Audiovox and Serenader Amps

An Interview with Bud Tutmarc
An Interview with Bud Tutmarc

With this month’s feature story on the Audiovox bass (page 80), plus a comparison between Audiovox pickup (page 81) and early Dobro pickups, it seems appropriate to also dedicate this month’s column to the “legendary” Seattle line. Having never had the opportunity to play through one or take one apart, we’ll have to let catalog descriptions suffice (thanks to Peter Blecha for the early info and Bud Tutmarc for the late-’30s flyer).

The earliest known flyer for Audiovox showed only a single amp available, the Model 236. Guesstimates on year seem to be 1935-’36, a time when most other companies only offered one amp for use with their assortments of instruments. Five tubes with a pair of 6F6s for the outputs, a 5Z4 rectifier, plus a 6F5 single-triode and a 6N7 twin-triode for the preamp/driver stages. Twelve watts at three percent distortion powered a single speaker, apparently a 10″ (cabinet dimensions were 11 1/2″ high by 14 1/2″ wide by 5 1/2″ deep). The speaker opening was square, with a lattice grille. One to five inputs could be ordered and like most amps of the era, the back panel had only the input jack, a volume control and a fuse. A second flyer from slightly later described the same amp.

In the later years, the line grew to include three amps, including the Model 236, now equipped with a 12″ Lansing speaker. The rectifier changed to the popular 80 and the 6F5 was replaced with the similar 6SF5. Power increased to 15 watts at three percent distortion and a new cabinet with a round speaker opening and less-rectangular shape was shown (14 1/2″ x 13″ x 7 1/2″). No mention was made of a tone control.

A more powerful amp, the Model 936, was pictured with the Model 736 bass guitar and listed as having 18 watts and a “…heavy duty, High Fidelity, Concert Type, 12″ Jensen Speaker.” “Has three different tones,” implies some extra controls as became popular in the late ’30s. Striped Airplane Linen covered a larger cabinet, measuring 13 1/2″ x 17″ x 8″. Bud Tutmarc remembers the bass amps having a 15″ speaker, so perhaps the later top-of-the-line models did. He also mentioned 6L6 output tubes used for the larger amps, unfortunately, the specs for the 936 were not given.

At the bottom of the line sat the model 200, looking like a miniature 236, having an 11 1/2″ x 7 1/2″ x 10 1/2″ cabinet housing an 8″ Lansing speaker. Tubes were the new 6V6 beam power style for output, a 6SC7 twin-triode for the preamp, and an 80 rectifier.

Fortunately, the man who built a good portion of the amps and pickups (starting before he reached his teens) is alive and well and was open for a number of interviews over the last six months. Here are the highlights, as they relate to the amps and pickups.

Vintage Guitar: Many of the pioneers in electric guitars got there start with crystal radio sets. Did your dad build his own radios?
Bud Tutmarc: No, but I did. I was building those three tube amps when I was 12 years old.

How about the earlier amps, like the bass amp with the lightning bolts.
When he made the electric bass, he already had his amplifiers going. He was making amps for Hawaiians before the bass, making them for the steel guitars.

Any idea what happened to that first bass amp?
Oh, he made a lot of those. That’s where he got the name Audiovox – “loud voice.”

Who built the cabinets for the amps.
For my dad, Frank Galianese.

Who designed the circuits?
Bob Wisner. He made a radio into a guitar amplifier for my dad. Wisner worked on the atom bomb and then in Florida on the lunar mission, the man on the moon. He was there and it took off on a Monday and Friday it landed. He died on Wednesday -never knew they made it. He worked at Boeing, too.

He was trained, I take it?
Oh, boy. He graduated from high school when he was 13! He worked for General Electric, they sent him to New York for three days and he came back, they said he was a genius and could work in any department he wanted! He was an opera buff, knew everything about opera.

Did he play an instrument?
Nope, not a lick. But he and I became partners in my Bud-Electro company.

How about Arthur Stimson?
No, he didn’t play; I don’t think he had any electronic background, either.

Did you have any formal training in electronics?
Not in electronics, no. Just experimenting.

So when you were wiring these things up, how did you know what to do?
I was wiring ’em up just like the one in front of me! I got so that I knew the whole circuit, I didn’t have to look at it after a while. We had the big five-tube amps and the small one, too. We used the 6F6s in the small ones and the 6L6s, two of them, in the others. That was when the metal tubes first came out. The small amp sold with a guitar for $39.50.

We sold the guitar and a case and the three tube amp together. I was the one making all those amplifiers for him.

How was the reliability of the old amps.
Real good, that was Wisner’s design. I remember we had our group and we went out for two months, to New York and back and -we had the electric bass, if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to carry anything anyway, five days out of Seattle we wrecked our car, ruined it, went around a corner too fast at four in the morning. The top was smashed, the windshield came right down on top of the steering wheel and we all got out, three guys in the front seat, two guys in the back and a trailer behind us.

And we never missed one of our concerts. We chartered a plane that afternoon to Minnesota, and then we took a train, a bus, finally I bought a new car in New York. Having the electric bass along really helped, with a regular bass we’d have never made it. All our instruments got out. Our luggage was torn apart and our P.A. got smashed, but most places had them anyway. And the records, 78s, about 400 of the 800 didn’t make it. But the amps worked great.

Were these the Serenader amps?
Yeah. The Serenader amps were about the same as my dad’s.

Did they have a little more power than the earlier amps?
Yeah, and better speakers, the Jensen A-12 and A-15s. Those were permanent magnet speakers, before the Alnico V. And they weighed a ton! The magnets were about six inches across and about three inches thick.

Did you use field coils for everything before the war?
Yeah. The Alnico V changed everything, they were so much lighter.

Do you know how many Serenader amps you made?
No. We had two styles, one for the steel and one for the bass. I wasn’t selling many of the amps to Heater, but I was selling the basses.

I notice the steel guitar and amp weren’t pictured with the bass in the L.D. Heater ad.
No. That ad is from 1947, they distributed them up and down the coast.

I remember Bob Wisner and I would drive down to Portland and deliver a bunch of them, about 10 basses at a time.

How many of the basses did you make?
I have no idea, maybe 75?

How about the amps for your dad’s basses. Were most of those sold with an amp.
Yeah, with the 15″ speaker.

Did you take over the business from your dad?
No. I just went on my own. He married Bonnie Guitar, a recording artist, his second wife, and that kinda separated the whole family for a few years. That ended the association building guitars in our house. Then I got married in ’45 and got into the business making my own in 1946.

How about during the war? Did you guys do much building?
No, not much. But again, I wasn’t working with my dad at the time. Now, I remember him coming down right at the start of the war, down to where I was working, at Fulton Machine, and saying, “What about this draft business?” And I said I was okay because I was working on the line, so he says, “Alright, that’s all I wanted to know.” He was worried about me and then later, we got back together and stayed close for the rest of our days.

Do you know where your dad got the idea for his pickup?
Probably out of a telephone (laughs)! Of course, Wisner was around. I remember they had to make the two polepieces so they didn’t connect. What we ended up doing was just soldering them, so they wouldn’t carry the magnetic field (between the two coils).

On the early ones, they were split in two sections, right?
Yeah, they had to be split. Later on we soldered ’em together and then could sand it to look like one solid piece of steel.

From the patent, it looks like it’s a humbucking design.
The only way you can make it hum is to hook it up wrong. It’s all in how you join the coils together, the outside to the outside and then the other ends go to the ground and the volume control. When I go into the recording studio, they say “Okay. Bud, turn your guitar up.” And I say it is and they say “It can’t be, we don’t hear any hum!’ It’s the most quiet pickup they’ve ever run across.

Were the coils all wound the same?
Yeah, it’s just how you connect them. I wound all those pickups, I
have all that wire here still.

Did you change the design much over the years?
No. I record with my Serenader guitar; go direct into the board! And then I take my dad’s on the road with me, the Audiovox.

That’s great, you take a 60-year-old guitar on the road!
I’ve played it all over the world.

Have you had to put a new pickup in it over the years?
No! The volume control I had a little trouble with, so I replaced that.

What was it like trying to get electrical parts back in the early days?
I have more trouble getting the magnets now than I did then! The one my dad used was big and made a “U” shape. There were holes where you could put in a brace that held the polepieces. And it worked perfectly. I sure made a lot of those. I had about 50 of them out in the garage and my wife let ’em go to the junk man (laughs)!

Did you get all the parts locally?
Yeah, you could get anything. I still have a bunch of parts, the same ones I was working with 50 years ago!

Any big difference between the Audiovox pickup and the Serenader’s?
I slanted my pickup on the bass side, so you’d get more power in the bass notes. I put the pickup about four inches away from the bridge and got tremendous response from the bass strings; all my dad’s were right by the bridge.

Which was standard back then. My theory is that people put the pickups back there because there were no amps that could take that kind of bass output; and that’s for guitars! Gibson did their ES-150 with the pickup at the neck for a few years, but even that changed back to the bridge before the war.
Well, some players preferred a deeper sound.

How does it feel to see your dad finally getting his well deserved credit internationally, instead of just locally.
He deserves it and I’m very pleased.

Was it something you thought you’d see in your lifetime?
I’ve seen it in my lifetime – every time I’d see somebody playing an electric bass! I’d say, “I know where that came from.” That always meant something to me.

What would people say when you told them who created the bass, that it was your dad and not Leo Fender.
Oh, they’d kind of yell at me and that was it (laughs)! I don’t think I convinced everybody.

Which was my initial reaction, I must admit.
It was too big a thing to claim in some people’s minds, but that was it; I was there when it happened.

Bud Tutmarc at age 9, and in 1997, playing his father’s Audiovox lapsteel.

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

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