Lyra baritone ukuleleLyra nut and fretboardLyra head stock, frontLyra West Germany stampLyra bridgeLyra bridge and saddleLyrastring hightLyra bodyLyra ukulele with glass saddle

Lyra ukuleles

I'm not sure what possessed me to drive to Toronto to look at this uke, but when a woman called me at home, earlier this month, and asked if I was interested in it, I said sure. I had never heard of Lyra, so I was curious. Besides, I wanted a second baritone. And the price was right.

Lyra is a hard company to track. The name was used by a New York-based instrument distributor and reseller (not manufacturer) called Bruno (C. Bruno and Sons), in the 1920s and 1930s. Lyra was their trademark for a Hawaiian-made, all-koa ukulele, possibly built for them, some suggest, by the Richter Company, in that era.

Another site suggests that in the decade after WWI, Bruno apparently put the label Lyra on a line of Oscar Schmidt-built instruments, mainly 12-string guitars, and on their koa ukes. The site also says the Bruno name itself turns up on budget Regal-made instruments in the 1930s and on novelty ukes in the 1940s-50s. None of this I can substantiate yet.

Bruno seems to have been in business through WWII, and beyond, It may still survive, although I have yet to locate them. They used to sell banjo-ukes under the name Maxitone, and a line of mandolins, as well. There are some nice comments and write-ups on Lyra ukes on Antebellum Instruments, but not much more history than I've found.

Mine seems to be a twin of his baritone. Blonde-ish mahogany, solid top, very little decoration: simple, varnished fretboard with no rosewood overlay, friction tuners, wooden nut, tiny saddle (possibly bone or plastic) and what seems to be a rosewood bridge. Metal frets, and very light - at 514 gms, it's lighter in fact than many of my tenors (and most concert scale ukes). A bit utilitarian in appearance. Some might call that a "clean" look. The neck is a little thicker than I feel it needs to be, but not seriously thick or problematic for playing.

This Lyra and others like it seem to originate in the mid-late 1950s and continued through to the mid-late 1960s or even early 1970s. I've seen one claimed to be from the 1940s, but I can find no evidence this model was produced then (and if it was, as I suspect, made in Japan, that is highly unlikely).

I can't even find out if this is the same trademark brand as the 1920s' Bruno Lyra, since the name also appears on several musical instruments for sale on European sites. Nor have I found any production notes as to how many models or what quantities they made. Frustrating!

There are online comments about Lyras being labelled or stamped "West Germany" (like this one), Japan and even USA. That makes me suspect they were actually made overseas - probably in Japan - and imported/stamped by different international distributors.

Some sites suggest that Regal actually made the instruments for re-sellers. Apparently the Lyra name was also on some guitars of that post-war era. Bruno (which held the trademark for the earlier Lyra, and possibly for this later model) also seems to have re-branded Harmony instruments under the Lyra name, according to other sites. One mandolin site is adamant Lyra mandolins were made by Regal and re-labelled. Having seen a few Bruno instruments listed for sale online, it seems from the differences in detail and finish that more than one manufacturer may have been involved.

None of this is confirmed, and I'm still digging into it. Any definitive help would be appreciated.

It's very, very unlikely that at least three countries (Japan, USA and West Germany have been identified as being named on stamps or labels) were all making the same instrument at the same time in different factories. Lyra was a budget line, after all, and by the 1960s, the popularity of ukes was falling considerably, so why would someone keep an expensive production line in the West open for a budget line when less expensive imports were readily available? It's far more likely that the basic body was imported from Japan, and tuners, strings and saddle (and maybe an inside stamp or label) were added in the home country - just enough to justify the "made in" sticker.

Also, during that era, many companies were buying instruments from a large Japanese factory that also made Diastone, Ibanez, Yamaha, Martin and other companies' products. A lot of these were the same model, just different labels. The finish, decoration or the top (laminate or solid) would determine whether it was a budget or upscale model. They had a
good reputation, and their instruments stand up well today. The guitars seem to have a minor collectability. In the early 1970s, many of these companies opened their own plants to manufacture instruments, and others (especially the budget lines) went to plants in Korea. Today they're in China and the Phillipines.

The woman I got this one from said she bought it in 1965, in Texas, and has been the sole owner ever since. It was worn from use, but had nothing seriously wrong that I could see. A few micro-cracks that might extend only through the finish (unsure), plus some scuffing and a few dings and scratches, but overall fairly good condition for an instrument that got played a lot by her and her kids. The first thing I could see it needed was new strings. I think these were the 'Flintstone' brand...

This is my restoration project. Aside from the TLC and cleaning it requires, a few frets have to be tapped down along the edges where they have lifted slightly and filed a bit for smoothness. The tuners probably need cleaning and oiling, maybe tightening too. The bridge is okay but the saddle is too thin and short, so the strings actually press onto the bridge itself (see photo at left). I can't raise the saddle because the string height is already a bit higher than I prefer, so I have to widen and deepen the saddle slot so I can put in a new saddle (either bone or glass - this would be the perfect opportunity to test my glass saddles).

Collectability? This was a bargain line, not a craftsman's product. I think this is a collectable only for the really dedicated aficionado who wants one of everything. I keep only instruments I plan to play, so I can't say for sure if this will remain in the collection long - depends on how it sounds when I get it restrung and a new saddle in place. More to come.

Update, August 17, 2010. I replaced the saddle with a glass and then a Tusq saddle as a test on how they changed the sound. Yes, both really changed the tone and sound of this uke in a dramatic way. Story and pictures, and my conclusions, are on my blog.

August 20, 2010: Finally got around to setting up the strings to a lower (medium) height and now this ukulele is a joy to play. Loud, full voice. I'm becoming quite attached to this, although I'm still more comfortable with a tenor scale. Using the Tusq saddle until I can spare the time to sand the glass down to a piece about half its current height.

Would I purchase another Lyra? Unlikely, unless it was a yard-sale bargain. I'm not a vintage collector.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, for collectors more than players, but it's nice for a baritone and very sweet.
Rating (0-5): **1/2 with the new saddle
Status: A work in progress.

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