We live in a golden age, with an incredible selection of guitars available in virtually any price range.
But if there ever was another golden age, the 1960s are in line for the nomination. While the across-the-board quality may not have been as good as it is now, the variety of brands and designs had never been exceeded until today. To demonstrate, witness one of the more obscure guitars of the Swinging ’60s – this circa 1965 Murph Squire 11-T.
The causes of the ’60s guitar boom are pretty well-known. Following World War II, hundreds of thousands of young American GIs returned home with one thing on their minds. The result was the fabled post-war Baby Boom. Fast forward to the 1960s, and the first wave of Boomers is hitting its teenage years – a huge wave of children, the first raised in the glow of modern mass media. These kids liked music – first folk, and then, especially after the Beatles, rock and roll. And both required guitars. Lots and lots of guitars.
By ’65, it seemed that there was no end to the potential of the guitar market. Mass manufacturers like Harmony and Kay could sell every guitar they made. A feeding frenzy of corporate takeovers ensued. In 1965, CBS took over Fender. And along the periphery, many smaller guitar hopefuls sprang up, from Alamo to Kapa to La Baye to Micro-Frets to Wurlitzer. To Murph.
Murph guitars were the brainchild of one of those GIs returning from war in the Pacific, a Navy pilot named Patrick Murphy. Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1920 and brought up in Detroit, Murphy settled in California after the war and set about raising a family. He was not a musician, but his children were and they started one of those family singing groups that were so popular in the ’60s, in addition to acting in the Los Angeles area. Murphy’s two oldest boys, Mike and Terry, began taking guitar lessons, and their guitar teacher Jim Gurley (who later became Murph’s salesman) came up with the idea that Murphy should build guitars for them to perform with (and thereby promote). From this notion did the guitar shown here spring!
Murphy began designing guitars (with help from his wife, Mary Jane) and enlisted the help of engineer Rick Geiger who knew something about building guitars. In February, 1965, they opened Murphy Music Industries in a small factory located at 1817 First Street in San Fernando. Murphy and Geiger obtained mostly used machinery to set up shop. Murphy’s first choice for a brand name was York, but that name was already taken by a Michigan horn manufacturer, so he settled on Murph. Geiger left the company before production could commence, so Murphy carried on with the help of family members. At its peak, Murph had 22 employees.
Murph guitars were built of three-piece poplar with three-piece Eastern hardrock maple necks. Rosewood for fingerboards, bridges, and vibratos were imported from A.C. Gotz in West Germany. Pickups were single-coils wound by Murph with plastic covers provided by a local supplier. Finished surfaces received 10 coats of nitrocellulose lacquer. They were outfitted with Kluson Deluxe tuners and came in cases built by L.A.’s Victoria Luggage Company.
The principal design employed by Murph was this quasi-Jazzmaster shape used on the Squire, the name given to Murph’s solidbody. Two models were offered, the 1-T with a single bridge pickup, and the 11-T shown here, with a pair of units. One other solid was the Westerner, basically an 11-T covered in blue, red, or aqua metalflake naughahyde, reminiscent of the vinyl-covered Höfners and Hagstroms of the time. A Squire 12-String and Squire Bass were also available. Lefty versions could be custom-ordered. In addition, there was a Continental IV hollowbody that employed a single-cutaway, Gibsonish design. This had one neck pickup and a simple wire trapeze tailpiece. A double-cutaway Gemini model was made briefly in 6- and 12-string versions, but it doesn’t appear in catalogs and may never have gone into production. These look remarkably like similar Standel models… standard Murph finishes were Candy Apple Red, White, Blue, or Sunburst.
The electronics on the Squire 11-T shown here are typical of most early Murphs. They had one master volume and master tone control. The bridge pickup was always on; the sliding switch activated the neck pickup! Sometime in mid ’66, Murph changed this arrangement to four knobs, volume and tone for each pickup, with a three-way select on the lower horn. A rough dating clue.
Perhaps the most famous Murph was a “heart-shaped” hollowbody called the Satellite in 6- and 12-string versions. These were conceived by the salesman Gurley in late 1966 and featured a three-way pickup selector. The one “catseye” soundhole looks suspiciously Kawai, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that these bodies were indeed Japanese-made. In late ’66 or early ’67, Murph introduced some prototype 3/4-scale Baby Murph variants of the Satellite, but they never entered production.
A number of other curious instruments were made by Murph in small quantities. In ’66, Sears contracted for some Silvertones, but only purchased 25, so somewhere out there may be several of those. Murph also produced another 25 guitars for the record-player manufacturer Rheem Califone bearing the Califone brand. These had slightly different features, including a large spatula headstock shape and angled pickups. In January of ’67, at least one prototype amp-in-case Murph was built. The only known professional act to play Murphs was The Good Time Singers.
Murphy took his Murph guitars to the ’66 NAMM show, but didn’t cop many orders. When he got back, he was threatened by a lawsuit from another, unidentified guitar manufacturer for patent infringement. Between the high cost of running the company and the threat of protracted legal wrangling, Murph guitars went under in March or April of ’67.
Murph guitars were well-made and fare nicely when compared to many other brands in the mid-quality range between Gibson and Harmony. Estimates are that only about 1,200 Murph guitars were produced between 1965 and early ’67. Around 950 or so of those were Squires, making the remaining models especially rare.
Learn more at murphguitars.com, which lovingly preserves the Murph heritage.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s October 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.