Ca. 1920 Regal Mandolin

 

The Regal Musical Instrument Company has become somewhat legendary. Founded in 1908 in Chicago, it became one of the world’s most prolific instrument builders in the first half of the 20th century. Like its neighbors Harmony, Kay, Lyon & Healy, and Valco, it churned out guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and other stringed instruments in enormous numbers and with myriad brands written across the headstock. The large majority of those were cheap student-level instruments, but Regal was also capable of producing some beautiful higher-quality instruments when demand existed. The top floor of Regal’s three-story factory housed the company’s custom shop, where instruments were crafted smaller quantities but with greater attention to detail. Due to the ubiquity of cheap Regal instruments, the company’s name is primarily associated with low-end guitars today. This is not altogether unfair, as they certainly did focus on that segment of the market, but it has led some people to conclude erroneously that Regal was incapable of producing anything nice.

This mandolin is a perfect example. The reverse-scroll shape of the body (“reversed” in relation to Gibson) was used by Regal as far back as 1914 and was kept in production at least through 1938. Most reverse-scroll mandolins have a subtly different shape, without the third point on the lower bout and featuring a lumpier scroll. Many were cheap all-birch flat-top creations with minimal trim, though some (such as the carved-top models built for Bacon and Day) were quite fancy. While this model has a flat top, it is clearly one of Regal’s higher-priced offerings. Yet, there has been speculation that the instrument was built for Regal by some other builder. Some suspect that the Larson Brothers built this model, based largely on the similarity to mandolin-family instruments they built for the Bruno brand. However, I believe that Regal built this mandolin themselves.

I have found two other mandolins more or less identical to this one, and they have a number of features that make them unique among Regals that I’ve encountered. The scroll inlays, and the whole shape of the headstock, are unprecedented for a Regal, as is the way that the back covers the heel at the neck joint. However, there is nothing that Regal would have been incapable of building. Indeed, the engraved tuner cover is the sort of feature that is more likely to come from a large factory than a two-person operation like the Larsons. The label is fairly unusual as well – I have only seen it in one similar mandolin, though I’ve been told it appeared in guitars as well – but stylistically it seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s. The inlayed pickguard also suggests a 1920s date or possibly even earlier. I wonder if this is one of Regal’s first flat-top mandolins, most likely a semi-copy of the Larsons’ work for Bruno but with some unique twists of its own.

The mandolin appears to be all original except the tailpiece cover (which was missing when I acquired it). The fretboard has been shimmed to improve the action, but overall the mandolin is in very good condition for an instrument approaching its centennial. The tone is very clear, with lots of treble and bass but a mild midrange.

 

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