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Above: Jim Myers holds his perplexing find - a Guitar-O-Lin - a hybrid musical instrument he has yet to play. Photo by Phil Houseal

Below: The decal in the sound hole showed the $35 price, but the instruments were sold door to door at much cheaper prices. Photo by Phil Houseal


The best information on the Guitar-O-Lin is at www.geocities.com/~ukelin. If anyone can play it, please let me know.

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by Phil Houseal
Nov 5, 2008


Did anyone ever knock on your door and try to sell you a Guitar-O-Lin?

I realize this question only makes sense to those old enough to remember the days of door-to-door salesmen. Young folks may be surprised to learn that people used to show up at your house, extolling the virtues of brushes, vacuums, and sets of encyclopedias. Don't make me explain encyclopedias.

Back to Guitar-O-Lins.

One day dulcimer player Jim Myers walked into my office and laid a stringed board on my desk. "Did you ever see one of these?" he asked.

It appeared to be a 3-foot long wooden box. On top were four sets of four strings, overlaid with two canted rows of another 16 strings, all connected to tuning pegs. Under the strings were note names on a decal that had been shellacked to the wood. Inside the sound hole in the center were the words: Guitar-O-Lin, $35, Lancaster PA.

I had no idea what it was. Neither did Myers.

His wife, Franky, came across the strange musical instrument - for that is what it is - while antique shopping in Maryland. Knowing her husband's love of things with strings, she just couldn't walk away from it, and finally bought it.

"She said she didn't know whether I would be upset that she spent the money on something that she didn't know what it was, or thrilled," Myers said. Turns out he was just perplexed. "I looked at it and said what the heck is this? But it was so interesting, I started cleaning it up right away and tried to learn something about it."

What he learned is that the Guitar-O-Lin is a piece of Americana. It also went by the names of Ukelin and Violin Uke, and according to Bob's Ukelin web page, it is a bowed stringed musical instrument, which combines the Hawaiian ukulele (uke) with the violin (lin). It was made and sold from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Further research reveals that it was less a musical instrument than it was a marketing gimmick.

Take that $35 sticker printed on the label in the sound hole. Actually those Depression-era peddlers could buy them from the factory for $3. Once an unsuspecting housewife opened her door, the salesman would play a patriotic song and a hymn. He promised it was an easy instrument for a beginner and folks could learn to play it in one day. To seal the deal, the peddler would offer the instrument for half the price listed on it. He made a 400% profit, then disappeared. Frustrated when they figured out the instrument was unplayable, ashamed purchasers stashed the things in closets and attics.

Apparently a lot of housewives succumbed to its charms. In its heyday, the factory was making and selling 100 instruments a week. But eventually even the company CEO was embarrassed by the number of returns and angry letters they received, and the factory shut down in 1972.

Since then, the Guitar-O-Lin has mainly appeared at yard sales and flea markets. They are not rare, but still fascinating.

Myers has yet to tune the thing, let alone play it. He did learn that the upper bout of strings is stroked with a bow, while at the same time the musician strums the lower strings. He vows to give it a try.

"I have got to learn more about this, and eventually get the chance to play this thing so I can hear what it sounds like," he said. Until then, he still enjoys owning it.

"When you look it, you go 'wow.' A lot of thought went into building this."