1940s Bandello

World War II did some odd things to the musical instrument business. Many factories were converted to the production of war-related materiel, so relatively few instruments were built between 1942 and 1947. Also hindering production were material rationing priorities set in place by the US government: metals of all kinds were sequestered for the war effort, since bombers took priority over guitar pickups. Some manufacturers scraped together instruments from leftover pre-War parts, including many with specifications that never appeared in catalogs.

One person was determined not to let materials rationing keep people from playing music. William Otto Miessner was a composer and music educator who, by the 1940s, could look back on a long and successful career. He had taught at several universities, received honorary doctorates from several more, had edited music textbooks, and had founded his own music institute. When wartime rationing began to affect the availability of student-grade instruments, he designed a new instrument that could be built with minimal interference from material shortages.

The result was the Bandello, an ambiguous combination of tenor banjo, mandolin and guitar the size of a ukulele. The four strings were tuned in 4ths – from the bottom up, A-D-G-C. The round wooden body with a spruce top would have been familiar to musicians in the early 1940s as a design used both by banjo and ukulele builders. Miessner couldn’t completely eliminate metals from his instrument – there were still tuners, frets and a tailpiece required, not to mention strings – but he kept metal use to a minimum and eliminated plastics altogether.

The Bandello was announced in an article (really a thinly-veiled advertisement) in a Chicago newspaper in January, 1943. The article mentions that the instrument was to be built by a Chicago company – a reference to Kay, whose unmistakable headstock shape caps the Bandello. The article also references another Chicago firm that was to market the instrument – most likely Montgomery Ward, which was cataloguing the Bandello by 1945.

Miessner’s goal was to create an inexpensive instrument that would be accessible to musicians of all ages and budgets. He appears to have succeeded, since the Bandello sold for a mere $5.85, plus $3.45 for a case and 35¢ for a pitch-pipe tuner. Kay definitely didn’t put much effort into building this; the neck is attached by two screws, the painted binding is sloppy, and the finish is so thin that it’s hard to avoid scratching it while re-stringing. Bizarrely, though, the rim does display a nice birdseye pattern if you look closely. While it’s not known how many were built, the Bandello couldn’t have been manufactured in large numbers based on the few examples that survive today. The instrument was likely shelved once material “priority troubles” faded after the War.