Fender Original Electric Bass Guitar

Fender Myth Debunked! (Part I)
Fender Myth Debunked! (Part I)

Perhaps this essay should have been titled “Audiovox vs. The Piltdown Man,” due to the doubts had by myself and a number of others regarding the authenticity of this month’s cover girl. The Piltdown Man, for those who played guitar all day instead of doing your anthropology homework, represents the ultimate hoax on a scientific community – a deliberate deceit.

Having done extensive research into the early days of electric and electrified musical instruments, I was not wholly convinced when word filtered out of Seattle a few years ago regarding the late Paul Tutmarc’s pre-WWII Audiovox line; particularly the wooden solidbody fretted electric bass guitar. In work for an upcoming book, I’d gone through just about every page of nearly every national music publication from the era, plus countless patents, and had yet to find mention of Paul Tutmarc or Audiovox.

Besides, everybody knows Fender created the electric bass guitar, right? Adolph Rickenbacher released a solidbody electric upright in 1935, followed shortly by Regal, Vega, etc. and the idea of a fretted acoustic bass was pursued by Gibson and Lyon & Healy as early as 1911, with the oversized four-string Dobros and Regal’s Basso-Guitar showing up in the ’30s (and then there’s Washburn’s giant six-string bass guitar from the 1890s, see page 87 of the Washburn book). But prior to 1951, no one had combined a solidbody electric instrument (as seen on countless lap steels and a handful of Spanish guitars) with a fretted bass, particularly one held and plucked like a guitar.

Or so consensus has had it.

Taking into account the close to 50-year acceptance of Hall-of-Famer Leo Fender as the bassists’ friend, it seems almost blasphemous to suggest that 1.) his idea for the Precision was not the first of its kind, and 2.) its design might possibly warrant charges of plagiarism!

Could Tutmarc’s son, Paul Jr., be credibly representing his father’s story, as told in The Hawaiian Steel Guitar (compiled by Lorene Ruymar), and a small article in Bass Player Magazine? If nothing else, neither of these seemed to influence public opinion on the subject, creating yet more doubt. Then there was Peter Blecha, a relative newcomer to the international vintage guitar community, but Curator of Collections for the newly formed Experience Music Project (based in Seattle and backed by the $20 billion bank of Zeus). As part one in a series of booklets on the world of music, the EMP museum published his chronicle detailing the electric guitar’s genealogy, in which he places Tutmarc at the very least among the progenitors of the instrument’s design.

A couple of shady characters in cahoots, Blecha and Paul Jr.? Far from it. But in this day and age, any great revelation regarding the history of American guitars is met with suspicion. One only has to look at the 25-plus year influx of faux-’50s Gibsons, bogus bolt-on neck bastards, new pre-war D-45s, etc., to realize there are more than a few shady folks in the field, or more aptly put, business of “vintage” instruments. As the public’s knowledge of details has increased over the years, the amount of related hokum put into passing a major forgery has likewise increased. And it’s not just guitars; fine violins have been knocked off for centuries and pre-WWII five-string resonator banjos are, more often than not, converted four-strings. One old-timer from the Depression-era, who kept photos of himself as a young man with his fancy five-string, went so far as to have replicas of the surviving instrument made, which he then sold off with copies of the provenance! Former bandmate and VG contributor Baker Rorick and I jokingly tossed around the idea of setting up a photograph showing a uniformed Korean War-era lad holding a somewhat crude Strat-inspired doubleneck; a guitar handmade in the late ’50s and currently in Baker’s possession. By distributing a story to one of the guitar-zines about looking for “…uncle Zeke’s guitar,” (from Fullerton, California, of course) with the bogus photo “…taken right before his death in 1953,” we could have mirculously turned up the “real” basis of the Stratocaster! Change the pots to 1952 or late ’80s, and who could argue!

A stop in Seattle seemed prudent. Meeting with Tutmarc and Blecha, it became obvious the Audiovox story is indeed very real. Paul Sr. was a big fish in the Seattle music waters, with Paul Jr. taking it a step further, recording 30-plus albums of Hawaiian and inspirational music over the years. Bud (as the younger Tutmarc goes by) was a most gracious host, opening his scrapbooks and pulling out numerous examples of his and his father’s handiwork; single, double and quintuple-necked Hawaiians, amplifiers, old pickups, etc.

Stories of his firsthand involvement growing up and newspaper clippings galore, were impressive, to say the least. A photo of Bud’s band with the Audiovox bass guitar in his 1937 high school yearbook, the family photo with mom playing a similar model, and the 1947 L.D. Heater ad for his ’46-’48 “Bud-Electro Mfg. Co.” Serenader bass made my jaw drop! His friendship with fellow steel guitarist Alvino Rey further dispelled any doubts I may have had about his credibility prior to our meeting.

Returning to Seattle in the Fall as an EMP exhibit consultant (along with authors George Gruhn and Richard Smith, Gibson aficionado Lynn Wheelwright, and hometown welcome wagon/VG regular Jim Hilmar), it became obvious Blecha was totally sincere in his fanatical appreciation of the Northwest music scene and the history of the electric guitar. He put together an enormous collection of related paper and artifacts prior to his involvement with the museum and has been constantly expanding on it.

It was inspirational to see a pair of original pre-WWII Audiovox flyers, numerous dated newspaper clippings and a number of the museum’s original Audiovox Hawaiian guitars and amps. And playing the Audiovox bass was an absolute thrill (“Who cares about the Hendrix Woodstock Strat, let’s see that Audiovox bass!”)!

An old clipping from the Seattle daily newspaper (provided by Tutmarc and dated to 1935 by Blecha) pictured music studio operator/local celebrity Paul Sr. with a prototype electric upright bass, described as the world’s first and seeming to pre-date his bass guitar.

It’s interesting that in the article there is no mention of the other instruments or the Audiovox brand name, which could suggest manufacturing was not approached as an official business until a short time later. However, the number of existing survivors shows there definitely was a company.

Apparently, the Audiovox line was only available in the Seattle area, with no national distribution in its lifetime. Unlike the legendary Les Paul log and App solidbody guitars (both historically overrated in the evolutionary process), Tutmarc’s instruments were not one-off prototypes, but sold on a somewhat regular basis for many years through his teaching studio. It seems logical a portion of his business was for custom-ordered instruments, but apparently none got the exposure associated with celebrity endorsers, unlike those of Paul Bigsby, Elmer Stromberg, John D’Angelico, etc. Had Audiovox been located in either L.A. or NYC, things might be different today.

In a newspaper interview from 1971, Paul Sr. dated his involvement with Arthur J. Stimson to the early ’30s. Their relationship designing pickups reportedly ended when Stimson filed a patent application for a jointly designed pickup, which was assigned to Dobro for use with its entry into the electric field, the All-Electric (and for which Stimson reportedly received $600). Bud Tutmarc’s recollections of his father’s association with Stimson are in agreement with the old article, but confusing this issue is the fact there are two radically different patents for Dobro, both with Stimson’s name as assignor.

The first patent application was filed April 7, 1933 (see diagram), and this unit corresponds with the first All-Electric ad, also from April ’33. At that time, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacher’s electric offshoot of National, known as Electro String Instruments Corp., already had its original line on the market, along with Lloyd Loar and Lewis Williams’ new project known as ViviTone, which began advertising in January ’33. Like the ViviTone, the first patent-applied-for pickup electrified the instrument by amplifying string vibrations after they’d been transferred through the bridge. This allowed gut strings to be used, but did not make for a true electric instrument like the metallic-string-driven Electro. The Dobro ad, admittedly an artist’s rendering, does not show a slot for the bar polepiece and examination of the patent clearly shows why; because it did not have one. John Dopyera reportedly claimed all but one of these complicated electromechanical contraptions were recalled and the ukulele, banjo, mandolin and others promised in a press release from the time never materialized. Anyone who has tried to use a similar-style ViviTone knows it just wasn’t a practical approach.

A better pickup, and arguably one of the best designs of all time (check out Bud’s tone on record), showed up not long after the initial experiment.

Experience Music Project has this second version All-Electric in its collection, and the slanted split-polepiece magnetic pickup corresponds with the patent application filed January 19, 1934, as do all the Audiovox Hawaiian guitars and the bass. This pickup is similar to the George Beauchamp Electro/Rickenbacher string-driven horseshoe pickup in many respects, but does not extend over the strings, making it the first of what would become the standard style for Spanish guitars, being entirely under the strings. It also has twin coils (bass side/treble side) wired in series, each with its own blade-style polepiece attached to an opposite end (polarity) of the horseshoe magnet.

Assuming the coils were reverse-wound (why else would they bother with two), you have the first humbucking pickup for a guitar, as seen on split-pickup P-basses (the theory behind hum cancellation was well-established by the mid ’30s).

On the last of the All-Electric models this pickup is mounted straight across, parallel to the bridge, as seen in Gruhn and Carter’s Electric Guitars (pages 47 and 48). Whether the 14-fret neck and body are original on this example is questionable, but the on-the-hour lineup of the dozen coverplate mounting screws is the same as on the first two styles, both of which were 12-fret necks (the authors’ decision to lead off the Spanish Neck Solidbodies chapter with these guitars is mysterious, as they have standard full-depth hollowbodies constructed of thin sides, back, and top. They lack a resonator, so they aren’t at all like a standard Dobro, but they sure ain’t solid!).

A final 12-fret, hubcap-topped electric Dobro is pictured on page 290 of Tom Wheeler’s American Guitars. However, the date of circa 1930, reportedly provided by John Dopyera, is off by enough years to imply it pre-dated the All-Electric, and of course, the Rickenbacher, which wasn’t the case (late ’34/early ’35 is more reasonable). Notice the dozen coverplate mounting screws positioned on the half hour, as on later Dobros, plus the later amp with the chrome coverplate as seen with the Dobro and National electric archtops and aluminum lap steels, all introduced in the summer of ’35 (see page 301 of American Guitars. Note: early All-Electrics were paired with a twin-speaker amp having “Dobro” cutout of the speaker opening; see “Antique Guitar Amps” in the September ’97 VG). Even the metal-encased “airplane” pickups of the ’35 Dobro, National, and ’36 Supro instruments are based on the string-driven second-version pickup, although the combined forces of the newly formed National-Dobro Corp. had switched to a single-coil (non-humbucking) – a few years later National would switch back to multiple coils, with one for each string!

There were probably as many (if not more) instruments made by the tiny Audiovox company using the twin-coil pickup as by the established Dobro factory, given the fact Dobro did little if any promotion for their electrics between the original All-Electric experiment of early ’33 and the archtops and Hawaiians of mid-’35 (jobber books, NAMM listings, ads, and a press release detailing the combining of Dobro and National listed only the resonators). While only Stimson’s name is listed on the pickup patents, Tutmarc’s use of the second variant in all his instruments implies he actively participated in its design, as he claimed. Unfortunately, little info is available on Stimson, who apparently was no longer involved in the business by the time Audiovox got off the ground.

Another name associated with the experiments is Bob Wisner, a formally trained electronics wiz who converted Tutmarc’s radio for use as their first amplifier, designed the Audiovox amplifier circuit, and was Bud’s partner in the post-war Bud Electro Mfg. Co. In the early ’30s, pickups and amplifiers were sold as sets, so Wisner would surely have had a say in both.

Considering that and Paul Tutmarc’s dedication to the project, it seems appropriate to include their names on the pickup for future reference, i.e., the Stimson/Tutmarc twin-coil, under-the-string, humbucking pickup.

In closing:
1. Whether or not Tutmarc actually designed what for all intents and purposes is the granddaddy of modern pickups, he was, beyond any reasonable doubt, closely associated with and responsible for the experimentation behind it. For that alone he is deserving of celebrity status among electric guitar aficionados. His endeavor may have begun in the very early ’30s, as has been claimed, but facts suggest the actual Audiovox instruments were more likely mid-’30s.

2. He appears to be responsible for one of (if not the) first electric basses, predating the official release of Rickenbacher’s early style by a few months. The geneses of these distinctly different instruments should be considered concurrent, however, as neither party would have been aware of the other’s experiments and Rick undoubtedly also had prototypes for a time before they went to market with their production version.

3. His indisputable claim to fame has to be the Audiovox #736 wooden solidbody fretted electric bass guitar. Any accolades previously bestowed upon Mr. Fender for inventing the Precision bass must instead be placed posthumously upon Paul Tutmarc. Considering the prehistoric state of technology 15 years prior to Fender’s bass and the relatively new medium of electric instruments, the #736 is an astounding design, far ahead of its time. Much further than the “ground-breaking” P-bass must have seemed a decade and a half later. Perhaps there is no direct tie between the regionally released pre-WWII Audiovox instrument and the ’51 Fender Precision, but Bud Tutmarc’s postwar descendent, the Serenader, was available and promoted on the West Coast for a short time in the late ’40s. It’s quite feasible the ad was seen by someone at Fender and is at least partially responsible for inspiring the famous and undeniably more influential version.

4. Apparently, Tutmarc produced a solidbody cutaway electric guitar made of wood in the mid ’30s! While both known Audiovox flyers describe an add-on pickup for Spanish guitars, the description for the bass in the earliest promo piece mistakenly included a photo of a similar six-string guitar. Until a document listing the guitar is uncovered, or more than one surviving example comes to light, let’s consider the instrument a prototype and hope it turns up, too.

Did it influence Fender’s 1950 Esquire? Probably not. However, if the guitar proves to have been more than a prototype, it would replace the pre-WWII Slingerland No. 401 as the first production model wooden solidbody electric Spanish guitar (let’s not forget Electro’s early-’30s prototype). It would also bump the post-war Fender Esquire out as the first cutaway version (its only claim in the development of the modern electric guitar).

Blecha has promised to provide VG readers another Audiovox feature in the near future, detailing the company’s history and the entire lineup. In the meantime, I sincerely recommend the editorial staff bypass the VG Hall of Fame election process and induct Paul Tutmarc and the Audiovox #736 directly in. His time has come.

A tip of the hat to Peter Blecha for his thorough research on the subject. Thanks to he and Bud Tutmarc for their hospitality and for loading me up with photocopies, CDs and tapes, an old pickup, and a number of memorable meals. Thanks also to John Sprung, Lynn Wheelwright, and Mike Newton for helping sort all this out.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s March. ’99 issue.

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