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Al & Ray, Not Bob (1967 Alray 12-String Thinline Electric Guitar)

The guitar shown here may have nothing to do with the famous comedic radio commercial team Bob and Ray, but half the name is right, and, from at least one point of view, this ca. 1967 Alray 12-string is pretty amusing! And as rare as…well…electric 12-strings!

Vintage 1967 Alray 12-String Thinline Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Alray 12-String Thinline Electric Guitar

If Alray doesn’t leap to the front of your mind when the subject of guitars from the Swinging Sixties come up, don’t feel too bad. They are about as close to a footnote as you can get. But, then again, as evidenced by the very existence of this guitar, they do, indeed exist!

The first question you might ask is how do we know this is, in fact, an Alray? The easy answer is that Kevin Macy, who lives in Kansas, told me it was when he sold it. But beyond that, this guitar has all the earmarks of guitars made by the Holman-Woodell guitar factory in Neodesha, Kansas, including the tell-tale pickups, and is identical to the same guitar shown in the Alray catalog. So, absent any logos or other explicit markings, we still know this is an Alray 12-string.

Still, I can hear you saying, “So?” You actually probably know a little about guitars made in Neodesha, because among their number are included the whacky Wurlitzer Wildcat guitars and the now-legendary LaBaye 2x4s. All from Kansas and the Holman-Woodell guitar factory.

Vintage 1967 Alray 12-String Thinline Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Alray 12-String Thinline Electric Guitar

Holman-Woodell was founded by Howard E. Holman and Victor A. Woodell in May of 1965. Holman had worked for the Wurlitzer Music Company, the piano and organ manufacturer located in Elkhart, Indiana. For whatever reason Holman left Wurlitzer and started a music store in Independence, Kansas. Woodell was a retired “former industrialist” living in Sarasota, Florida, who had manufacturing experience. Whether he was originally from Kansas is unknown, but that’s a good bet. They recruited a local woodshop teacher and guitarist named Doyle Reading to be their main guitar designer. Reading would later go on to design guitars for Bud Ross of Kustom amplifiers in Chanute, Kansas.

It’s likely that Holman already had a Wurlitzer contract in his pocket, or at least he could pretty much count on getting one. In 1966 Wurlitzer’s Wild Ones guitars debuted, made by Holman-Woodell. There was a problem in paradise, however. Reading may have known how to work wood and build guitars, but he didn’t quite master painting. Wurlitzers were finished in candy and opaque colors that required a primer. Right away, dealers buying Wurlitzer guitars started returning them because the finishes were flaking off. Wurlitzer quickly abandoned Kansas for European guitars.

Which left Mssrs. Holman and Woodell sitting on a guitar factory. They decided to go it alone and re-branded remaining stock and new guitars with their own name, Holman. While I’m not sure, I think most of these came in transparent finishes, which solved the primer/flaking issue. However, it didn’t solve the sales issue. How many Holmans have you seen? Not many. It was from this period, around the beginning of 1967, that the famous LaBayes date from. At around 45 made, LaBaye wasn’t the answer either!

Vintage 1967 Alray 12-String Thinline Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Alray 12-String Thinline Electric Guitar

Howie and Vic hung on until mid-1967 or so and bailed out. That’s when Al and Ray stepped in. We don’t know their full names. In fact, we can’t be totally sure their names were Al and Ray, but when a company changes from Holman-Woodell to Alray, that’s the most logical conclusion! Their sales office was located in Pittsburg, Kansas, though it’s unlikely that they relocated the factory. They must have had some experience because their line reflected some ambitious new designs, including solids, thinlines, basses and one acoustic.

Included among these new guitars was this thinline 12-string. Other than the shape and the bizarro headstock, this has all the hallmarks of a typical Holman-Woodell guitar. Like the others, pickups are marked “Channel A” and “Channel B.” The bolt-on neck is medium thickness with a round profile, again typical. The German carve on the top is interesting. The plastic bridge saddles are also common. However, the biggest giveaway are the Holman Sensitone pickups. These were Holman’s own design. They were single-coils that had the interesting feature of being height-adjusted by installing thin plastic plates or shims over the pole pieces. To make the lead pickup higher (or, conversely, the neck pickup lower), you simply added (or subtracted) another plastic plate. Probably the only time such a novel method has ever been used. Thank goodness! The only thing more annoying than the pickups’ adjustment method was their crappy output. There was more than finish flaking that caused Holman-Woodell guitars to bomb. I’d love to tell you how amazingly swell this guitar sounds, but weak 6-string pickups on a 12-string is even funnier.

These are no doubt rare guitars. This is the only Alray I’ve ever seen. Except for the electronics, it’s really not a badly made guitar. Better than most contemporary Kays or Harmonies. In any case, it appears that the Holman-Woodell factory closed down in around November of 1967.

I’m sure the closing of Holman-Woodell was no joke to Howie and Vic or Al and Ray. But even though this guitar is little more than a footnote to American guitar history, it does reflect a serious attempt to make guitars in Kansas. Look at it this way, the next time you’re with your friends and decide to play old Byrds tunes, a guitar like this one will give you plenty of laughs.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

One of the very cool (for gear heads) fallouts of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was the great amount of small, oddball guitar makers trying to strike it rich in the 65-68 era. Plenty of small makers from all over the world got the idea that they would go into the guitar business. 1965 was, by far, the biggest year in guitar production up to that point. But then a strange thing happened. Even though garage bands were cropping up all over the place, guitar sales started to shrink (slowly at first). Then, by the late 60’s, you started to see cheap imports from the Asian market competing with the lower end US made guitars (Kays, Danos and Harmonys and so on), putting a serious hit on the US budget brands. And these new makers (budget and high end) who started in the wake of ’65? Most went belly-up within a few years, but left for collectors some very neat-o guitars for our collections.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

Check out, for instance, this rare bird. A 1966 Wurlitzer Gemini, made at the Hollman-Woodell guitar factory in Neodesha, Kansas. Part of Wurlitzer’s THE WILD ONES series (which included the more pedestrian-looking, but still pretty rad Cougar and Wildcat models), these were made to compete with the best of the domestic market. High end tuners (Klutsons), a wonderful chunky bound neck (like a Fender V shape, but a bit thicker), and a great look highlight the Gemini.

Other cool features include stereo pickups. That’s right – the guitar is wired in stereo, so that the neck pickup is one channel and the bridge pickup the other. With a stereo cord that has a “Y” splitter, that means you can send your bridge pickup to one amp and your neck pickup to another. There’s a traditional 3 position toggle to select the pickups, or set it for both and use the blender knob on the treble side horn. It’s a trippy sound to stand in between two amps with the split signal. Put the tremolo and reverb on one of them, and it’s a great sound. You can also run both pickups, of course, into one amp with the proper cord.

Each pickup has a rocker switch labeled “Jazz” and “Rock”. Predictably, the JAZZ setting cuts the output and trebles, offering a m ore rounded mellow tone. The ROCK setting opens the tone up a bit, boosting the treble and volume. It’s a very versatile guitar, with a high end feel.

The vibrato, with its very stylish W cutaway feels like a cross between a Bigsby and a Mosrite. It has the position under the hand and sound of a Bigsby, but with a hint of the feathery lighter touch of the Mosrite. The bridge has separate plastic posts that intonate very well and allow for the vibrato to return to pitch consistently. The balance is wonderful as well. It’s an odd shaped guitar, but it’s very comfortable to play standing or sitting.

And, obviously, it’s one of the best looking guitars to come out of that king of all great-looking-guitar decades, the 1960’s (sorry all you pointy 80’s fans). If the Airline Reso-glass futuristic model most associated with Jack White earns the nickname of the Jetson model, well what is the Gemini? It out Jetsons the Jetson model itself. Maybe it’s the Spacely model. Or the Cogswell’s Cogs model.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

So why didn’t they catch on, if they’re so great? Well, a lot of great companies couldn’t withstand the relative slump of the late 60’s and the birth of quality imports. Think of Danelectro, Valco and Kay all going south within a year of each other. Also, maybe they didn’t have enough capital to make enough noise outside of their Kansas factory. Maybe they just weren’t lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

But if you’re looking for any areas where the guitar itself hurt its own chances in the hyper-competitive guitar market of the late 60’s, there are a couple. Wurlitzer could have done better in the finish and the pickups. The finish on all three Wild Ones models had a habit of peeling and cracking. This white Gemini (all three models came in Red, White and Blue) is in surprisingly good shape. It does, however, have the same pickups as the other models, and this isn’t a great thing. While the pickups (the same as one the famed LeBay 2X4 – they were made at the same factory) look to be between the size of a DeArmond Silverfoil and a P-90, sadly they don’t share tone with either of those great pickups. They are clean and solid, tone-wise, but their output is very low and they can’t overdrive the dirtiest of amps. They can get a pretty good snarl going with a nice preamp or a good overdrive pedal, but they aren’t going to sound too tough going straight into most amps. Power and tone-wise, the popular guitar they sound most like (output-wise) is the Fender Mustang.

These are incredibly rare. Most estimates put the entire Wild One line at under one thousand guitars. Of those, the Cougar was the most popular, followed by the Wildcat, leaving the Gemini as the rarest of the rare.

Cool shape. Awesome retro vibe. Stylish. Super rare and hard to come by. And they could use a pickup upgrade. Maybe the more standard MONO wiring. Sounds like a guitar that might be just right for a cool company that re-issues rad guitars from the 60’s (hint, hint, Mike). If enough of you make enough noise, maybe this one could come back from the past.