Antique Guitar Amps 1928-1934

Which came first - electric guitar or amp?
Which came first - electric guitar or amp?

The influence and restraints of technology on amplifying the guitar
Let’s pretend for a moment that former Gibson historian Julius Bellson misinterpreted stories of Lloyd Loar’s experiments with electrified instruments during his brief stay in Kalamazoo. After all, there was 10 years between Loar’s departure and Bellson’s arrival, and almost another 40 before he wrote about it (think ’48 Broadcaster). Suppose the rumored photos of Loar playing electrically were from the early 1930s, not the early ’20s. Could his personal electric viola be one of his early-’30s Vivi-Tone designs? They did offer them for sale, and Gibson wouldn’t tackle the violin family until 1940.

Suppose the rumored Loar pickup Walter Fuller “found” in 1935, when he began his work on electrics, had not been laying around the factory untouched for over 10 years and was actually from just a short time before, when Gibson was installing test pickups under the soundboards of a few old archtops (Fuller claims to have never said it was Loar’s).

Considering just about every book on the subject that followed Bellson’s perpetuated the myth, or even exaggerated it more; can we ever accept that maybe Lewis Williams, future Vivi-Tone founder, lost his job at Gibson in 1923 for filling the company’s catalogs with page after page of nonsensical prose and for misjudging the market to the point of nearly bankrupting the company, and that Loar, with the ego of the accomplished musician he was (among other things), could have been released from his employment for not getting along with his “superiors,” and that it wasn’t for insisting the company put his prototype electric guitars – of which there are no records or pictures – into production? Bellson’s account has been implied repeatedly to the point many people today think Gibson invented the electric guitar, which is simply not the case.

You’ll notice in Walter Carter’s wonderfully-researched history that there is little mention of it. You would think the company would have wanted to play it up for their 100th anniversary. Loar may have experimented with electrifying stringed instruments during his short stay at Gibson, but his project would have been doomed because there was no amplifier available at that time to make it feasible. So which came first – the electric guitar or the guitar amp?

In Loar’s era, the only speakers made were radio horns of limited frequency range and low acoustic output. Acoustic versions were used for phonographs and had even been attached to harmonicas, violins and guitars in the early quest for volume. The cone speaker wasn’t available until 1925, and a spun aluminum version was soon integrated into the metal-bodied Nationals, and wood-bodied Dobros, being excited by the bridge’s vibrations instead of an electrically-stimulated voice coil.

Consider that the Fleming, DeForest, telegraph, telephone, radio, public address system, Vitaphone, batteryless-operation rectifier, push/pull screen grid output tubes progression of audio allowed for first, the transfer of electrical impulses; second, the reproduction of audio at less than original volume and; finally, the amplifying of audio. Once practical AC-operated amplifiers became available, it wasn’t long before they were used with musical instruments. Amplifiers were able to reproduce audio at a level higher than the original signal by the end of the ’20s, which is the only logical place to start a history of amplified instruments. If the source signal was louder than what came out of the speaker, as would have still been the case in the early ’20s, what would have been the point?

The first high-powered audio amplifiers were developed for public address systems and theater installations. The first versions were huge and expensive. As technology allowed for smaller, portable combo amps, without the bulky batteries required for operation before 1927, PA systems quickly became popular with musicians and are still preferred for certain instruments today. Even after the release of dedicated guitar amps, many players, including Leon McAuliffe (with Bob Wills) still used a carbon mic and a portable PA as late as 1935. There was actually little difference between a portable PA and a guitar amp at the time.

Presented here in chronological order of release are the commercially-available American guitar amps from 1928 to the end of 1934. Common features of these models include bent metal chassis with no control panels, a single volume control and one or two input jacks, field coil speakers with built-in output transformers for the power amp section, thin (1/4″ to 3/8″) wooden cabinets, and AC power cable with non-polarized two-prong plugs. Conspicous by their absence are tone controls of any kind, on/off switches, pilot lights, and fuses. All these single-channel amps had low power, under 10 watts, and small speakers, 10 inches or less.

PART I: Early Amplification For the Electrified Guitar
Stromberg-Voisinet (1928-’29)
The Stromberg-Voisinet company appears to be the first to market a functioning production model electrified stringed instrument and amplifier set. Promotion was directed to music dealers through an ad in the 1929 Purchasers Guide to the Music Industry and a full page in the Chicago Musical Instruments jobber book, which showed the $165 AC-powered portable “two stage amplifier” surrounded by a bevy of $40 magnetic pickup-equipped “Stromberg Electro Instruments.” Not much is known about the amp, as an existing example has yet to show up for inspection; would anyone even suspect they had the first of its kind if they found one? Looks more like an oscilloscope or an early television than a guitar amp, with the speaker appearing to have a shiny or metallic cone, as seen on the resonator instruments of the time. The input jacks were mounted to a panel on the side of the cabinet, at the top rear corner, using a pair of banana plugs instead of the 1/4″ and Amphenol connectors that would become standard in the ’30s. Who knows if it even had a name tag, logo, or anything with “Stromberg” on it, so put this image into your long-term memory and keep your eyes open the next time you visit Grandma’s attic!

Supplying signal to the amp was a “magnetic pickup built into the instrument which takes the vibrations direct from the sounding board.” As Vega, Vivi-Tone and Gibson would also discover, this “electrified” method of reproduction was not the best way to make a steel-stringed instrument louder. Suspicions as to why the Strombergs weren’t successful include unsatisfactory tone and volume, dependability problems, fear of such a product by the traditionalist music market, and the effects of the depression, which followed shortly after their release.

While generator-powered “farm radios” were available for the electricity-less rural portion of the general population, it seems doubtful designers of professional-use instruments would concern themselves with courting those few potential customers, no matter where they resided, who would be actually using the set outside of the cities. While not overly successful (a few hundred were reportedly made), Stromberg-Voisinet paved the way for future models by introducing and promoting what was, at the time, a very novel idea.

Vega (1928-’29)
Even less is known about the first Vega electrics, as all that has shown up is a mention in the January 1929 issue of The Crescendo; “The device consisted of a unit attached to the head of the banjo which transmitted the tone to a portable amplifying unit and radio speaker.” Anyone have anything in a catalog showing one of these? Vega’s market strength was in banjos, so it is understandable their R&D was in that direction, even if banjo mutes and mufflers were popular accessories for the loudest of the stringed instruments. By the way – the Vega Electric Model banjos of the early 1900s were neither electric or electrified.

PART II: Early Amplification For the Electric Guitar
Electro (1932) and Rickenbacker (1934)
Following the electrified guitar’s false start of 1928-’29 and the success of the National and Dobro resonator instruments with acoustically excited “speaker” cones, it was surprisingly long before the Electro String Instruments and amplifier (not to be confused with the Stromberg Electro Instruments) were released in 1932 by Ro-Pat-In of Los Angeles, a small group of men connected to National. Proclaimed by the company to be “The most Marvelous Musical Invention of all time,” the George Beauchamp designed, high output, string driven magnetic pickup was fitted to both a Spanish guitar and a small solidbody instrument set up to play Hawaiian style. Of course, an amplifier accompanied the instruments, only at a more reasonable price than the earlier makes. The proliferation and electronic advances of radio, not to mention the effects of the Depression, allowed for an affordable compact amplifier of appropriate volume for the era.

Most of the pre-WWII guitar amps would follow Electro’s design featuring a small chassis mounted inside a shallow rectangular wooden box with a cutout for the speaker and a handle on the top. According to Richard Smith’s thoroughly-researched The Complete History Of Rickenbacker Guitars, the building of the portable cabinets was originally subcontracted to Johnson Cabinet Works, while the electronics work was by Roy Van Nest’s radio shop. The circuit design is credited to C.W. Lane, who was the fifth major stockholder, along with Beauchamp, Adolph and Charlotte Rickenbacker and Paul Barth, all famous today in guitar lore.

The Great Grandfather of the electric guitar, Alvino Rey, used his dependable 1932 Electro amplifier on hundreds of gigs and recordings before being rewarded three years later with new equipment for his association with Gibson. While he held on to most of his original instruments, the amp went before WWII. A different grillecloth, the addition of metal corners and an ornamental “Rickenbacker” tag separated the 1934 Rickenbacker amps from the original Electro models (see pages 30 and 28 of Smith’s book).

Vivi-Tone (1933)
Although early Vivi-Tone ads made no mention of their amplifier, the instrument/amp sets were definitely getting into the hands of musicians during the early part of ’33, with mentions in The Crescendo magazine of actual guitar and mandolin use for church services, in radio broadcast studios and at outside engagements. A gut-string Vivi-Tone was played through a giant PA system called the “Singing Tower” at an amusement park where “…the volume was stepped up 3,000 times,” whatever that meant.

“A great success,” the performer stated. “It was quite a thrilling sensation to play the guitar and hear those deep, beautiful tones come rolling out. It was, of course, a far richer and deeper tone than obtained with the portable amplifier.”

Makes you want to go out and buy one, huh?
Not much is known about the standard 1933 amplifier, although a review of the set (“a dandy product”) included “The Vivi-Tone amplifier will take care of four instruments – thus a quartet need take only one power case with it on the job.” The company noted “…15 to 56 times more power than the corresponding instrument of the old type,” and “10.38 more power than the corresponding bow instrument.”

Following a short break, a new set of ads appeared in Downbeat magazine in late 1934, proclaiming “Guitarists! 30 times more volume with a Vivi-Tone Power Guitar,” “Enough power to lead a 15-piece orchestra-and any way you put it, that’s Power” and “the same mellow tone quality you would expect from the finest guitar, PLUS POWER GALORE!” No mention was made as to what made the Power Guitar so powerful until the ad in December 1934 for the release of the twin soundboard acoustic guitar. “We also have on display, the Vivi-Tone POWER (electrically amplified) GUITAR” appeared in small print at the bottom of the ad. Still no pictures to ponder. A surviving example of the “Aggrandizer” is pictured on page 358 of American Guitars, by Tom Wheeler.

Dobro (1933)
The first major push for electric guitars came shortly after the release of Electro’s first production models and was made by National’s nemesis/cohort, Dobro (note: George Beauchamp originally founded National with John Dopyera, who left to form Dobro, and despite losing his job at National before the Electros were released, he maintained his stock in the company and at the time of the Dobro electric’s intro, was actually the Vice President, with John’s brother, Louis, in charge; Dopyera resented Beuchamp’s success). A full-page ad in the April Musical Merchandise Review magazine showed the magnetic pickup equipped Dobro All-Electric guitar and amp set. The requisite amplifier featured two 8″ Lansing speakers and a five-tube chassis, encased in a cabinet not unlike Electro’s, save for the stylish cutout logo covering the speaker grille. Chances are good the matching corners, handles and covering were from the same source. Priced at $135 for the set ($75 for the amp), it seems obvious Dobro was going all out against the $175 Electro set, even extolling “Dobro challenges comparison” in large, underlined print. The competition would counter by eventually lowering its price to $125 for the set.

An article elsewhere in the issue told of the factory “…working overtime making up sample orders” and regular production would “begin at once,” using “the aid of their sound and radio engineers.” It’s doubtful the manufacturer of resonator instruments had much of a radio engineering staff, although the amp was “Designed by Dobro engineers, built in Dobro’s own plant,” according to the ad. Whoever built the amps wasn’t in the market for long and Dobro’s promise of “…mandolin, banjo, ukulele, etc.” versions was postponed or never fulfilled. The Dobro Twin Speaker Amplifier did predate (by over a dozen years) Fender’s twin-speaker Dual Professional/Super, thought by many to be the first amp with twin speakers.

Audio-Vox (1933)
Mention should be made of the Seattle-based Audio-Vox company of the 1930s, which was probably in its infancy at this point. The patent for Dobro’s All-Electric guitar pickup was credited to Arthur Stimpson, who worked with Audio-Vox founder Paul Tutmarc. These folks must have had an amp to go with their prototypes, but it is not known what the early model was like, or if it was the inspiration for the Dobro model. At that point, Audio-Vox was probably just a vision of Mr. Tutmarc’s, and certainly not in the national market.

Vega (1933)
An article in the May 1933 issue of The Crescendo stated “The new Vega amplifier also caught our attention. With this fine new instrument (pickup and amplifier set) it is possible to use any make of instrument with a Vega unit installed in it and the instrument may be played after equipping, either with or without amplification. Any number of instruments may be used on one Vega amplifier.” Vega’s practice of offering an amplifier and pickup to be used with someone else’s guitar was not that different from Rickenbacker taking someone else’s guitar (Harmony) and using it with their amplifier and pickup. Like the Vega amp from 1928, today little is known of this set.

Volu-Tone (1933)
While no one dared offer an electrified or electric guitar without also offering an amp to power it, the Volu-Tone company of Los Angeles, like Vega, manufactured an amplifier and pickup set designed to be used with any existing guitar. The idea was valid, as shown by the later success of the DeArmond pickups; however, Volu-Tone went about picking up the instrument’s vibrations using a unique, not to mention potentially deadly, method. The pickup, which mounted to your favorite steel-stringed instrument, had to be charged up with a short blast of high voltage current provided by a special jack mounted to the amp’s chassis.

On the inside wall of the amp’s cabinet was pasted an instruction sheet reading (text missing from damaged label is in parenthesis) “(plug AC power cable in) to convenient recepticle. (Insert instrument cable) plug into energizing socket at extreme right. (Remove) guitar plug from energizing socket almost immediately. This energizes the strings, without which the Volu-Tone is inoperative. The energizing operation must be repeated every time a string is replaced. DANGER: do not permit the guitar plug to remain inserted in the energizing socket for longer than a second or two or harm to the instrument will result. Insert guitar plug into one of the sockets on the left. IT IS NOW READY FOR USE.”

Considering the amp was not equipped with a fuse and the casing of the plug was metal, it’s hard to imagine that; a) Volu-Tone was allowed to even sell these, and; b) the company stayed in business from the summer of 1933 into at least the late ’30s without being shut down due to a wrongful death (or at the very least, a serious personal injury) lawsuit. The cable connecting the pickup to the amp was fitted with four-prong connectors at either end to ensure no other pickup would ever feel the 300-plus volts necessary for operation. Having a male plug at the amplifier-end of the cable protected the user from accidently touching the high voltage prongs in the amp’s energizing socket.

Unfortunately, having a male plug at the pickup-end of the cable meant if you didn’t plug the pickup in first, you had high voltage on the prongs!! If you didn’t follow the directions, and unplugged the cable from the pickup while it was still connected to the energizing socket, zapp!!

The different styles of connectors at each end did insure that no one accidently plugged the high voltage of one Volu-Tone amp into the high voltage or the inputs of another. A small red label above the jack read (in very small letters) “Caution. Do not permit plug to remain inserted in this jack for longer than two seconds.” Hopefully there was a thorough owner’s manual included, warning of the potential hazards to life and limb.

The model tested for this article appears to be from the mid ’20s, having one of the new 6L6 power tubes, but the earliest models should be similar. A 6C8 preamp tube and an 80 rectifier complete the tube complement, although an extra tube socket was plugged, suggesting the previous model had a second power tube. The 5″ speaker was made by Rola. A volume control was the only feature of what probably was the student model amp (“Why don’t you go play with our Volu-Tone, Junior…”), with no on/off switch, pilot light, or fuse. The cabinet is covered in a spiffy three-tone tweed with a leather handle and a Volu-Tone logo cut from wood as a speaker protector.

Dobro (1934)
Despite the commercial failure of Dobro’s All-Electric model, the company came back the following year with a less-outrageous, more acoustic, electric guitar. Adding a pickup, a volume control and a 1/4″ output jack to a stock resonator model made for more mass appeal. The guitar could be played with or without the amplifier, which was a new model, having a metal cover for the speaker opening that matched the guitar’s coverplate. The pair can be seen on page 290 of American Guitars (note: ignore the date).

The amp is described as being equipped with an 80 rectifier and a pair of 42 power tubes in part one of Michael Wright’s exhaustive Supro series (VG January ’97), but was incorrectly identified as the mate to the ’33 All-Electric, and vice versa, the initial twin-speaker amp of ’33 mistakenly wound up with the ’34 Electric Resonator. The revised guitar was probably about as loud acoustically as through the amp (which put out less than 10 watts), making it another commercial flop. By the summer of ’35, National and Dobro had joined forces and released nearly identical Spanish and Hawaiian guitars and a pair of amps similar to the ’34 model, but with smaller cabinets, different handles and upgraded chassis, as seen on page 301.

Gibson (ca. 1934)
Hey, where’s Gibson in this story, you ask? Well, at least two electrified prototypes were made up using guitars from the late ’20s/early ’30s, as seen on pages 10 and 11 of Andre Duchossoir’s Gibson Electrics – The Classic Years. These were never made available or promoted to the public. A surviving amp similar to the one pictured with the L-4 has been found to be from around 1933-’35, dating at least one of the experiments much later than 1929, as previously implied.

Enough said about Gibson’s lack of involvement in the formative years of the electric guitar; on to the amplifier. The builder is currently unknown, though probably from Chicago and almost certainly not Gibson.

The beautiful, carved mahogany, leather-handled cabinet housed two 5″ Utah speakers and a five-tube chassis. The two 25Z5 rectifiers suggest the amp was a “universal AC-DC model.” The twin 43 power tubes also were designed for AC/DC, as was the preamp tube. It would be interesting to know if these amps were made specifically for Gibson, or if they were already on the market for use as portable PA systems.

By the start of 1935, things were about ready to take off in the electric guitar market. That year alone, Electro/Rickenbacher would sell more amps and electric guitars than all the amps and electrified/electric guitars made from ’28 through the end of ’34, combined! We’ll look at what was responsible for the enormous growth and all the amps from ’35 to WWII in the near future. Also look for a companion piece to this article, covering the guitars that came with these early amps.

Portable PA system, $115 – 1931.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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