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Category Archive1950’s Vintage Guitars

1950's Airline Town & Country Standard Electric Guitar (Sunburst)

Back Catalog Memories: 1950’s Airline Town & Country Guitar

Airline guitars were being made in USA from 1958-1968 by Valco Manufacturing Company and sold primarily through the Montgomery Ward catalog company. Valco also made other popular brands like Supro and National. Today they are being made through Canadian company Eastwood Guitars. By the early 1960’s Airline were producing many different models – the more valuable vintage models were made of res-o-glas – but most in those early days were solid wood designs like this Town and Country Standard.

1950's Airline Town & Country Standard Electric Guitar (Sunburst)

1950’s Airline Town & Country Standard Electric Guitar (Sunburst)

Although they appear to be humbuckers, these unique guitars had single coil pickups with a unique tone that became popular with the blues players (not just for their tone, but more likely for their affordability vs.. a new Fender Strat). That is what modern players are seeking out these old guitars, like Jack White, for the growl-y single coil tone. This sample had three pickups, each with its own volume and tone controls, and a unique 3-way switch (as opposed to the 5-way of a strat). This has its good and bad point. Good: you can have solid pre-sets for each pickup both in tone and volume that are completely unique. Bad: you miss the “in-between” tones that make the Strat so popular. A master volume rounded it out.

Another unique feature of this model was the rather crude “tone chambering” of the body. In the modern Eastwood version, it is made with the benefit of a modern CNC machine to completely route out the inside of the body, then laminate the back on to the guitar. On the 60’s version, they simply drilled huge holes in it to remove wood and remove the weight, then slapped an over-sized plastic back on it to cover up the holes. Crude but effective.

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Back Catalog Memories: 1959 Fender Musicmaster

As most of you know I’ve been running www.myrareguitars.com since about 1997. Before that I was doing it with pen and paper. Recently I discovered a file folder on my backup drive with TONS of photos containing just about every guitar I’d ever bought and sold over the years. Looking at these photos have stirred up some memories. So, here are some stories and photos (to the best of my deteriorating memory) from the Back Catalog of myRareGuitars.

Story #1- 1959 Fender Musicmaster

This was perhaps one of the first vintage Fender guitars I ever owned. Got it in a trade in the early 1990’s eBay days from a fella in Texas. I was living in California at the time. Can’t remember what the trade was, but for my own sanity I’m convinced I got the better of the deal. I’m sure the guy on the other end feels the same way. That’s a good trade – when both parties are happy – and in fact I think we did a few more deals over the years so such is the case.

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

Vintage 1959 Fender Musicmaster Electric Guitar

I instantly fell in love with this guitar – so tiny, so playable, and it was made the year I was born, 1959. Shortly after I got it, my wife and I were invited to a friends house down in Mexico for a weeklong vacation with three other couple. Why not take that old Fender?! It will fit in the airline overhead for sure! One of the other guys along for the trip – Ben Goldman – was a talented guitar player/singer and each night stirred up a sing-a-long around the fire, so I would bring out the little Musicmaster to add some accompaniment. Somewhere along the way, Ben went out to a local shop and came back with one of those massive acoustic Mexican guitars – I think it is called a Guitarron – without much thought we all ended up at the airport a few days later with no case for this beast. He ended up wrapping it in all his families clothing, then duct tape, to get it on the plane back to California. Nothing phased Ben, he was a cool guy is sadly missed by all who knew him.

The Guitarron

The Guitarron

That old Fender was such a curious and cool piece of wood and wire. But, there was a problem.

Everyone I showed it to would eventually say, “what is up with that glob of gold shit on the body?”. At first it did not bother me, but a sticker that some kid put on it 40 years earlier had become fused with the finish, impossible to remove. Becoming self conscious about it, I took it to the local luthier for his opinion and to get that damn sticker removed. “We can refinish the guitar, but then it will be worth half as much as it is now, and you will have twice as much money into it”. Lesson learned.

Pretty cool guitar, but I sold it, and as always in cases like this, it got filed under THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY.

Buddy Meets Bigsby (1956 Bigsby Magnatone Mark III Electric Guitar)

I’m not really an amplifier aficionado. I know that’s not politically correct. I tend to like solid state amps because they’re clean and let the sound of the guitar through. In fact, my favorite amp is a Polytone Mini Brute. It’s like 14″ cubed, easy to carry, and loud as hell. If I want to sound nasty, I punch in an old Rat, etc. But one thing I am a sucker for is the True Vibrato found on 1950s Magnatone amps. True Vibrato, of course, is pitch, not volume, modulation. Most amps have tremolo (volume mod). I’m not alone in liking Magnatone vibrato. That’s the shimmering sound you hear on those late ’50s Buddy Holly classics Words of Love and Peggy Sue.

To own an original Bigsby electric you’d probably need a quarter mil of the ready. But maybe not! You might be lucky enough to find one of Bigsby’s Magnatone creations for a heckuva lot less.

1956 Bigsby Magnatone Mark III Electric Guitar

1956 Bigsby Magnatone Mark III Electric Guitar

Magnatone’s True Vibrato appeared in 1956, the same year a lesser known event occurred in that storied company’s history. That was when they contracted with one of the legends of guitar history, Paul Bigsby, to design a line of electric Spanish guitars for them. Magnatone had been a major player in the Hawaiian lap steel game ever since its founding by the Dickerson Brothers back in the late 1930s in L.A. We all know Bigsby as the inventor of the hand vibrato that still bears his name. But he also gets credit for making the first ‘solidbody’ electric guitar for Merle Travis in 1947 (it was actually semi-hollow). The same guitar that another amp guy named Leo Fender took quite an interest in shortly before coming up with his Broadcaster.

1956 Bigsby Magnatone Mark III Electric Guitar

1956 Bigsby Magnatone Mark III Electric Guitar

Bigsby’s first “commercial” design for Magnatone was the Mark III, a neck-through-body semi-hollow guitar, Bigsby’s take on a Ricky Combo. We know some of these were built because one turned up a few years back at an L.A.-area yard sale (how often have you had that fantasy!). But it appears that Magnatone’s production folks made some changes and almost all that are found with solid bodies and a glued-in neck with a “tongue” extension that slips in under the neck pickup. The formica pickguard and Daka-Ware knobs are a little dated now, but back in ’56 they were strictly the cat’s pajamas!

The Magnatone Mark IIIs are pretty cool, but aren’t truly professional guitars, like the spectacular Mark V that followed in 1957. These actually garnered a bunch of professional endorsements. Nevertheless, all these Bigsby Magnatones were among the better guitars of the 1950s.

1956 Bigsby Magnatone Mark III Electric Guitar

1956 Bigsby Magnatone Mark III Electric Guitar

How many early Magnatones were actually produced is a mystery, and they didn’t seem to do that well. They were gone by 1958 and replaced in ’59 by a new line designed by former National exec Paul Barth, though no Magnatone guitars ever conquered the guitar world, even when guitar ace Jimmy Bryant endorsed them in the mid-1960s.

So, next time you?re prowling a back rack or a yard sale, keep your eyes peeled for one of these Magnatones. It’s a genuine Bigsby and, when you push the large single-coils through True Vibrato, you get a classic ’50s sound that takes you to paradise! True words of love!

The Buckeye State of the Art (1950’s Kay Solo King K4102 Electric Guitar)

When I first learned of this guitar, it was known among cognoscenti as the State of Ohio guitar. I once wrote and essay in which I dubbed it The Ugliest Guitar In The World. All of us had a point. The real name, however, is the Kay Solo King K4102, and it dates to that heady period just before guitars really took off in 1960. Clearly somebody was hung over at Kay that day! When I got a chance to actually have one, how could I pass it up?

Vintage 1950's Kay Solo King K4102 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1950's Kay Solo King K4102 Electric Guitar

Believe it or not, Kay was probably the first company to produce an electric guitar. The Kay Musical Instrument Company began in Chicago in 1890 as the Groehsl Company, changing its name to the Stromberg-Voisinet Company in 1921. (It changed to Kay-Kraft in the early ’30s, then just Kay.) While there are unsubstantiated reports that Gibson’s Lloyd Loar experimented with electricity in the early 1920s, it’s hard to imagine what he could have done. Electronic recording and amplification were not invented until 1924-25. Lyon & Healy reportedly had an electronic bass in 1923, but unfortunately it electrocuted players. Bummer. In October of 1928 S-V introduced the Stromberg Electro, a flattop with an electro-magnetic transducer that was played through an amp with no controls. A few Chicago radio players embraced the new technology, but the technology wasn’t there yet and only a couple hundred Electros were made. Modern-style electrics didn’t appear until 1931. Except for lap steels, and perhaps the early bakelite Rickenbacker Spanish guitars, Depression-era electrics were mainly archtops.

Vintage 1950's Kay Solo King K4102 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1950's Kay Solo King K4102 Electric Guitar

After the War, Fender’s Telecaster didn’t seem to get much attention from mass manufacturers, but the Gibson Les Paul did, and by 1953 Kay, Harmony, and Valco were producing solidbodies. Kay’s, interestingly enough, were unibody construction, which basically means neck-through-body.

It was this concept that still shaped the Solo King, but what were they thinking?! It’s really hard to get your mind around this thing. It also appears to have unibody construction: one piece of wood. With the meat-cleaver head and BuckeyeState profile, it’s like no other guitar before or since. The effect is further enhanced by a – shall wee say – chocolate brown finish. The pickguard is made of a speckled formica. These single-coil pickups, while primitive, are actually not that bad, with a clean, crisp ’50s sound. A single-pickup version was also produced. The archtop-style bridge makes intonation a challenge and the fret job is a bit sloppy, but otherwise this doesn’t play that badly……. If, that is, you have the moxy to appear in public holding one! Can you see in the hands of Duane Eddy or the Ventures?

Vintage 1950's Kay Solo King K4102 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1950's Kay Solo King K4102 Electric Guitar

Needless to say, the Kay Solo King didn’t catch on. The following year someone took a band-saw to the design and rounded off the lower bout to be more like a Les Paul. These were sold through Montgomery Ward. Another even weirder version had the upper shoulder and cutaway lopped off, and was sold as a Spiegel Old Kraftsman.

All these guitars were gone after 1961 and are particularly rare. I’ve seen guitars shaped like New Jersey, Texas, even the United States, but none really come up to the bad taste of the State of Ohio. Like I said, ugliest guitar in the world.