This is a pretty old and somewhat rare parlor guitar from Orpheum Leader. I love these older small parlor style guitars. The Orpheum brand dates back to the 1920’s and is primarily associated with William L. Lange of New York. They were successful banjo company, but Orpheum guitars are obscure. Several makers built these guitars including Kay and likely Regal. Orpheum guitars that were made in the 30s or 40s are nice guitars and were not really expensive. Orpheum sold archtops as well as flattop guitars.

Guitar is made from solid woods as most all the guitars from this era. The back and sides are mahogany and the top is spruce, the fingerboard and bridge are rosewood. The grain looks like the rosewood is Brazilian, but not positive. Brazilian rosewood was commonly used in this era. Fret wire is used on bridge as the saddle. It appears that at least one set of tuners on one side have been replaced (if not both). Frets are original and have wear, but quite playable. Looks like the top of the headstock has been notched out a bit by someone as the most of these Orpheum Leader guitars I have seen come to a more of a point (see example below).

Example of headstock of vintage Orpheum Leader guitar

This is a very small parlor guitar. Sounds bigger due to the resonance of the mahogany body. Great little guitar for playing on your front porch or couch.

Measurements:

  • Scale Length: 24-1/2-inch
  • Neck joins body at 14th fret
  • Upper Bout: 8-inch
  • Waist: 6-1/2-inch
  • Lower Bout: 11-inch
  • Body Depth: 3-1/2-inch
  • Nut Width: 1-35/64-inch
  • Body length: 15-3/4-inch
  • Overall Length: 36-inch

Worth noting that old and rare do not make it valuable, but a nice little fun guitar anyway. Great conversation piece as well.

Statement from the person I bought this guitar from:
I picked this up about five years back in Indiana. The resonance of the old mahogany was the attraction for me. I then had guitar luthier, Jamon Zeiler (zeilerguitars.com), work on the action and keeping tune. He improved both greatly. I tried to find out the year this guitar was made and basically with Orpheums there is no way to tell. Someone wrote 1928 inside the sound hole but I can’t validate that date. However, I do like to think that it lived through the Great Depression as production stopped during the 30s/40s and resumed in the 50s. The warmth of the wood could suggest it is older than the 50s. And man, it has tons of character.

In reality, this Orpheum Leader Parlor guitar was more likely to have been made in the late 1930s or early 1940s by the Kay Musical Instrument Company. Many of these Orpheum guitars were made by Kay in the 1930’s and 1940’s and distributed by William Lange as well as C. Bruno and Son both of NY. It had flat round strings on it when received it. I swapped these out for a more period correct and brighter Martin Retro Monel Extra Light 10-47 gauge. Guitar has no adjustable truss rod (as expected). The neck is pretty straight with a slight back bow. Plays pretty nice.

Martin Retros are the original Nickel acoustic string – the real deal – all the way from the 1930s. Retro strings offer a uniquely mellow, yet crisp, sound that allows your guitar’s natural tone woods to be heard, not overshadowed. They are crafted with Monel, a solid Nickel/Copper wrap wire – not nickel-plated – meaning there is no chance for defects in the plating to allow for corrosion. Instead, Martin’s proprietary wrap wire is naturally corrosion resistant and it is incredibly strong. We also employ a sophisticated winding process in the making of our Retro String that controls the coupling between the core and wrap wire to maximize intonation. Martin Retros are the real deal. Not an imitation. With Martin Retros, you get one tough set of strings that will last a long time and give you true, consistent tone that sounds like nothing else on the market.

Orpheum was a major East coast banjo producer and distributor in the early 1920s. They also made some guitars as well. Here is some history I was able to find.

In 1897 Messrs Rettburg and Lange took over the factory and banjo making plant of JH Buckbee and established a factory at 383 Second Avenue, New York City. By 1903 they had moved to 115-121 East 13th Street and from this address in 1908 they announced the production of their “Orpheum” range of banjos. Three years later they were able to announce that increasing business had made then seek even larger premises at 225-227 East 24th Street.

In January 1915 they advertised their “Brass Band Orpheum” – an new banjo with 29 frets (to high G) . The neck on this instrument was joined to the hoop at the 20th fret with a fret board extension over the velum carrying the extra 9 frets.

July 1918 saw the debut of the “Orpheum Plectrum banjo” and a new 5 string with a long fifth string tuned to an octave below the third string (this banjo was similar to the Vega banjo Brent Hayes had played for some years).

It was in August 1920 that the company was granted a US patent for its new “Paramount” banjo and this new instrument (designed by William L Lange) made its first appearance in 1921. In 1922 William took over sole control of the company and changed the title to Wm L Lange. In September of that year he announced (as “successor to Rettberg & Lange) six styles of the “Paramount” banjos.

“Paramount” banjos became world famous and were much sought after by all the leading dance-band players. The five spacious floors at East 24th Street accommodated over 250 workers making banjos and included its own plating shop. It was during this period that Wm D Bowen tested all banjos leaving the factory.

In November 1922 Lange made what was said to be the World’s largest banjo. It was for the Paul Whiteman orchestra and is said to have cost $500. The instrument weighed 35 pounds and was five feet long. The hoop was 24” in diameter and the neck 3 feet long and was playable!

In the early part of 1925 the Lange factory bought out a cheaper model instrument with the name of “Langstile” and this incorporated a resonator made of metal and mahogany. Such was the demand for this cheaper instrument that it was produced at a second factory located in Brooklyn where instruments (notably the “Challenger” and the “Artcraft” range) were also made for other manufacturers and retailers to sell. All manufacturing ceased in 1939.

The Challenger Melody King and the Challenger Victory were both manufacctured by William Lange the builder of Paramounts, Orpheums, Langstiles, Langecraft, Broadcraft and many more for various stores. The Melody King model was a bottom end professional level model which sold for $135 in the late 20’s, $5 more than a Paramount A. Langstile Tenor models, sometimes with a Supertone name were made for Sears by Lange.

Lange debuted the Paramount guitar series – and few of the models may have been built by the C.F. Martin guitar company. Lange was quick to add Orpheum-branded guitars, and some of those models were built by Chicago’s Kay company. Lange’s company went out of business in the early 1940s, but New York distributor Maurice Lipsky resumed distribution of Orpheum guitars in 1944. By the late 1940s, the Paramount guitar line was distributed by Gretsch & Brenner Company.

The Orpheum and Paramount brands have been bartered about like many old musical instrument brand names. Some guitars made in China, Japan and Korea after the 1960s carry these brand names, but have nothing to do with the old company.