Ca. 1897 Merrill Style A

The Industrial Age has seen its share of “wonder materials”; steel, plastic and silicon have all changed the lives of people around the world. In the late 19th century, the wonder material was aluminum. First isolated in the 1820s, it was exceptionally expensive to extract at first. Napoleon III was said to have thrown a banquet where the most honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the less important attendees were sent home with cheaper gold cutlery. A cost-effective means of extracting metallic aluminum from ore was finally developed in the late 1880s, and before the century was out, people were developing countless new ways to use the material. One result was probably the first musical instrument built predominantly from a synthetic material, a line of aluminum-bodied mandolins created by Alfred Springer by 1891.

Others followed suit, including Neil Merrill. Hailing from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Merrill set about creating an entire series of instruments built from aluminum. His main interest appears to have been mandolins, but his creations included guitars, banjos, and lutinas (wood-topped 5-string banjos). Merrill apparently migrated to New York by 1894 where he founded the Aluminum Musical Instrument Company to manufacture these instruments. (One source makes a convincing argument that the Company never actually built the instruments but contracted out all the work). Over the next couple of years, Merrill and his company were awarded several patents for aluminum instruments. However, despite exclusive patent rights, endorsement from famed mandolinist Valentine Abt, and an extensive advertising campaign, the company faltered after barely four years. By the end of 1898, it was deeply in debt and had ceased production.

All Merrill guitars appear to have spruce tops (which agrees with the brand’s advertisements), mahogany necks and ebony fretboards. Most instruments use aluminum only for the back and sides, though a couple of mandolins survive built entirely from the metal – top, neck, fretboard and all. There were several levels of ornamentation offered, though this was mainly manifested in different engraving patterns on the aluminum backs. This particular guitar appears to be a Style A, which listed for $55, the same as a Martin 1-34 from the same period (and generally a fancier guitar). The aluminum bodies were apparently intended to be more than just a gimmick; Merrill claimed that they were exceptionally durable, beautiful, and toneful. This last quality was promoted using some very dubious statements about the role that wood plays in a guitar’s sound and emphasizing that aluminum was “the most sonorous metal known”. It was pseudo-scientific hogwash, though not exceptionally hyperbolic by the standards of the day.

The standard of construction on Merrill guitars was excellent, and a number of them remain playable well over a century after they were built. All the wood-topped guitars and mandolins actually have a narrow strip of wood above the aluminum sides; this not only masks the joint between materials, but it also makes for a stronger connection. This particular guitar has two top cracks on either side of the fretboard; given that aluminum expands differently than wood with temperature, it’s impressive that most Merrill guitar tops just have one or two age-related cracks and have not completely splintered over time. This guitar also sports replacement tuners and a replacement bridge with a compensated saddle – normal upkeep for a guitar in its twelfth decade of use.