…but the innovations wrought during his tenure with the Gibson guitar company from 1948 to 1965 forever changed the musical landscape for fretted instrument players. As President of Gibson during what many consider the Golden Age of American electric guitars, Ted McCarty designed and/or oversaw the development and production of many legendary instruments in today’s vintage market. Moreover, some of the models introduced by Gibson during McCarty’s time of leadership have never gone out of production (the ES-175 was introduced in 1949), and numerous others have been reissued to a new generation of guitarists seeking a retro look and sound.
VG went on-the-record with the guitar industry legend the day before his 89th birthday, hearing his fascinating recollections and ruminations regarding more than six decades in the musical instrument business.
Vintage Guitar: I don’t want to get too redundant with the books written about Gibson’s history, but I need to ask about your personal reaction to them, particularly Walter Carter’s Gibson Guitars: 100 Years of an American Icon. There’s a section called “The Ted McCarty Era.” What do you think of that designation?
Ted McCarty: Well, I’m somewhat stunned because I’m not a musician, but I’ve been in this business for 62 years, with three companies. I was with Wurlitzer for 12 years, I came to Gibson here in Kalamazoo in 1948 as their CEO, and very shortly thereafter I became President. Mr. Berlin, the owner of Chicago Musical Instrument company, bought Gibson during the war but they weren’t really making guitars during the war, so they were digging out the tools, dies, and fixtures, trying to make guitars and other instruments again. But they were having a difficult time, and Berlin knew I was leaving Wurlitzer.
(interrupting) You were going to go to work for the Brach’s candy company, if I remember the history correctly.
Correct. Their headhunters were after me to be treasurer; theirs was going to retire in two years. But Mr. Brach was in the Bahamas on vacation, and nobody could make a decision until he got back.
I had lunch with Mr. Berlin one day while I was waiting, and he said, “Since you’re not busy, why don’t you go over to Kalamazoo on my expense account and see if you can find out what’s going on over there, and why I’m losing so much money?”
I told him I’d do it because we’d been friends while I was at Wurlitzer. I’d never been here before, but I spent time in the factory talking to people – in particular John Huis, who’d been with Gibson for 15 years. I wrote a report and gave it to Mr. Berlin. He called me about a week later and asked if I’d like to be general manager, and told him I was still waiting on Mr. Brach, but he told me hated to see me get out of the industry. In those days, Wurlitzer was the biggest music company in the business. He made me an offer, but I wasn’t interested.
Well, one thing led to another and he called me again and said he hadn’t realized I had an engineering degree, so the offer got a little better. I finally agreed to go to work at Gibson.
Let’s back up a bit. Where are you originally from, and how did you end up working with Wurlitzer?
TM: I was born in Somerset, Kentucky. My mother died when I was three years old, and we moved to Cincinnati. My brother was five, and we lived with a great aunt and uncle.
I graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree from their Engineering college; it was a five-year course. I’d been the manager of the college bookstore as a student, and I continued to manage it a couple of years after I graduated.
I got married and decided I didn’t want to work in a bookstore the rest of my life, so I started to look around. Wurlitzer was a Cincinnati company, and they were hiring. The treasurer was doing the hiring, but he told me I didn’t get the job because of my degree. They were looking for trainees for their retail stores, and at the time they had 21 of them around the United States. Once he found out about my business experience, though, he said, “If you want the job, you’re hired.”
But that was 1936 – the middle of the Depression – and nobody had any money. I stayed with Wurlitzer for 12 years. And when Mr. Berlin offered me the job with Gibson. He told me, “If you can turn the place around and make a profit, I’ll make you President of the company at the next board meeting.”
I never met Mr. Brach (chuckles).
My perception is that you hit the ground running at Gibson, because within about a year, the company introduced the ES-5, the ES-175, and the pickup/pickguard fingerrest that bears your name. To what extent did your engineering training figure into those innovations?
Well, I was in on all of those. But of course, the most prodigious one was the Les Paul guitar. We designed that guitar because Leo Fender was having some success making solidbody guitars. We worked about a year and came up with what we thought was a very fine guitar. I asked Mr. Berlin, “Who’s going to sell it for us? We’ve got to have this guitar on display, because we think it’s finer than anything Leo Fender has made.”
Then I said, “What about Les Paul,” because at the time, he and Mary [Ford] were at the top of the charts. I knew Les and had been trying to get him to play Gibson guitars, because he was an Epiphone man.
We took the prototype to show him; he and Mary were recording way up on a mountain near Delaware Water Gap. It was pouring rain and we knew we’d never find his place, so we waited at a greasy spoon while he sent someone down to get us.
He played the prototype and liked it, then he told Mary to play it, and she said, “I love it.” So we came to an agreement about royalties that night; the contract was for five years. We put a clause in that said Les couldn’t be seen in public playing any guitar except a Gibson.
There’s been some controversy about how much input Les Paul actually had with the design of that guitar.
He never saw it before I took it down there. He never had anything to do with it, but we had a regular trapeze tailpiece on it, like we used on our other guitars, and he said, “I’ve got an idea for what I think is a better tailpiece.” It had a bar on it, which the strings wrapped around. I told him we’d try it, and if it worked we’d use it.
Fine-tuning about the advent of Fender’s solidbody guitar, I presume you first saw them at a 1950 NAMM show.
We’d heard about them through the grapevine (chuckles). They were a whole new idea, and a lot of manufacturers – Gretsch and Harmony, for example – thought it was terrible because of its neck, which was bolted on instead of built into the guitar. But the players liked it, so we decided we’d better get into the solidbody field.
This is a very generalized statement, but is it fair to say the ’50s might have been the glory days for guitar innovations for you, and the first half of the ’60s might have been the glory days for guitar production, considering the amount of guitars Gibson made?
Yes, because we built up from 150 employees to 1,200 by 1965, and the factory expanded to cover two city blocks, spread out from just one little building.
Obviously, I need to ask about those late-’50s futuristic guitars – the Flying V, the Explorer, and any Moderne prototypes – since they’ve become such collector’s items.
I personally designed those. Fender was talking about how Gibson was a bunch of old fuddie-duddies, and when I heard that through the grapevine, I was a little peeved. So I said, “Let’s shake ’em up.” I wanted to come up with some guitar shapes that were different from anything else.
Has everything about the possible existence of Moderne prototypes been noted? If such a guitar exists, it is considered the Holy Grail of collectible guitars.
That’s correct. We made probably four or five at the time. We had all of the new shapes on display at a road show in New York, and they did just what we thought they’d do – everybody at the show was walking around saying, “Have you seen those crazy things Gibson’s got?” (chuckles). Dealers would visit our booth to look at them, and our salesmen were trying to sell them, but when it was all over and we got back to Kalamazoo and checked sales, the only thing that had really sold was the Flying V. So the question was, “What about the other two?” We cut 80 Flying Vs in the first cutting.
Dealers bought them. But I don’t think they thought much of them as guitars to listen to or to play. A lot of dealers hung them in their store windows.
As display props?
Yeah, to attract attention because they’d never seen anything like that. And today, the Flying V shape is being made by a number of companies.
Another late-’50s innovation was the ES-335 and similar instruments. Do you prefer to call those semi-hollow, semi-solid, or something else?
When we were developing it, we were referring to it as a semi-solid, because it’s a solidbody guitar, but you might say the body itself is acoustic. I personally designed that one, as well.
It was a whole new type of instrument – a hybrid, if you will – and considering all of the ’50s innovations from Gibson, including parts innovations like the humbucking pickup and the Tune-o-matic bridge, is the 335 at least the instrument you’re proudest of?
(chuckles) That is it. I preferred the tone of the acoustic, and I thought the solidbody was a little harsh. I was trying to do get some of the tone of an acoustic guitar in a solidbody – mix the two. And the tone of the semi-solid did come out as a mixture of the two sounds. You could play it without having it plugged into an amplifier. Now that idea has been improved, as far as I’m concerned, by Paul Reed Smith [with] the Ted McCarty guitar. Instead of having a solid block of maple glued to the top and bottom, Paul noted how violins have soundposts and put them in that guitar. This increased the amount of tone you got from the acoustic part of it.
Why do you think the sales of Gibson amps never matched Fender’s?
When I left, we were turning out some of the medium-sized amplifiers at a pretty good pace. But there again, there was a difference in tonal values of Fender and Gibson amplifiers, as had been the case with our guitars. Gibson always had a more mellow guitar amplifier, and the ones Leo made were very harsh and very loud, and every time we tried to match it, we would say, “This is too much.” The players on the West Coast liked the sound Leo’s amps would produce, but it didn’t appeal to our people, or to a lot of our dealers.
You see, Leo was an amplifier manufacturer long before he got into the guitar business, and while I can’t fault him for getting into guitar building, he would never join any of our organizations; he was a loner. I invited him to come into groups that included Martin, Gibson, Harmony, and Kay, but he turned us down.
When another California instrument maker, Paul Bigsby, called you in 1965 about his desire to sell his company, weren’t you thinking about getting out of the musical instrument business again?
Yes; Bigsby was a little company and they didn’t produce any volume at all. The only guitars he made were ones for people who came into his shop and wanted to buy one. He called me out of the blue, but we had been friends. Gibson was the first company to put Bigsby vibratos on factory-made guitars in quantity. We were buying them in amounts like 5,000 at a time!
But we had to change his design. His handle was straight and could get in the way, so I told him we needed the handle to swing out of the way if a player didn’t want to use it, and he said, “Well, Ted, if you can design it, I’ll make it that way.” So I did.
Fred Gretsch, the brother of Bill Gretsch, was a good friend of mine, and he called me up one day and said, “Ted, Paul Bigsby won’t sell me any of these new swing-away vibratos because he says that design belongs to you. I wish you could make some kind of arrangement so I could buy it, too; it’s a much better unit, and we could increase Paul’s business.”
So I talked to Paul and we worked out a deal where Gibson bought their vibratos for a little less than anybody else, in return for the invention of the swing-away. Fred Gretsch started buying them in large quantities, and Paul couldn’t keep up with demand.
Paul was a Mason, as I am, and he had an opportunity with the California Masonic organization, and he told me he wanted to spend some time with that when he called to tell me his company was for sale. I asked him if he was talking to me as the President of Gibson about buying his company, or if he was talking to me as an individual.
He said, “I thought maybe you might be interested in owning it yourself.” I told him I’d fly out there one weekend and see what he had. I hadn’t visited his little factory, although he had visited us. Gibson Vice President John Huis and I flew out one Saturday morning. When we went to see Paul, I went in his office and asked to see his financial books, so I could get some idea about what his sales totals were. He said, “Ted, I don’t have any books.” I asked him what he told the IRS, and he said the law didn’t say he had to have books, so he didn’t have any. He had some crude records, and I asked about things like inventory sheets and tax reports, and he said he had an accountant do those. I got to look at some of the reports from the accounting firm, and they were pretty sound, financially.
John and I went to lunch and I said, “John, let’s buy it. We’ll probably have to retire from Gibson, because it would be a conflict of interest.” So when we got back to Gibson, John resigned in writing to me, and of course I accepted it, and I resigned to Mr. Berlin. He was upset; he told me that whatever I’d paid Paul, he’d give me another $50,000 on top of that, but I said, “No.” He wouldn’t accept my resignation, but I offered to stay until he brought someone else in and I trained him, and I also said that if he decided that there was no conflict of interest, I’d stay on as President of Gibson, and I’d hire someone to run Bigsby separately.
But they finally decided that it would be a conflict of interest. We’d bought the Bigsby company just before Thanksgiving, and we had to get it out of California by the first of January. We didn’t have a factory or any employees, so we got busy, and I was with Gibson for another six months.
You’ve owned the Bigsby company for almost twice as long as your tenure with Gibson. Has it been easier over the “Bigsby decades” working with guitar accessories instead of guitars?
Yes, but at one time, around ’69 or ’70, Japanese guitars were really coming into the U.S. market, and several companies went out of business – Harmony, Kay, National, all of those folks – and it affected Bigsby, as well.
It’s perhaps a bit of a paradox that you happened to get out of the guitar manufacturing business around the time imported instruments began their encroachment.
That’s right, and that’s why our business was going down; most of those companies had been our customers, so it looked really bad. I could see we were in real doo-doo (chuckles). When that happened, I thought we’d have to find something else to manufacture with our equipment; another item to sell that would carry us.
I ran into a business friend of mine at a cocktail party, and he asked me how things were going. I said, “I’ve got problems.” I told him why, and I told him I was looking for another product we could make with our machinery, otherwise we were going to be out of business.
He told me he had a small company that he had spun off from his large company, and it was for sale. He said it was called Flex-Lite, and of course my first question was, “What the hell is a Flex-Lite?” He said it was a little hard to explain, so he invited me to the plant. We were talking on a Sunday afternoon, and I asked him what time he opened the next morning! John Huis and I went over, and to make a long story short, we’d bought it by noon, the same way we bought Paul’s business right away.
We started making two little lights at our factory, and I started designing some other models. When we started advertising, a lot of manufacturers called us, wanting to know if we could make certain types of lights, so we now make about 30 different kinds of lights, but we’re not making the kind that people can put in their pockets. We’re a specialty company. For example, we have a unit that allows you to look inside the cylinder of an aircraft engine. We also make one for fighter pilots.
So, are you saying a nonmusical product, the Flex-Lite, may have ultimately been responsible for the salvation of the Bigsby accessory company?
Yes, sir. We are probably the only good vibrato company that has survived this long. And right now, things are good. The Gretsch company has put them on 14 of their models, and we sell them in five nations.
Not so long ago, were you concerned about the newer, high-tech vibratos, such as the Floyd Rose system? Or did you figure they were for a different market niche?
I don’t know anything about them. Players want Bigsbys; the Japanese want Bigsbys. Both of my companies are very strong, but I want to sell them because and I’ve been getting some flak from my family. My wife died about nine years ago, and my daughter and my son think I should take things a bit easier. I had a physical yesterday, and I passed everything with flying colors.
Comments about the Paul Reed Smith instruments that bear your name?
I met Paul in 1986; he wanted me to do some consulting, but at the time my wife wasn’t doing well and I’d lost some of my sight – I’m legally blind. I told him I’d love to do it, but I couldn’t travel alone. So he said, “If you can’t come here, I’ll come there,” and I said okay. He and his superintendent came to Kalamazoo. Paul had a small factory then, and was only making solidbody guitars, which were the easiest to make.
I told him how Bigsby had made a few solidbody guitars when Leo brought out his solidbodies, but Bigsby’s weren’t a factor in the industry. I got criticized when we started to make the solidbody Les Paul. Fred Gretsch asked me, “Why did you ever do that? This means anybody who’s got a bandsaw can make a guitar!” And that’s true, but I said it was a whole new idea, and we felt like we had to get into it, otherwise the field would have been left wide open for Leo.
I think that’s why Paul Reed Smith got into making solidbodies first, and I provided him with some input. He brought out a Ted McCarty solidbody model in l994, and introduced those acoustic/electrics we were discussing earlier in January at the Los Angeles [NAMM] show. They’re beautiful guitars, and I feel proud of that model.
I interviewed Forrest White in l991, and he seemed to lament that at one time you could gather the heads of the U.S. guitar business in a single room. He cited Fred Martin, Fred Gretsch, Ted McCarty of Gibson, Tony Kluson, Rubovitz and Krause from Harmony, and Sid Katz from Kay. But now, he said, it seems everybody and his brother is involved, and it’s hard to tell who’s who.
I think that’s true. I was at the summer show in Nashville, and there was a big area full of people from other nations, all making and selling guitars, but there are still some good American builders, and the quality is there. Some people say P.R.S. instruments are too expensive, but he’s making nothing but top-quality guitars. And that’s kept Gibson going when Harmony and Kay and the rest went broke; Gibson was a quality house.
If that’s your perspective on the current state of the guitar market in the U.S., what would you envision the future to be like? Any predictions?
Well, I can see the low-priced guitars – I don’t like to say “cheap” – continuing to have low quality, as well. Paul Reed Smith has a new factory, and he’s got the latest equipment; an automatic buffer, for example. I have a feeling the people who stay on top will do well.
And that may sound silly – our vibratos are still made the way Paul Bigsby made them! But I finally talked Paul Reed Smith into putting one onto one of his new acoustic/electrics for the show in Nashville. He made five guitars, all in white, for the show, and there was a 24-karat gold-plated Bigsby on the acoustic/electric, so it really was the best of both worlds.
Ted McCarty’s perspectives on the history of the guitar-manufacturing business should be a mandatory course for anyone involved in the field. His recollections aver that quality is the key facet for survival, and modern-day builders would do well to heed the advice and counsel of someone who’s been involved with American musical instruments and accessories since the mid 1930s.
A 1964 portrait of Gibson’s President, taken the year before he left the Kalamazoo guitar manufacturing company. Portrait photo: Fabian Bachrach.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s April ’99 issue.