are a number of things in nature that have a peculiar but necessary shape. Some more peculiar than necessary, of course, but still...

  24. #23

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    Quote Originally Posted by ptchristopher3
    Jabber’ ,

    We should both be troubled to find the same things funny.
    Arousal gets men (mainly men) into lots of trouble.

  25. #24

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    I wonder about having the center of the carved top being thicker than the edges, as noted in the patent.

    This is the tried and true (thus subject to mythological idiocy) method.

    Yet the few “formed” tops (thus with a constant thickness throughout) we have experienced seem to sound remarkably good.

    I mean, if the Cremonese masters (and LLLLoyd LLLLoar) had formed tops from constant thickness coniferous wood soaked in cremonese goat urine and sat on by virgins or something, that would be the ideal.

    The we would all deride those awful carved tops with grain runout and other awful artifacts.

    It makes one wonder.

    I have not tried the new Gibson formed 17”, but reports are that it sounds great.

    All interesting.

  26. #25

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    I'm working on it for my upcoming Roger archtop project. A video of the build process, involving virgins sitting on my Roger, may be in order.

  27. #26

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    Leave out the goat pee part maybe.

  28. #27

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    Not being a politician, I'll skip that part.

  29. #28

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    We have an ammendment protecting the right to keep and pee goats here.

  30. #29

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    Peeing goats sounds like a very painful proposition. I'll just keep on peeing pee. That's all I think I can handle, and sometimes I'm not completely certain of that.

  31. #30

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    Please stay focussed, gentlemen

  32. #31

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    Focus can be very difficult to attain, and even more difficult to maintain.

  33. #32

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    Jab beat me to it with the N Forster / Howe Orme stuff. NF was selling his two (I think) Howe-Orme guitars a few months ago, and he may know more about Merrill Bach as from his blog, and Jabs photos, it sounds as if he has made a study of this type of build, and, of course he is UK based.

  34. #33

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    Some weeks ago I was so "audacious" to point to Merrill's patent n. 555,651 from 1896. Glad a few members show interest.
    In Europe, some folks know that the archtop guitar was "invented" much earlier.

    Just one of those earlier descriptions (I'm sure there can be found some more!) - among many other suggestions to improve the guitar - were compiled in the book Materialien zu einer Geschichte der Gitarre und ihre Meister mit Abbildungen by Eduard Fack, Berlin 1884 ( )

    Not Loar, Not Gibson: Merrill and Back-archtop-guitarre-heinrich-walker-von-goetershausen-publication-magazien-musikalischer-ton-jpg

    Some roughly translated excerpts:

    Improvement on the guitar by Heinrich Walker of Goetershausen. Even the famous instrument maker, Heinrich Walker von Goetershausen, has come up with the improvement of the Guit. [guitar] and wrote down his experiences in his publication: Magazien musikalischer Tonwerkzeuge Frankfurt a/M, 1855 (See construction and making of the Guit., pages 246 and 250 with illustration). In the introduction, he speaks as follows. The poor sound of the guit. made me think of reinforcing it with a more violin-like shape. Some attempts, where I had set myself firm rules, led me to a quite favorable result.

    Guit. built according to these rules get a very pleasant, full and round tone, also a very pleasing appearance to the eye.

    this construction, the top of the Guit. gets an arch, and two f-holes (like the violin) instead of the sound hole. Like the bridge, the fingerboard has a small radius and sits freely above the top. The back is also slightly arched. The strings are attached to the bottom of the sides with rounds and are covered with a flap.
    The remaining parts are as with the ordinary guitar.

    Goat pee ... guys, is really out of focus in stringed instrument making! The whole violin world knows that the Cremonese makers used mainly rabbit pee and horse dung. The first is still in use in some places.
    I'm an old geezer now, but the generation of my grandfathers still knew about the positive effects on the wood after they put boards in liquid manure for some years.

    Virgins in archtop instrument making ... well, I could state something on this, but, gentlemen, sorry, if I keep that for myself!

  35. #34

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    Ol' Fret, many thanks for that, which I somehow missed when you first posted it. It sounds like he invented the archtop guitar with f holes! But he seems to have kept using gut strings. Very interesting, though, and thanks for the translation. Can I have your permission to quote it in a blog post I'm working on?

  36. #35

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    I correct myself: Walker mentions the strings are attached to the bottom of the guitar (if I read him correctly) with a flap cover, somewhat like a mandolin, which implies wire strings at least.

  37. #36

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    Great stuff as usual Ol’f.

    Many thanks.

  38. #37

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    bananafist, NK Forster made an early Brexit and moved to Leipzig, Germany. No longer in the UK.

  39. #38

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jabberwocky
    bananafist, NK Forster made an early Brexit and moved to Leipzig, Germany. No longer in the UK.
    I believe he has left Germany and returned to the UK. I believe that he said this in an AGF post recently.

  40. #39

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob MacKillop
    Ol' Fret, many thanks for that, which I somehow missed when you first posted it. It sounds like he invented the archtop guitar with f holes! But he seems to have kept using gut strings. Very interesting, though, and thanks for the translation. Can I have your permission to quote it in a blog post I'm working on?

    You're welcome - feel free to do so!

    It would be wise to do some more own research on this matter - I'd never rely on one single source! Unfortunately, institutional archtop guitar (history) research is still out of focus in Europe, at least it is in Germany!

    The book by Eduard Fack was written in 1884. Some spelling rules have changed since then in the German idiom, and it seems Mr. Fack was not overly familiar with orthography: The correct name of the above mentioned "Verfertiger musikalischer Instrumente" (musical instrument maker), a luminary of his time, was Heinrich Welcker von Gontershausen.

    Gontershausen published some fundamental works: Unsere digitalisierten Werke alphabetisch nach den Namen ihrer Verfasser - Welcker von Gontershausen, Heinrich . Since that library is in walking distance of one of my whereabouts, I should really spend some of my spare time ...
    Conveniently, they digitalized that book, and we can go through it - on occasion, it's only 446 pages: just click on the listed publication from 1855!

    I'm sure there are more surprises, names and instruments, to be found in German-French-British-Italian libraries, or in the basements of some museums. The instrument makers' scene was extremely vibrant in Europe in the 19th century. There's a reason why I quasi mantra-like have to repeat: there's almost nothing reasonably new to be found when it comes to (the practice of) archtop guitar making!

    @ steel strings: I could be wrong, but I believe that steel strings didn't emerge widely before the end of the 19th century - in Germany, probably not before the 1910s or so.

    If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library. - Frank Zappa

  41. #40

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    Thanks, Ol' Fret. I do know for sure (published advertisements) that steel banjo strings were being sold in the US in the 1890s, possibly earlier.

    Nothing new under the sun...This, from 1493:

    Not Loar, Not Gibson: Merrill and Back-vihuela_bpintoricchio_1493-jpg

  42. #41

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    Well, here it is, the illustration of the archtop guitar made by Heinrich Welcker von Gontershausen, as published in 1855, including the quite complex description of the construction (pages 252 - 256 in the above mentioned scan - doesn't exactly correspond to the pages in the original book):

    Not Loar, Not Gibson: Merrill and Back-archtop-guitarre-heinrich-welcker-von-gontershausen-fig-83-p-251-jpg

  43. #42

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    Looks good, though. Quite a curve on the bridge - makes me wonder if the fingerboard matched it.

  44. #43

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob MacKillop
    My point is that at least two people were making archtop guitars before Orville Gibson's patent of 1898, and one of them, Merrill was also using f holes back in 1896.

    Not to take anything away from Gibson or Loar, but it's interesting to learn that other people were trying similar things before the Gibson patents.
    Almost every invention is that way. Many people were experimenting with various elements of powered flight, but it was the Wright brothers who put it together in a form that made sense and could become a platform for modifications, expansions, and improvements.

  45. #44

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    Exactly. It's just pleasant to spend some time wading through smaller tributaries. They are not without interest.

  46. #45

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    Wait a minute... look closely... What's the guy in the orange shirt looking at... No... It's... HOLY COW!!!

    Not Loar, Not Gibson: Merrill and Back-vihuela_bpintoricchio_1493-jpg

  47. #46

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    The guy in the red outfit looks like he's thinking 'One day guys from all over the world are going to look at me and think - who built that guitar?'

  48. #47

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    In terms of inventions, to put it simply, there are three categories:

    1. Individual or small team work achievements.

    2. Inventions that are based on the collecting of previous achievements in the same or related fields.

    3. The
    unrestrained dog-eat-dog mentality, involving patent wars, shrewd patent attorneys and greedy businessmen. In some special cases, it's nothing but intentional falsification of history: You only see those in the light, you do not see them in the shadows.

    Honor to whom honor is due.

    Just have a look what happened to the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax. Rival instrument makers both attacked the legitimacy of his patents and were sued by Sax for patent infringement. The legal back-and-forth continued for over 20 years. He was driven into bankruptcy three times: in 1852, 1873, and 1877. In 1894 Sax died in complete poverty.

    Some will argue that just served the inventor of an instrument with such a "carnal" and "voluptuous" sound right.
    he saxophone's seedy reputation probably began in 1903 when the Vatican declared that the saxophone gave reasonable concern for disgust and scandal. Now you have to wonder how the pope would have figured this out, you know, sitting in his apartment listening to some wax cylinders of saxophone music and saying, 'Wow, that's profane. That's what profane music is.'
    And then in the teens, when there was the dance craze in America and everyone's boogalooing and doing a lot of dirty dancing in the seedier nightclubs, which is where the saxophone gravitated to, the Ladies' Home Journal wrote that the saxophone rendered listeners incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong and evil and good."
    (Michael Segell 'The Devil's Horn')

  49. #48

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    Well, I think we can all agree about the sax being carnal That's it's main attraction. Vegans don't play sax. Fact!

  50. #49

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob MacKillop
    Well, I think we can all agree about the sax being carnal That's it's main attraction. Vegans don't play sax. Fact!

    I agree: It's all about the sausage!

    Not Loar, Not Gibson: Merrill and Back-dscf3151c-jpg

  51. #50

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    Thats the wurst sax joke I've ever heard...