1950s Orpheum Lap Steel


Musicians have always been attracted to flashy instruments; a perusal of antique instrument collections confirms that carvings, figured woods and intricate inlays are not a recent development. Electrification allowed musicians to show off their gear even more, with console steels that resembled art deco furniture and amplifiers with backlit control panels. Even before electric amplification existed, banjo manufacturers offered kits that allowed players to install lightbulbs behind their instruments’ heads – a crude forerunner of the “Lightshow” Rickenbackers decades later. Even if electric amplification was commonplace by the 1950s, flashy instruments were still in vogue. Some manufacturers attempted to draw players using bright finishes and sparkling plastics, but one builder took things a step further.

The Orpheum name was originally applied to banjos built by Rettberg & Lange. It was eventually overshadowed by Lange’s Paramount line, but Orpheum banjos continued to be sold until Lange’s demise at the end of the 1930s. The brand was eventually purchased by the Maurice Lipsky Music Company, a New York-based distributor of instruments. Lipsky applied the Orpheum name to guitars, mandolins and banjos from a variety of builders including Kay, United Guitars, and a few Japanese and Italian sources. The large majority are easily identifiable because they resemble instruments built by those factories for other brands, but this steel is a unique exception.

For one thing, it lights up. There are light bulbs at each end of the fretboard, concealed under metal plates. The light is reflected off the fret markers and the Orpehum name, which are engraved into the back of the clear Lucite. The bulbs are powered via a detachable cord on an independent circuit from the pickup and controls; the third knob is actually an on/off switch for the lights. While the body of the steel is made of wood (either ash or oak), almost everything on the “superstructure” is made of Lucite. This includes the nut, bridge, tailpiece, tuner blocks, knobs and even the pickup casing. Other steels exist with copious amounts of Lucite – such as examples by Magnatone and Aloha – but they typically have larger amounts of aluminum hardware.

This raises the question: was this steel built by the same folks behind Magnatone and/or Aloha? I don’t believe so; the layering of colors in the knobs is unlike anything seen from those companies. While I can’t pin down the manufacturer with certainty, I strongly suspect that this steel came from the United Guitar factory in Jersey City. There are a few reasons. First, United definitely did produce a number of electric Orpheum models for Lipsky in the 1950s. Second, they had some experience with this kind of plastic: their Premier-branded steels, built for Sorkin in the same period, featured fish and palm tree motifs crafted in three dimensions using similar materials. However, the use of Kluson tuners would be unusual for United, who normally preferred Waverlies.

A small number of these steels have turned up over the years, including some with the Lehua brand name. Interestingly, the bridges and nuts are often in different positions relative to the center line. However, they all follow the same color scheme. This particular steel has had its power plug replaced for safety reasons, but otherwise it is all original.