Magnatone Magic

Magnatone Magic

“Lick Of The Week” with Ian Cowan

In this session Ian presents a great bite-sized bluesy lick. A perfect little something to sit down and master then add your own embellishments.

Magnatone is best known for their guitar amplifiers made famous by the likes of Buddy Holly and Lonnie Mack. The history of the company is a mess and the poor decisions seemed to compound annually beginning in the mid 1950s. This newsletter focuses on a few of their guitars and two industry legends that contributed to the company’s growth, Paul Bigsby and Paul Barth.  

Magnatone 280 similar to Buddy Holly’s
Magnatone 260 similar to Lonnie Mack’s

Magnatone has its start in 1937 when Delbert Dickerson of Los Angeles built his daughter a steel guitar and accompanying amplifier so she could begin taking guitar lessons. Her instructor was impressed with his work and requested his own custom steel guitar and amp from Dickerson.  

One thing led to another and you have the beginnings of the Dickerson Musical Instrument Company (DMIC) formed in 1939. To provide some context, Dickerson was by all means an inventor and tinkerer having spent much of his career as a machinist in a radio factory. Dickerson even accrued several patents under his name, one of those included an “amp in case” steel guitar combo in 1939, predating the infamous Danelectro/Silvertone product by 23 years. Not only did the company produce their own Dickerson guitars and amps, they were a contract manufacturer for Oahu, Leilani, and Bronson labels.

Magnatone steel and tube amp combo, ca. early 1950s

After a brief acquisition of DMIC in 1944 by Gaston Fator Guitar Studios the company was sold to Art Duhamell in 1946. Under Art's tenure the company name was changed to Magna Electronics hatching the brand name Magnatone. In the early years of Duhamell’s leadership the company focused more on amplifiers, with lesser attention to lap steels, and also became a market leader in public address systems.

In the early 1950s solid body electric guitars were starting to take off.  Fender had the Esquire, followed by Gibson’s Les Paul, and then came the Stratocaster.  Magnatone was positioned to capture this growing market but desired assistance in creating their own line of Spanish electric guitars.

Paul Bigsby, also a motorcycle tech and enthusiast

Paul Bigsby has already consulted the company on some of their lap steels so it was a natural fit for Duhamell to lean on Bigsby and have him design a few electrics to add to their catalog. So in 1955 Magnatone released the Mark III, followed by the Mark IV in 56' and Mark V in 57' all designed by Bigsby. The fanciest of the bunch was the neck-through Mark V, and the only guitar of the series featuring a Bigsby vibrato. Production of the original Mark models ended in 1958 with that year’s Magnatone catalog describing the Mark V as this:

Magnatone takes great pride in presenting two exciting new models shown below. For the pattern and design of these models, Magnatone is indebted to America’s Leading Guitar Authority, Paul Bigsby. The standards of these guitars will meet the most exacting requirements of the finest professional performer and their modest price will permit even the guitar “enthusiast” to enjoy.

During the staggered release of the Mark guitar models Bigsby left his consulting position at Magnatone to focus on his own company.  Meanwhile, Duhamell sold to a group of guys from Pacific Mercury Television Corporation, a TV manufacturer.  In tandem the new owners also propped up the Thomas Organ company and became one of the biggest players in the home organ market.

STOP!  Rabbit hole!  There are two takeaways from the owner’s involvement in the organ business. Probably the most important was the knowledge and engineering derived from electric organs that was eventually integrated into Magnatone amps.  Notably, the vibrato circuit most commonly known as “real” or “true vibrato” and this was a major differentiator of Magnatone from other amp manufacturers in the early 1960s. The other takeaway is Magnatone, now in the organ game, became an acquisition target from the failing Estey Organ Company. Focus shifted away from guitars and amps to organs in the ensuing years. For Magnatone, the decade of the 1960s was a crap show of ownership changes, restructuring and debt refinancing, eventually dissolving while under the umbrella of a toy manufacturer, Miner Industries in 1968. (The Magnatone brand was revived in 2013).

Back to the late 1950s…

After Bigsby left, the new ownership secured another renowned guitar builder to consult their R&D department, Paul Barth. Barth was an original employee at Rickenbacker and partly responsible for the birth of the electric guitar as he and George Beauchamp developed the Frying Pan. Barth also co-designed the Ricky Combo 600 and 800.

Another one of Barth’s claims to fame is the design of the Acoustic Black Widow in the early 1970s and put on the map by Jimi Hendrix. 

Between 1958 and 1967 Paul Barth juggled consulting at Magnatone and developing his own guitar companies, Barth Guitars and Bartell. From 1958 to 1961 Magnatone used Barth’s production facility to outsource the build of their next round of guitars. The new models were an extension of the Mark series, but generally speaking, they were existing Barth Guitars with a Magnatone badge.

In 1963 Barth was hired as a full-time designer and developed the Starstream catalog of guitars, Magnatone’s finest guitar hour. The line-up consisted of four guitars based on a meteorological naming convention and were only available for approximately one year, 1965/66. They were the Zephyr, Hurricane bass, Tornado, and Typhoon.

Magnatone Typhoon

The wheels totally came off soon after the Starstream’s release. Production moved from Torrance, CA to Harmony, PA and very few of the existing employees made the transition. Without skilled workers the company scrambled to source production in Europe and by 1968 Magnatone guitars and amps ceased to exist.

Newsletter Classifieds

Looking to buy:
• 1987 Les Paul Custom- wine red 3-piece top. All original except has Seymour Duncan Jazz/Jb4 pickups. Minneapolis/St. Paul area
• 1970s era Fender Jazzmaster in either tri-burst trans finish or solid teal with original or period correct OHSC. Buyer is looking for one that is 8.5 or higher, all original.
• 1972 Les Paul Burst

Looking to sell:
• 2012 Gibson USA 1970s tribute Les Paul Gold top, Tuscan AZ area
• 1956 Gibson J160e, New York City area
• 1968 Gibson Dove with a mid 60s DeArmond sound hole pickup, New York City area

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