In the summer of 2001 I was living in Springfield, MO, and in my third year of apprenticing guitar building with master luthier Bill Moll of Moll Custom Instruments. I had a day job in a small used guitar shop (Hand Picked Guitars), teaching lessons and doing minor repairs. One day an elderly man came in with a rectangular guitar case and asked if we would like to see a guitar he made. The case was tattered and duck taped on the ends and fairly large, obviously home made. His name was Russell Deaver and he explained that he and his brother (Claude Deaver) used to have a guitar company in Springfield. He then proceeded to open the case and pulled out the weirdest looking guitar I had ever seen. I had no doubt that he made it, and frankly was not impressed. It was blonde, sort of lumpy shaped, and had a 12-string and a six string neck. He handed me the guitar and I strummed the necks and quickly realized the 12 string neck was tuned weird, not in octaves and unison like a normal 12- string guitar. "Is this supposed to be tuned like this?" I asked. The old man frowned at me and then asked, "You never heard of Jimmy Bryant?" I hadn't and the man proceeded out to his car and came back with a blank cassette tape that had scribbles on it and asked it we had a tape player. We popped it in and I got my first introduction to Jimmy Bryant's Stratosphere Boogie!
Little did I know what a rare opportunity I was experiencing! There I was talking to the guy that made Jimmy Bryant's Stratosphere Twin. He explained that the guitar was tuned in thirds and even wrote down the tuning on a piece of scrap paper for me. He hung out for a while and told us stories of Speedy West, Bryant, and Chet Atkins! That was the only time I ever crossed paths with Russell. I moved back to St. Louis in 2002 and he died in 2009, but I never forgot the experience of meeting him and learning some history about his guitars and the players that played them.
The Stratosphere Guitar Company was only open for a few years during the mid to late fifty's and produced roughly 200 instruments, total. They offered only three models, a six-string, 12-string, and the Twin double neck model. One of the key components to the Deaver brother's success, though it was short lived, was their proximity to the popular Ozark Jubilee show. The televised music showcase featured popular country artists like Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline, and was the perfect opportunity for the brothers to get their instruments in the hands of some of the top players at the time!
Jimmy Bryant began playing fiddle as a child in Moultrie, GA during the Great Depression to help support his family. Bryant was wounded in WWII and began playing guitar while recovering in the hospital. Django Reinhardt was a major influence on Bryant, and you can definitely here it in his playing. After the war, Bryant moved to California to make a living playing music. He soon made a name for himself as a session player and side man and teamed up with Speedy West as sidemen for Tennessee Ernie Ford. West was originally from Springfield, MO and friends with the Deaver brothers. Soon the two were recording instrumental duets for Capitol Records, recording just over sixty instrumentals between 1950 and 1956, one of the most famous cuts being Stratosphere Boogie!
Stratosphere Boogie is a fast paced instrumental composed around the unique tuning of the Stratosphere Twin guitar, and specifically th e12-string neck. Typically a 12-string is tuned in octaves E,A,D,g,b,e, low to high, with the last two courses of strings tuned in unison. However, Bryant tuned his 12-string in a series of minor and major thirds. Here is the tuning and a sample of the instrumental played on an actual Stratosphere Twin!
Though Bryant composed the tune on his Stratosphere Twin guitar, it was not his main instrument. When Speedy West began playing one of Paul Bigsby's steel guitars, Bryant approached Bigsby with the idea of getting a solid body guitar built for himself. When the guitar was finished, the two had a falling out and Bryant never took delivery of the guitar, which even had his name inlaid on the top of the instrument. Instead, Bryant went to Bigsby's rival, Leo Fender and began using an Esquire in 1950, and later a Telecaster in 1951.
Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West reunited in 1975 to record a reunion album, "For The Last Time" produced by pedal steel player Pete Drake. The album was released 15 years later in 1990. Bryant died of lung cancer September 22, 1980, he was 55.