Magnatone Amps

More Magnatone!

Introduction Part I
What started out as a one-time pictorial on mother of toilet seat (MOTS) covered amplifiers has turned into a running Dickerson/Magnatone history, covering both the amps and the Hawaiian guitars. Last month, the alligator-attired Professional amp was allowed space, due to its close association with the MOTS Hawaiian guitars. This month, the MOTS requirement has been totally thrown out the window to make way for more amps from this important (and often ignored) company.

Note: the section on “Dating your MOTS Hawaiian” slated to run this month has been expanded to include all the Hawaiian/steels and will be in a future issue, along with closeups of the remaining six-string, eight-string, doubleneck, tripleneck and quadrupleneck sliders, not only in MOTS, but metal, wood, and lucite!

PART I: More MOTS Amplifiers
The author’s three-tube, 8″ permanent-magnet speaker 1946 Dickerson amp (discussed last month) that was lost in the mail ended up safe with a neighbor (over 10 days for priority mail, Merry Christmas!). This is an early post-WWII amp, with a speaker dated 1945 and the more rounded-edge shape and generic black handle of the small pre-WWII models. However, the grille “cloth” is not the heavy wire mesh expected, as seen on the Dickerson amp pictured in Richie Fliegler’s Amps, The Other Half Of Rock ‘N’ Roll (pg. 109, top right of group shot). It’s possible that amp is a leftover Delbert Dickerson model, but the logo decal points to post-WWII, as seen on all the ’46 to ’48 Hawaiians with the Dickerson brand name. Unfortunately, attempts to track the amp down have been futile.

A similar (but earlier) version is pictured in the Feb. ’98 issue of Guitar Player magazine (pg. 90) with the original stencilled Dickerson logo, first seen in ’38. While the earliest models (e.g. serial # 0010 from the cover of VG, Jan. ’98) had three stripes (call these Style 1), the amp in GP has only two stripes (Style 2), pointing to early ’40s. The stripeless example pictured in Fliegler’s Amps still has the original-type grille (Style 3), which was updated for the model pictured here in VG (Style 4).

Following this amp came the final pre-Magna version, having a new chrome “kitchen cabinet” handle, graphics that cover the entire grillecloth and a less-rounded cabinet with back panel ca. ’47. These were available with the Dickerson brand name, as well.

Both post-WWII Dickerson and early Magnatone used an interesting material to cover their speaker openings; window screen, just like on your back porch door. The majority of these grilles were covered in two-tone “fuzz” (black or purple on greyish brown). Unfortunately, the mohair-like base coat apparently blocks the passage of air, as in sound pressure, and gets literally blown out if the amp is played at “high” volume.

Visible deterioration around the speaker opening on many of the grillecloth scenes supports this theory, although normal wear and tear from the outside is also a major contributor. The monochromatic logo used for the introductory example left air spaces in the unfinished areas for sound to escape.

One of the absolute coolest versions of the two-tone grille was applied to the K&H amp, yet another brandname for that same old ’47-’48 pre-Magna MOTS amp. Compare it to the palm tree/coconut climber, musical staff, and purple Leilani amps on pg. 109 of Amps. Even the control panel is the same, save for the missing “Mfg. By Gourley” sticker. The pot code dates this three-tube, single 8″ permanent-magnet speaker beauty to late 1948.

PART II: Non-MOTS Magnatones
By the mid ’50s, MOTS had lost its appeal, as had Hawaiian music, so Magnatone discontinued its use on all the amplifiers and offered it only as an option for the new bottom-of-the-line “Steel” guitar. In the Feb. ’98 VG (pg. 115), the five-tube, single 10″ Melodier is described as possibly the largest MOTS amp known to man, with reference to the larger Troubadour and its covering as “unknown.” However, a five-tube, single-12″ speaker Troubadour Model M-192-5D has turned up in original alligator, as seen on the eight-tube, twin-12″ 1948 Professional Model M-198-8D. Note the numeral in 5D and 8D, not to mention M-199-3T and M-197-3V, refers to the number of tubes in the circuit. As for the letters, your guess is as good as ours…

Unfortunately, too much has been changed on this M-192’s insides to trust the 1951 pot codes or the 1953 speaker code, although the speaker looks original in brand and model, being similar to those in the ’48 Professional. While lacking any official literature from the era, an educated guess suggests the Troubadour went from early-period Magnatone alligator to mid-period Magnatone light brown leatherette, along with with all the MOTS amps ca. 1955, and no other covering was used in between. It’s possible light brown leatherette was used earlier for the then top-of-the-line Troubadour before becoming standard issue.

Besides the M-192 and M-198 mentioned above, other early Magnatones (VG, Feb. ’98, pg. 114) included the Student Model M-199-3T and the slightly larger M-197-3V, as used by Gretsch for their Rex Royal. The smaller AC/DC model probably had an M-190 series number in company literature, although the bare bones construction lacked any markings on the amp itself. Perhaps there’s a catalog or price list out there somewhere? The slant-front Magnatone inherited from Dickerson undoubtedly had an M-190 series number, as well.

The 190 series was superceded by the 100 series by 1954 (probably earlier); here’s a look at the transition.

The bottom-of-the-line AC/DC model became the Starlet Model 107 in MOTS, and the slightly more powerful three-tube M-199/M-197 became the Varsity Model 108 in MOTS. Gone was the graphically-enhanced windowscreen grillecloth, replaced with acoustically transperent cloth in brown, similar to what Fender would use on its tweed amps starting in ’55. The midsized amp with the slant front was followed by the five-tube, single-10″ Melodier Advanced Model 110 in MOTS, also with brown grille (it’s possible an interim early-’50s version in MOTS exists). The 110 was joined or followed by the five-tube, twin-8″ Model 109, with only the 109 being available by ’57. Finishing out the amps, with direct ties to the original line, the alligator Troubadour M-192 became Troubadour Model 112, as mentioned above. Light brown leatherette became standard issue for all these amps ca. 1955 and lasted until ca. ’59. The M-198 Professional probably (due to its rarity today) was discontinued well before the change to the 100 series.

Magnatone released its amazing 200 series amps (213, 260 and 280) with pitch bending vibrato in ’57, but these are a story in themselves (next month!). The 200s were fitted with a new dark brown cabinet having the baffle board tipped in under the top of the cabinet 15 degrees; the non-vibrato 100 series was updated in ’58 and ’59 to match.

The lower-powered, three-tube 107 became the dark brown 111, the higher-powered three-tube 108 became the dark brown 118, the midsized five-tube 109 was squeezed out by the small, vibrato-equipped 210 and 213 amps, while the larger single-12″ Troubadour 112 became the single-12″ 250. A high-powered amp without vibrato, the 190, was suggested for use with bass guitars. The 190 used a single 12″ plus a 5″ tweeter and boasted 40 watts. Suffice it to say, the 260 and 280 were outrageously progressive and Hi-Fi, as the Professional had been in ’48.

So, there you have the near-complete story of Magna Electronics Amplifiers from the ’40s and ’50s. However, the author recalls playing through more than one ca. ’55-’57 light brown amp with AM tremolo (not the FM vibrato), but the old brain didn’t think to chronicle the model number(s). Because of the hoopla at the time of the 200 series’ release praising the superiority of vibrato, tremolo was bluntly discontinued. It seems safe to say no dark brown Magna Electronics amp had tremolo, no light brown amp had vibrato, and no MOTS amp had either. Again, more on the “V” (for vastness) vibrato next month.

Introduction Part II
While the focus of this series (see Jan., Feb., and March ’98 VG) has been MOTS amplifiers and their matching MOTS Hawaiian guitars, these comprised only the bottom portion of a progressive Magnatone line. To get a feel for the importance of this company in the early-’50s electric market (an era dismissed by many today simply as, “They made some lap steels…”), we need to go all the way to the top of their instrument line before returning next month to amplifiers (in particular, the fabulous vibrato-equipped models of the ’50s and ’60s). Included this issue are a number of extremely exotic/deluxe/groundbreaking Hawaiian and steel guitars, some with wood bodies, some with Lucite, and some with metal…some with six strings, some with eight, plus 12, 16, 24 and 32-string multi-necks, and a pair of six-stringers without tuner buttons!

Part I: MOTS Finale
In the early ’50s, the Magnatone line included economy, standard and deluxe-model MOTS Hawaiians. The short-lived Starlet was added ca. ’51 at the bottom of the line and, like the teardrop late-’40s Dickerson Student model, its body lacked a traditional guitar shape.

Straight sides made for ease of construction, but the price difference was minimal between the Starlet and the guitar-shaped standard model (Magnatone’s Student model). Both instruments had volume and tone controls, the hidden pickup and “Seamless Pearl Plastic covering in Grey, Blue or Black.”

While Dickerson had referred to their guitar-shaped MOTS Hawaiian as the Standard, Magnatone used the name Student for their version. In the first few years, it was paired with the M-199 Student amp, as well as the larger M-197 Varsity and smaller AC/DC Starlet amp. These guitars were examined in VG in Feb. ’98, but a few missing links have turned up recently…

A transition-era purple Leilani (ca. ’49 serial #1139) has the new Magnatone body and nut while retaining the Fator-era knobs and bridge. The old LEILANI, MFG. BY GOURLEY label was still used on the headstock, along with a Magnatone serial number plate on the back to confuse future generations.

Emblazoned with an American flag on its headstock, an Amerloha, ca. ’53-’54 (serial no. 44519, pot codes 140308), was one of the last guitar shaped Magnatone-made Hawaiians. The features are similar to the ca. ’52 Trick Bros. in the Feb. ’98 VG. A new shape for Magnatone shows up on a ca. ’54 model (serial no. 47877, pot codes 304423). This body shape would be standard for the remainder of the MOTS era, the guitar shape gone for good. The headstock, nut, fingerboard, pickup cover, bridge, jackplate and covering are all similar to the Amerloha. The tuners have the clear buttons of the more deluxe models but are of the era and appear to be original (knobs probably have been changed). These would be the last of the hidden-pickup Hawaiians.

A new steel guitar evolved ca. ’55-’56 from the last hidden-pickup Hawaiian guitars, but without MOTS, and called the Varsity. Natural wood was now the standard finish, although a Black Pearl option ($5 extra) was available in the ’57 catalog. This was about all that was left of the original model, along with the body shape of the very last version.

Borrowing its peghead from the more expensive Troubadour, the G-70 featured the new chrome all-in-one bridge/tailpiece/pickup/controls/jackplate that wrapped around the end of the body, as seen on all the late-’50s Magnatone steels. Having everything attached to the plate before assembly allowed for more efficient mass production, la Valco (one of Magnatone’s biggest competitors in the student market). A new height-adjustable Fender-style pickup featured a metal cover, although later models had the plastic of the bobbin tops exposed. Gone was the raised handrest and the over-the-strings pickup cover, an unthinkable idea during the Hawaiian era. The bridge and nut were fabricated from a thick metal rod and bolted/screwed to the guitar at either end of the aluminum fingerboard. Position markers on the black board now included silver diamonds, stars, and blocks. The knobs were also new, black with chrome disk inserts on top, complementing the new black tuner buttons. One of these turned up in MOTS with pot codes 140535 and 140540 (serial number not available).

A more deluxe MOTS Hawaiian was offered by Magnatone, the first paired (for a short time) with the Melodier amp (in the ca. ’49-’50 catalog). This model should not be confused with the soon-to-be-released metal-bodied Melodier Consolette (see Part IV), and was the obvious predecessor to the Varsity emblazoned model from ca. ’51. The ca. ’49-’50 catalog model featured two decorative body “points,” one to each side, as seen on the later Varsities. A chrome bridge/pickup cover and control panel that covered much of the lower face of the guitar were unique to this short-lived instrument. The deluxe black fingerboard was standard non-Student issue for the era, having a french curve and the name “Magnatone” in script at the pickup end.

The ca. ’51 catalog introduced a Varsity Matched Set featuring a revised version of the two-point guitar, “…lavishly trimmed with heavy band-cut and polished Lucite.” The extended handrest, tuner buttons, peghead decoration and control knobs were either transparent red, blue or white, depending on the MOTS and the fingerboard was contrasting Lucite, painted white on the backside, with “Varsity” between the end of the fret markers and the pickup. Even the alligator hardshell case had a clear lucite handle. A new “Whisper Sensitive” pickup sticks out of the body in a rectangular MOTS housing, but is hidden under a chrome cover. This cover differs from the Standard version by its lack of flanges on the outside edges, and was screwed into each side of the pickup instead of the face of the body. The bridge and nut are large slabs of polished metal, secured to the body with screws. Unfortunately (unless you actually needed to use them), the pots have been replaced. This was one of a number of short-lived models from the early ’50s.

At the top of the MOTS line for ca. ’49-’50 was an early version of the long-running Troubadour Hawaiian. This guitar was usually seen in natural finished hardwoods, but could be had with “Seamless Pearl Plastic in striking two-tone color combination” for a short period early on, with six or eight strings. Clear tuners and knobs and the asymmetrical body shape would be standard on ’50s models, but the french curve “Magnatone” fingerboard and MOTS were short-lived.

Part II: Wood Bodies
An early wood-bodied single-neck is pictured in Hawaiian Steel Guitars and the Great Hawaiian Musicians (pg. 128) by Lorene Ruymar (Centerstream). Without having actually seen or discussed this instrument, which has a completely different body, headstock, pickup/controls setup, etc., than the models inherited from Dickerson/Fator and later wood models, one can only guess it is a very early Magnatone model, ca. 1947-’48 (pre-MOTS). The black fingerboard has the fancy french curve/scroll “Magnatone” logo at the end, otherwise the instrument is entirely transitory.

Following their acquisition of Dickerson, Magna Electronics continued to offer six and eight-string deluxe models with hardwood bodies. This ca. ’50 Troubadour guitar (Magnatone No. 8074) is the inspiration for most of the later deluxe Hawaiians, with a body having an asymmetrical shape, stairstep silhouette on the treble side, and a Gumby headstock. The bridge, nut, pickup/cover, plus the clear tuner buttons and knobs, are all upgrades from the Standard models and would be seen on many of the fancier instruments through ca. ’55.

The painted lucite fingerboard was also new, with gold dots and black fret markers. Controls were mounted from the front, with a chrome plate. Pots are dated 137811 (note different brand from Standard models).

A snapshot from the files is all that could be used for research here, but mention should be made of this guitar due to its falling between the wood-bodied model previously described and the final deluxe version G-65. Asymmetrical headstock and body, clear tuner buttons/knobs, metal nut, bridge and pickup cover are the same as above. A raised wooden handrest (similar in concept to the plastic one of the MOTS Varsity), hollow circle inlays, rear loaded controls and the recessed jack are differences. Another beauty of a case, white leatherette with blue lining and an amber lucite handle!

For the second half of the ’50s, the top of the line six-string (in walnut or blond, eight-string optional) was the Troubadour G-65, with the asymmetrical body and headstock of earlier Troubadour models, save for additional removal of wood on the top edge of the bass side, not to mention the raised handrest. Features were the same as for the rest of the late – ’50s line (see G-70 and Four Neck). An early walnut example, ca. ’55-’56 (Serial No. 50672) was still fitted with the small Serial No. plate of the earlier Magnatones, as well as a gold Magnatone logo plate attached to front edge. Pot codes are 140502 and 140535.

Part III: Lucite
If you have an appreciation for Hawaiian guitars (why else would you be reading this?), you probably remember the first time you saw the Magnatone pictured on pg. 39 of Gruhn and Carter’s Electric Guitars and Basses, A Photographic History; the stunning red lucite body, with red-buttoned tuners and red/clear/red transluscent knobs. Available for only a short time, ca.’49-’50, the Jeweltone was the top of the line steel for its fleeting reign – and one of the most incredible examples of industrial design ever brought to fruition as a musical instrument. Three color combinations could be had, “Vibrant – Ruby Red and Crystal,” “Lovely – Sapphire Blue and Crystal,” and “Striking – Onyx Black and Opal White.”

Starting with a felt clad sheet of colored Lucite on the bottom, followed by a sheet of clear (or white on the Striking) and topped with a second sheet of color, the “body” was formed. This was topped with the structural integrity of the instrument, a sheet of polished aluminum that stretched from one end of the guitar to the other. The tailpiece was simply recessed holes for the strings and at the other end, the tuners were screwed right into the metal, which tipped back a few degrees to form the peghead. A thin sheet of colored Lucite was used as a peghead veneer with the company logo applied across the top, by use of a decal.

The fifth layer in this musical club sandwich was a sheet of clear Lucite for the fingerboard, painted white from the backside and routed for black fret markers. Brass position dots were also inlaid from the rear. “Safti-String Post” Kluson Deluxe tuners (Pat. Appl’d.) were capped with “Matching hand-cut Lucite tuning pegs” and these were complemented at the other end by transparent cylinder knobs, following the color/clear/color pattern of the body. Polished aluminum was also used for the rather large nut and bridge, as well as a bumper across the body’s bottom edge, housing the output jack and offering protection when standing the guitar up.

Capping the whole look was a large, rectangular pickup cover, lined on the sides with more colored Lucite. Still dazzling today in the “beautiful, oyster-white Spanish grain leatherette” hardshell case with red “crushed plush lining” and amber Lucite handle! Available in regular (22 1/2″) or long (25″) scale length with six or eight strings.

Part IV: Metal
Melodier Consolette
While all the other MOTS models had wood beneath their coverings, an advanced/experimental model was released ca. ’51 that used a formed sheet of steel for its endoskeleton. Even more interesting is that the tailpiece was where the nut should have been and the tuners were at the bridge – and adjustable only with an Allen wrench! To quote the Magnatone ad man, “Revolutionary new tuning bridge eliminates cumbersome geared machine heads. No gears to slip. Positive – Self locking – Strings Stay Pul. No arduous tuning sessions before classes or public appearances. Simplified changing of strings.”

These instruments were also marketed by the Natural Music Guild of Santa Ana, California as the Natural “Sta-Tune” guitar, along with the matching MOTS “My Pal” amp and telescoping stand to connect the two.

We looked inside serial no. 45540 (ca. ’54). Removing the back exposed the hollow insides, which were covered with “Special Sound Deadener” to “…prevent rattle and reverberation.” The handrest (carved from a block of wood) and pickup were both wrapped in MOTS to match the body. Restringing this baby was actually not too bad once the holes in the tuner posts were lined up with the holes behind the bridge. Not having gears makes for 1:1 tuning; as much fun as a ukulele or violin without fine tuners (especially since the all-metal assembly hadn’t been used for some time and was in dire need of lubrication). See Gruhn and Carter’s Electrics (pg. 39) for a pic of an earlier version.

“Revolutionary new electronic Guitar advances the steel Guitar to a place of honor along with the heretofore more perfect instruments, such as the piano. Full chord harmony is now possible with the eight different tunings in the Multimatic. Smooth, instantaneous cut-over from one tuning to another at your fingertip. Feather touch push button action permits cut-over on the fastest numbers. No gadgets to operate, no foot pedal contrivances. No heavy multi-neck Guitar to carry around.”

Sounds too good to be true
Featured on the cover of the ca. ’51 Magnatone catalog, the six-string Multimatic Model No. MG-100-6 appeared to be the final answer to the problem of accessing different tunings, a brilliant solution to the steel player’s dream. Designed by Delbert Dickerson, the man responsible for the MOTS phenomenon, the Multimatic expanded on the idea behind Epiphone’s Pre-WWII Varichord; that of a single-neck with the ability to quickly change to a number of tunings. We must remember; pedal steels were designed to silently change to different tunings, and not really intended to do the controlled, lazy slurs we associate with the instrument today.

Multi-neck instruments were awkward and heavy, 10 or more string necks were confusing or limiting, and early pedal steels didn’t play in tune (think Multicord), plus your foot had to stay on the pedal while playing in any tuning other than the basic. All these problems were apparently solved with the $289.50 Magnatone. Compare the price with Gibson’s $425 Multi-Harp, Fender’s Custom triple-neck at $286.50, Epiphone’s Triple Neck Console at $275, etc. Only National’s Triplex Chord Changer, at $185, should have been competitive, and it was limited to three pre-designed choices.

So, why didn’t the Multimatic become a huge success? Perhaps the electronic motors, relays, solenoids, etc. available at the time were not advanced enough (“the product of 10 years of research and engineering” implies Dickerson was not satisfied with early versions). The workings were reportedly smooth and accurate, but deemed too noisy for the recording studio, as discussed in The Hawaiian Steel Guitar (see pgs. 128 – 130, note photos). Reliability has also been suggested as to why Magnatone gave up on the Multimatic; perhaps with today’s technology, a silent, perfectly functioning/MIDI controllable model could be made..
Part V: Multi-Necks
Double Neck
Dating to ca. 1950, serial no. 14363 (pots 140024) has many of the Standard features of the era, such as sheet steel nut and bridge, rectangular over-the-strings pickup cover, recessed jack cup, white plastic knobs, and enclosed Klusons. Deluxe appointments include the asymmetrical shape of the outside body and the fancy black fingerboard, as seen on the high end models from the late ’40s.

A totally new version appeared in the ca. ’51 catalog, with the clear knobs and tuners of the single-neck deluxe models. A boxy two-tone hardwood body with squared off necks and headstocks shows a direct link to the late-’50s models described below, with none of the guitar-like similarities of the previous MOTS model. The heavy duty nut and bridge, as well as the Lucite fingerboard, were borrowed from the Jeweltone described above, although the plastic coverplates for the tuners were brand new. See The Hawaiian Steel Guitar (pg. 128) for a photo of an extant model, ca. ’51-’52, serial no. 23129.

Triple Neck
Same as the double-neck, save for the third neck, 50 percent more heft and possibly a different switch. Still only two controls.

Quad Neck
1956 saw the introduction of the short-lived Model G-105-QW Four Neck Steel, following Fender’s Stringmaster lead. Many of the features of this instrument, featured on the cover of the ’56 catalog, were shared with rest of the steel guitar line, such as a new fingerboard to go with the new, longer scale length (241/2″), new height adjustable pickups (two on the multi-necks), and black knobs. The chrome all-in-one bridge/tailpiece/pickup/controls/jackplate was slightly longer/thinner on the multi-necks, to accommodate the second pickup and behind-the-bridge controls. The Four Neck, as well as the Double and Triple Necks, still featured two-tone blond and walnut bodies, as on early-’50s models, but with slight cutaways on the bass side of each neck.

Postscipt: Hawaiian/Steel Guitar Finale
Completing the ’56 Magnatone Steel guitar line were a pair of instruments similar to the Four Neck, the Lyric double eight-string G-85 DW and Maestro triple eight-string G-95 TW, plus the Single Neck models G-70 and G-65. Gone for the ’57 catalog was the Four Neck, after a very short stay in the line. The others remained essentially unchanged for the remainder of their life. Coinciding (approximately) with the merger of Magnatone with Estey, the entire line of steel guitars was retired, ca. ’60, ending one of the more interesting chapters in Hawaiian/steel guitar history. With interest in Hawaiian music minimal by the late ’50s and the steel guitar’s popularity stable at best, the company concentrated on amplifiers, with only scattered releases of Spanish-neck solidbodies (a whole ‘nuther story) carrying on the instrument lineage into the late ’60s.

Early-’50s Troubadour, photo courtesy John Teagle.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s March and April ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.