By Adam Perlmutter | Photo by William Ritter
Swedish immigrant Charles Stromberg opened his first musical-instrument manufacturing shop in Boston in 1906, making drums, banjos, mandolins, and other instruments to order. Stromberg’s youngest son, Elmer, joined the business in 1910, and by the late Twenties they had begun crafting archtop guitars.
Over the next decade, they perfected the designs of their guitars, which were noted for their physically imposing size, assertive sonic projection, and impressive craftsmanship. Stromberg guitars built between the late Thirties and 1955—when Charles and Elmer died months apart and the company folded—are still considered some of the finest jazz archtop guitars ever made.
Stromberg’s flagship model was the Master 400, a 19-inch archtop designed to compete with the Gibson Super 400, which it bested in width by an inch and in volume by a mile. The company got a boost in 1940 when Freddie Green, guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra, commissioned first a blonde Master 400 and then a sunburst Master 300, essentially the same guitar with a lesser cosmetic treatment. Green used his Strombergs on hundreds of recordings and played the guitars until his death in 1987 at the age of 75.
Green’s Master 400—one of only about 60 ever made—recently found a temporary home at Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars, which is offering it for sale at $90,000, about twice as much as an example without such a storied provenance. Unlike early Strombergs, this guitar has a carved Adirondack spruce top supported by a single diagonal brace, a unique feature that allows for optimal vibration and contributes to the Master 400’s loudness and projection.
The back and sides of Green’s Master 400 are made from laminated curly maple, and, befitting a high-end instrument, most of its details are undeniably deluxe. They include a gold-plated tailpiece with five cutouts and engraved logo, an ornate mother-of-pearl headstock logo, and hand-etched fretboard inlays, with the 15th fret bearing the letters F.L.G.—clearly a goof, as the guitarist’s middle name was William.
A time-capsule piece, Green’s Master 400 is still strung with the guitarist’s original heavy-gauge flatwound strings and set up with his preferred impossibly high action, “darn near half an inch at the 12th fret,” according to George Gruhn, who adds, “it was important for us to present this piece of historical memorabilia exactly as Freddie Green left it.”
Thanks to “Ranger Doug” Green, George Gruhn, and James D. Speros for their assistance.