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Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps – The Evolution of Boutique Tone, Yesterday & Today (Part 2)

Last month, we left off with a team in place to design, prototype, test, and market the new line of Magnatone amplifiers. This month we look at each series and model of the new Magnatone line and the features of each, including the world famous pitch-shifting vibrato circuit.

Let me start off by saying that the new Magnatone line of amps is no less than stellar! There are three series: the Studio Collection, Traditional Collection and the Master Collection. All exude tonal quality and craftsmanship, and that is before we consider the features of stereo pitch-shifting vibrato or tube-driven reverb. Between the three series or “collections,” Magnatone manages to offer something to meet just about every player’s needs. From five-watt studio amps to 6V6, American-voiced combos to EL34 British-inspired heads and cabs, Kornblum, Khan and the rest of the crew at Magnatone have produced a line of models that covers all of the bases.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

Each collection includes three models. In the Studio Collection, Magnatone offers up three lower-wattage, class A tube amplifiers housed in solid pine, finger jointed cabinets covered in either black or burgundy faux crocodile covering.

The Lyric is a no-frills, 10 watt, Class A combo featuring one 12AX7, one 6L6 power tube and a 10-inch speaker. It’s perfect for studio, rehearsal and small club performances.

The Varsity is the big brother to the Lyric. A 15 watt, push-pull class A amplifier featuring two 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL84 power tubes and a GZ34 rectifier, the Varsity is the perfect size for stage and studio. The combo houses a 75 watt, 12″ custom Magnatone speaker in a box that’s a bit larger than you might expect. The result is an amp with enough power and bottom end to blow the doors off of most joints. One of the coolest features of the Varsity is the Negative Feedback Switch, which acts as a 8db boost/cut, allowing the amp to take on two unique sonic personalities.

The third model in the Studio Collection is the new Panoramic. Debuted at the 2014 NAMM trade show, the Panoramic is a stereo, 5 watts per side, single-ended class A amplifier with two 12 AX7s, a 12AU7 and a duet of 6V6 power tubes. The Panoramic offers the famous Magnatone pitch-shifting, varistor stereo vibrato. Cabinet options include a 1×12″ or stereo 2-10″ speaker cab.

The Traditional Collection showcases the Twilighter, Twilighter Stereo and Single V models. Encased in a classy, brown tolex with retro style, the Traditional series amplifiers would look equally great on stage, in the studio or as a fine piece of furniture in your living room! All three models are American-voiced, push-pull class AB amplifiers featuring either 6V6 or 6L6 power tubes. All Traditional series amps also feature a tube driven, long pan reverb and true pitch-shifting, varistor vibrato which can be switched to conventional tremolo via the FM-AM switch. Each member of the Traditional Collection is an outstanding, boutique, American-voiced tube amp with a warmth and bloom usually only heard in the finest vintage tube amps of the 1960’s.

The Vibrato effect departs from the original vintage design by producing a much more lush and three dimensional quality that can be slowed much slower than it’s ancestors. The result is unsurpassed, dynamic fidelity with a modulation that is mesmerizing.

The Master Collection offers three models inspired by the British amp companies of the ’60s. The Super Fifteen and Super Thirty are 15 watt and stereo 15 watts per side, respectively. They are EL 84, push-pull class A amplifiers designed with sparkly, British styled clean tones as well as full throttle A class overdrive capabilities. Pair that with the option of Magantone’s true pitch-shifting vibrato and you have an amp that will please any die-hard, class A, British-tone purist!

The Super Fifty-Nine head is a unique model, even though it is listed as part of the Master Collection and aesthetically has the same black tolex and white satin grill cloth as its A class siblings. The Super Fifty-Nine is a British behemoth that features a two EL34, 45 watt, push-pull class AB power section. With two channels, the Super Fifty-Nine has the ability to straddle vintage British tones as well as more modern, gainy rock tones of the ’70s and ’80s. With an input layout similar to a vintage Bassman and the pitch-shifting vibrato circuit available in the classic channel only, one can bridge the two channels to produce a warbley, uni-vibe effect that conjures the soul of Hendrix and Trower. After hearing the Super Fifty-Nine, it comes as no surprise that the model was developed in conjunction with Billy Gibbons and has been the Reverend’s go to rig for the last year or so.

Each model is unique yet consistently voiced in the new Magnatone tradition. Most models come with either Magnatone branded, WGS designed speakers, or Celestion Gold Alnicos (Lyric is supplied with a Jensen P10R). Some models include a two button footswitch, and a 20k expression pedal is also optional for hands-free control of the vibrato speed.

Although Magnatone is currently offering amplifiers only, plans are underway to offer high end Magnatone guitars with the help of Boise-based luthiers John and Jake Bolin of Bolin Guitars.

So while we currently live in the golden age of boutique gear, it may seem an impossible feat to offer up something unique both in aesthetic style and high fidelity that balances the much sought retro tones and looks of the great classics with the needs of modern players. Yet Ted Kornblum, Obeid Khan, and the team at Magnatone have managed to do just that! With great tone, vibe and style, the Magnatone line of amplifiers is a home run, and the redesigned, true pitch-shifting, varistor vibrato is just the icing on the cake.

Magnatoneusa.com

Written by: David Anderson

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps – The Evolution of Boutique Tone, Yesterday & Today (Part 1)

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

As a person who has worked in the music retail industry for more than 20 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about how a quality manufacture was acquired by a larger corporation and imploded from bad “business” decisions, ruining the brand in the process. While not the rule, it happens more often than not in most every industry.

So imagine you work for a family-owned company that distributes music equipment. One day, you are looking through some of the old family catalogs and discover that a very cool, unique brand, which has been out of production for years, has a trademark that has expired and is just sitting there for the taking. What would you do?

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

Ted Kornblum’s grandfather founded St. Louis Music Supply Co. in 1922. Among the many brands that SLM has distributed are Ampeg, Crate, Alvarez, and Knilling. Also on the company’s distribution list: Magnatone.

Magnatone was started in 1946 by Art Duhamell, who purchased the Dickerson Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company. Dickerson was a small, Southern California builder who produced lap steels and amplifiers. Duhamell changed the name to Magnatone a division of his Magna Electronics Company in Los Angeles. Magna also produced record players, speakers, radios and organs as well as amplifiers under brands such as ToneMaster, DaVinci, Pac-Amp, and Estey. The Estey organ’s vibrato circuit was integral in the birth of the famous Magnatone pitch shifting vibrato feature,(but more on that later). Though Magnatone had a good run of building some of the first, high fidelity, innovative, “boutique” amps to hit the market, the company was plagued by mergers and buy outs, poor business decisions, and bad investments. In the end, Magnatone was no more by the end of the 1960’s.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

Fast forward to the early 2000’s, Ted is sitting at his desk one day and he discovers that the Magnatone trademark was abandoned — there for the taking! So Ted quietly makes some inquiries and soon finds himself the owner of the Magnatone brand. He doesn’t tell anyone. Not even his buddy, the Rev Billy Gibbons. He just… waits.

After some years the tables turned, and SLM was that company that ended up being acquired by a larger corporation. We won’t get into the details, but Ted Kornblum eventually found himself free to do what he pleased. Maybe start his own company… maybe do something with his secret acquisition, Magnatone.

Now you have to understand, back when Magnatone amps were made, Fender was the utility amp of time, and Ampeg appealed to the jazz market. Magnatone, by contrast, was known as a boutique amplifier, decades before the boutique craze began. Magnatone amps were not cheap. They had great fidelity, reverb and that famous, pitch shifting stereo vibrato. Fender’s dedicated vibrato channel was actually tremolo, not vibrato, changing the amplitude or volume of the signal, not the pitch. To further muddy the waters, Fender incorrectly labeled its guitars’ vibrato unit a tremolo.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

So Ted had been sitting on this brand a while. He had a long time to think about how to revive the Magnatone line. The first step would be putting together a design team that could make the amps a reality. While Magnatone was ahead of its time as far as amp design is concerned, it did have its flaws. For one, the amps were fragile, not up to par to today’s rigorous standards. They also had limited power output — not conducive to today’s rock ‘n roll needs. So the new Magnatones would have to have a balance of both worlds. That luscious, true pitch shifting vibrato, tremolo (yes that FM-AM switch allows for either effect) and a deep, well-like reverb — but with more under the hood, some rock ‘n roll torque for the heavy hitters!

To put this plan in motion, Ted had an ace in his pocket… a guy right here in St. Louis who was responsible for designing practically all things tube that came out of SLM, including the revered Crate Vintage Club series amps. Obeid Khan is not just an engineer with a soldering gun, he’s a player…a serious player! Ask anyone in town, they’ll tell you, Obeid Khan is a monster when it comes to amps and blistering guitar. Khan, splitting time between his own company, Reason amps, and a position repairing vintage tube amps for local vintage gear gurus, Killer Vintage, decided he was up to the challenge of working on the foundation and design on the new Magnatone amps.

Ted and Obeid enlisted a team of engineers including Ken Matthews, Greg Geerling, Dan Ryterski, Chris Villani, George McKale, and the famous Neil Young tech, Larry Cragg to make the Magnatone line a reality. Another ace in the hole was having local cabinet builder and owner of Vintage-Amp Restoration, Gregg Hopkins, involved in the design of the amps, making sure to pay homage aesthetically to Magnatone’s retro look.

Magnatone Amps

Magnatone Amps

So with an all-star team of engineers and the discriminating ears of players like Billy Gibbons, Khan, and Larry Cragg, the team began to prototype the first models of the new Magnatone amplifier and guitar company. Once the first models began rolling off the bench, the decision was made to bring Dave Hinson, owner of Killer Vintage (June 2012 myrareguitars.com) on as sales manager in order to help with dealer placement.

Next month we’ll take a look at the models and features including the magic of the Magnatone Varistor Vibrato!

Written by: David Anderson

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.

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

Recently, I was at a writer’s conference and there was another guitar player there and we started talking about amps and guitars and pedals and such, but mostly about amplifiers. And someone there (not a guitar player) asked me: “How many amplifiers do you have?”

I pride myself on only keeping equipment that I play, – I don’t have any collector’s-only pieces. Still, I have the cool gear disease. I did some quick math. “Five,” I said.

“What does your wife think?”

“Well, she has three amps,” I said.

“So, you only have two?”

“No,” I said. “Those are in addition to mine. She’s a bass player, so she doesn’t need as many. I have five.” Whoops. I’d forgotten my Deluxe Reverb. “Actually, six.” I said.

This non-guitar player turned to the other player. “How many do you have?”

He shrugged. “Four,” he said. “Right now, I think it’s four.”

The non-player looked confused.

“You need at least three,” I said. “You need your single-ended, your mid-power and your high-powered amps.”

“Right,” my guitar-playing new friend said. The third person shook his head, laughed and walked away.

“They all sound different,” I called after him. “You don’t understand!”

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

But you, dear reader with several amplifiers, you understand. And this month, I sing the praises of another obscure and beautiful amplifier, in this case a 1966 Lectrolab S 400. I’ve seen a few Lectrolabs over the years and they are all pretty cool amps. The 400 series seem to be (and this is based only on observation and scattered information. No one seems to know very much about these) all single-ended small amps with a single EL84 for output and one or two eight inch speakers. The 600 series are more in the 15-20 watt range with either two 6V6’s or two EL84’s (driving a twelve inch speaker), depending on the year. And the 800 series, which I’ve never seen in person, I haven’t been able to find much about, other than that they seem like later versions of the 600’s. The 900 series are El84-equiped heads (very rare).

So who was Lectrolab? As I say, there isn’t a lot of information out there about these. The chassis/labels tend to read “Lectrolab: Sound Projects, Chicago, Illinois/Venice, Florida.” The Chicago location leads some people to speculate that Lectrolab had something to do with Valco. And they do have a sonic texture much like the great Valcos (big midrange, great distortion, slightly dark sound). Yet, the rectifiers in these are usually a 6X4’s (not used much, if at all, in Valcos). The preamp tubes are frequently 6EU7’s (again, not often in Valcos), and the output tubes are often EL84’s (which most American amp companies didn’t use in the 1960’s’Gibson being the notable exception).

So, whoever Lectrolab was, we don’t know. But they probably were their own company, and almost certainly not Valco, or Gibson or any other well-known maker.

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

Whoever made these, they knew how to make an amp sound good. I have never heard a bad sounding 60’s Lectrolab. My S 400 has become my number one practice amplifier. I’m so in love with its tone, I added a ‘line out’ so that I can use it as a preamp for rehearsals and gigs. Coupled with a Magnatone 213, and it’s an awesome gig amp (and you get the added bonus of tremolo and vibrato’rad!).

This S 400 is from late 1966 and had two CTS 8″ alnico speakers. It’s got the 6X4 rectifier, a 6EU7 for the preamp and a single EL84 for output A 6AU6 takes care of the deep, pulsing tremolo. The control panel has four knobs: Volume, Tone and Speed & Intensity for the tremolo. This is a superb recording amp’a rich, complex overdriven tone that sounds huge with a mic. It reacts really well to the picking attack and cleans up as you roll off the volume. The tremolo is very musical and thick. For a small practice amp, it has a very nice bottom. With an overdrive pedal, it thickens and deepens even more and nails tones from the early 50’s Hubert Sumlin to the early 70’s Ronnie Wood Faces’ tone (one of the great, underrated guitar tones of the 70’s).

If you can find an original 60’s Lectrolab, you should snatch it up. I’ve played this next to a Supro Twin Eight and it held its own (and the Valco-made Supro Twin Eight is an awesome little amp). The twin eight inch speakers sound much fuller than your traditional single eight (like a Champ), and it’s got a superb tone for guitar or harp. A hard-to-find sleeper of an amp, but worth the hunt. And happy hunting!

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!