Color: Fiddle-back burst, Rating: 9.00, Sold (ID# 01686)
Call to Inquire: (818) 222-4113


The Very First Wilkanowski Airway Guitar.


1938 Wilkanowski W-4 SER #1.


This incredible 17 1/4 inch-wide, 3 1/4 inches deep at rims (5 1/2 inch total depth), 'violin-shaped', non-cutaway archtop with cello-like points and single black mastic bound, cat's-eye soundholes weighs just 6.30 lbs. One-piece, deep carved, European tight-grain spruce top. One-piece, deep carved, highly figured Italian Po Valley Poplar back. Highly figured Italian Po Valley Poplar sides. The top of the body is single-bound with black mastic and ornately decorated with 53 inlaid Abalone rectangles separated by black mastic. The back of the body is single-bound in black mastic. The body measures 21 inches in length (the total length of the guitar is 42 inches). One-piece tiger-maple neck with a nut width of just under 1 11/16 inches, a scale length of 25 inches and a strong 'V' profile. 'Striped' black and wine colored Madagascar ebony fretboard, each side with an inlaid line of 21 pieces of abalone. Twenty original medium frets and progressively-sized inlaid Rhombus-shaped Abalone position markers. 'Deco' style headstock face with 'striped' black and wine colored Madagascar ebony with two large 'pearloid' (Mother-of-Toilet-Seat) inlays and "W  AIRWAY" inlaid in abalone over Italian Po-Valley poplar, separated from the neck by a strip of Madacscar ebony. Individual Grover "Sta-Tite", open-back tuners with two-curved sided rectangular pearloid buttons. 'Slab' tiger maple pickguard inlaid with jet-black ebony surrounded by 20 inlaid rectangular pieces of Abalone separated by black mastic. Hand-carved 'striped' black and wine colored Madagascar ebony bridge on height-adjustable Madagascar ebony base. Black and wine colored Madagascar ebony trapezoidal tailpiece with inlaid (3/4 inch diameter) abalone circle and nickel plated Grover Deluxe tailpiece bracket secured to the edge of the body by three screws. Inside the bass sound-hole is a rectangular, decoratively bordered, white label with "US Pat. Pending" (typed in black) / Wilkanowski & Son / "Airway" (typed in black) Guitar Makers / "W 4 SER. #1" (typed in black) Made in USA". The back of the body is signed in black  "W. Wilkanowski / 1938" just above the label. There is a small hole on the top (under the pickguard) which has been caused by the bolt on the pickguard piercing the top. The pickguard has an additional small hole just by the last abalone inlay and the seventh rectangular abalone inlay on the pickguard has been replaced. There is also a tiny piece broken away from the 'last' abalone inlay on the pickguard and the 12th abalone inlay is completely missing. The pickguard bracket may not be the original. There is some finish checking but overall this is probably the finest example extant. Housed in the original five-latch, shaped black softshell case with burgundy velvet lining (8.75).

This fine and exceptionally rare guitar comes with two original photographs featuring Frank Malz with his Airway 18" W-4 SER #1. Additionally, it comes with the following letter: "Born in New York, Frank Malz (1910-1980), better known by his stage name, Ed Murphy, played acoustic arch-top guitar from the 1930's through the 1950's as a member of the Rudy Vallee Orchestra, Sid Austen's RKO NBC Orchestra, and The Avalon Quintet, as well as in the Armed Forces during W.W.II. Playing live radio shows with an orchestra, Malz found it impossible to project solos on his Gibson L-5 without breaking strings (talk about improvising live with a broken string!). As a music school owner and distributor of guitar strings, he had registered the trademark for Airway Guitar Strings. Then, in the late 1930's Malz developed with New York based violin maker W. Wilkanowski and Son (formerly with the Fred Gretsch Guitar Co.) the rare, high quality Airway Guitar, of which only two deluxe and two standard guitars were produced. (Editor's note: It's believed Wilkanowski built about 30 guitars.)

"In collaborating with Wilkanowski, Malz was looking for a guitar that would hold up to the demands of his hard driving solos. The back of the 18" Airway W-4 SER # 1 is one piece of curly maple hand-carved to form it's arched shape. The rims or sides are also curly maple and the top is adirondack spruce. The result is an instrument that produces a louder, richer, and better balanced tone with less effort, and fewer broken strings. The one piece, V shaped, curly maple neck resembles that of a violin hence the nickname "The Violin Guitar". The neck wood was so stable [that] no truss-rod was needed. Malz continued to teach guitar and owned The Airway Recording and Guitar Studio in Lodi, New Jersey until his death in 1980. When built in 1938 the Airway Deluxe sold for $600, that's one and a half times the price of the Gibson Super 400 of the period". (Victor Giardino, student and friend, as recounted to Sue Gardner).

"Among the many things I've come to appreciate while putting together this book is the influence of violins and violin making upon the evolution of the guitar. The link between bowed and fretted instruments expands to dramatic, near-literal proportions with this Stradivari-oid creation, crafted by William Wilkanowski (1886-1954) of Brooklyn, New York. Wilkanowski trained as a luthier in Poland and immigrated to the United States as a young man, where he worked fashioning violins for the Oliver Ditson Company (of early Martin dreadnought fame) and later, for the famed New York concern the Gretsch Company. In Gretsch’s 1940 catalog, Wilkanowski’s instruments are showcased as the company’s top-of-the-line bowed selections, with emphasis upon the maker’s “secret” varnish formula and use of exceptional wood. The arrangement was likely a contract partnership, rather than an employer-employee situation, with Wilkanowski working out of his shop and continuing to build instruments for clients other than Gretsch. A 1942 book on American violin makers (Fairfield) cites Wilkanowski’s prodigious output for a single artisan, even one in advanced middle age: 5,000 violins and 100 violas. In comparison, Antonio Stradivari lived into his eighties and built around 1,100 instruments. Yet, Wilkanowski wasn’t content to limit himself to bowed instruments. During the late thirties, responding to the demands of Jazz Age musicians, he produced a small quantity of special-order archtop guitars. Very few, if any, of these unusual creations are identical to any other, but all bear unmistakable violin properties: hand-mixed and –applied amber varnish; steeply graduated carved tops and backs of (usually) flamed, fiddle-grain maple; ebony fretboards. Also some sport tailpieces of that hard, dusky wood – four decades before Jimmy D’Aquisto seized upon ebony as an alternative to metal. A few Wilkanowski guitars bear aluminum violin-type scroll headstocks molded to mimic carved wood. In others, sharp peaks extending below the rim of the upper bouts distinguish them from any other fretted instruments (up until Hofner’s ca. 1960 “Beatle Bass”). Soundholes can be the standard Amati f’s, or more modernistic variants. Wilkanowski’s violins, known for their good looks but not highly prized for their sound, rarely fetch high sums on the secondary market. His bespoke archtops are another story. Originally sold for four hundred dollars – the same price as the highest-end D’Angelicos, Strombergs, Gibsons, and Epiphones – these behemoths are highly sought after by guitarists and guitar collectors. They remain Wilkanowski’s most enduring legacy.  (Jonathan Kellerman. With Strings Attached. New York: 2008. p.338).

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