Trying to learn how to date a Stella guitar can get quite challenging compared to the more popular names in the market. However, Stella is one of the oldest guitar brands in history and its legacy is definitely worth discovering.
While Stella guitars aren’t considered the most illustrious of instruments in the world of vintage gears, it is definitely a very important part of American culture and contemporary music evolution. After all, Stella guitars were right in the thick of the development of modern music as they were the preferred steel-stringed acoustic guitars by the likes of blues pioneers Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell.
Due to Stella guitar’s impact in early recorded music, as well as its 90s revival via grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, the brand has become a fixture in blues, country and rock and roll culture. But it is the friendly price tag that goes along with a unique, high-quality instrument that has endeared Stella guitars to throngs of music lovers and musicians.
Listening to the testimonies of Stella guitar owners, it almost seems that everybody has a special story to tell about the iconic brand. There is this touching account of a Stella acoustic guitar being passed on through generations and there is also a dubious claim by a shop that they are selling a Stella that was once played by the great Robert Johnson himself.
Truth or myth, these stories are testament to the vast influence that Stella had even on ordinary guitar aficionados. Whether your Stella story is still being written as you prepare to obtain one, or you are planning to part ways with your mom’s guitar, it is important to know the rich history of the instrument. This way you can determine the date when your Stella guitar was manufactured, as well as its market value.
History of Stella Guitars
Founded in the late 1800s, Stella was a guitar brand owned by the Oscar Schmidt Company that focused on producing low and mid-level stringed instruments such as banjos, chord zithers, lap harps and mandolins, to go along with their acoustic guitars.
Stella was regarded as the world’s top manufacturer of stringed instruments in 1920 as they dominated the market with great sounding guitars that were a lot cheaper than Gibsons and Martins. On the other hand, La Scala and Sovereign, two other Oscar Schmidt-owned guitar companies, took care of building top-of-the-line guitar models.
In 1939, the Harmony Company acquired Stella after the brand had a hard time surviving during the Great Depression. The Harmony Company’s reintroduction of the brand made Stella guitars more available to the people than ever, especially when they were marketed as student guitars.
Making use of solid birch on some of their basic models helped Stella lower its manufacturing costs to a minimum, allowing them to provide less expensive guitars to younger people. The lower price of production did not affect the sound quality and playability of Stella guitars, making them a favorite among beginners and professionals alike.
Vintage guitar collectors today have developed a closer affinity to the ones produced by Harmony compared to the Oscar Schmidt-era guitars, probably due to their bigger presence in the market. It is also important to note that a great number of Harmony Stella guitars were produced in the 60s, which can be attributed to the music boom that was spearheaded by Beatlemania and Motown fever during that decade.
How to date a Stella guitar
Tracing the manufacturing date of a Stella guitar is tricky due to the fact that Oscar Schmidt Stellas, as well as Sovereign guitars, have no serial numbers on them. Harmony Stellas on the other hand, utilize a Hxxx serial number, but it also could get confusing at times, since some models have “F-66” or “FW-59” as serial numbers instead.
The guitars that were produced under Harmony have “date stamps” that can be seen through the soundhole. The changing look of the stamps through the years can also help you identify whether your Stella guitar is a knock-off or an authentic one.
Below are the details of what the date stamps may look like according to manufacturing year:
Date is inside an oval
Date is inside a rectangle
Printed date only, no shape or other details
Stamp features a double box, with the larger one containing the words “Made in the USA,” while the smaller box contains the guitar’s manufacturing date
Triple box, also with “Made in USA”
Single box containing all details
Double box with date and “Made in USA” in the bigger section
No box. Date and “Made in USA”
Dig deeper into the world of dating Stella guitars
In case your guitar doesn’t have a date stamp, one of your last resorts would be to compare the model with other owners. You may join some reputable guitar forums, connect with fellow Stella enthusiasts and gain more wisdom about the brand.
Another way is to research deeper by reading a couple of good books dedicated to the guitar brand. The most well-known of them is “Stella Archeologist” Neil Harpe’s Stella Guitar Book: The Guitars of the Oscar Schmidt Company.
Dating a Stella guitar may seem more difficult compared to other brands that are still around today. However, there are dedicated researchers like Harpe and they have been putting in their time and effort to investigate and categorize all Stella guitars that have ever existed.
If your luthier can’t help you in determining the age of your instrument, there are Stella guitar experts out there who could offer you answers regarding even some of the oldest “parlor” guitars in the Oscar Schmidt lineup.