The story of the ES-150, Gibson’s first commercially successful electric guitar, has been told many times, and its association with legendary jazz pioneer Charlie Christian is a staple of the Gibson lore. But a detailed look at the circumstances of the model’s birth 75 years ago shows that Gibson was, in fact, pushed into taking the ES road because of demand from major retailers.
Here are the hitherto untold details of the genesis of the instrument that enabled Gibson to become the pre-eminent maker of professional-grade electric guitars.
A Matter of Priorities
The ES-150 was not Gibson’s first electric, nor its first electrified guitar, as the company’s initial moves to participate in a slowly emerging electric market go back a few years earlier. Gibson ads and literature show these early efforts can be safely dated to the beginning of 1933 – not the mid ’20s, as the company and/or some of its old-timers liked to believe. In view of the limited sales potential of electric instruments, Gibson’s strategy into the ’30s was to market a ready-to-install pickup unit with cord and amplifier rather than offer a bespoke electric guitar with a built-in pickup.
The pickup and amp advertised in 1933 were both supplied by one of Chicago’s music powerhouses, Lyon & Healy. The pickup was of the piezo type, a technology known since the end of the 19th century. But its application to amplifying guitars was primitive to say the least, all the more so as it relied on capturing the vibrations of the guitar top rather than of the strings. Incidentally, this allowed Gibson to highlight that the proposed electric outfit “does not change tone of instrument for regular playing,” as it was exclusively meant to provide more volume.
The inception of the electromagnetic pickup developed by George Beauchamp for Rickenbacker/Electro would bring about changes in Gibson’s posture. Available to the public from August, 1932, on bespoke Spanish and Hawaiian electric guitars, Beauchamp’s pickup is a watershed, both in terms of technology and musicology. Unlike Gibson’s piezo, it was designed to pick up the strings’ vibrations, thereby producing a novel electric-guitar sound as opposed to a merely amplified sound. This approach appealed to a growing number of players – and Electro Rickenbacker’s achievement did not go unnoticed by established guitar makers. Concurrently, its piezo pickup’s shortcomings in terms of sound and installation prompted Gibson to upgrade its offering. According to old factory records, no more than 50 piezo pickups with matching amps were sold, in total, from 1933 to ’35.
By ’35, Gibson was determined to have an electromagnetic pickup of its own, and the company asked a Lyon & Healy audio engineer named John Kutalek to develop it with input from noted multi-instrumentalist and Rickenbacker Electro player Alvino Rey. Shortly before the summer of ’35, however, the project was in-sourced back to Gibson’s factory, entrusted to a recruit named Walter Fuller, known to Gibson’s chief Guy Hart for his background as an amateur radio operator. Fuller was happy to move beyond his job as a timekeeper and become head of a newly established electronics department. In what seems to have been a matter of weeks, Fuller had devised what is now commonly called the “bar pickup” because of its design. In line with prevailing musical fashion, a six-string lap steel made of aluminum was chosen as the launch platform for this new pickup, and the first samples were delivered to top salesmen like Clarence Havenga and to endorsers like Roy Smeck in late October of ’35.
The debut of the EH models is well-known, but often overlooked is that at the same time, Gibson upgraded its offering of electric Spanish (ES) guitars. On November 8, 1935, Gibson chief Guy Hart received a sample of a new “Spanish electric outfit.” Subsequent ledger entries shed more light on what was delivered to him – a flat-top guitar (L-1 or L-00) fitted with an attachment derived from the bar pickup mounted on the aluminum lap steel. On December 27, an electrified L-00 was sent to Nick Lucas for evaluation.
By January of ’36, Gibson began shipping electrified guitars featuring one of two pickup attachments, soon christened ES-96 and ES-75 and designed to fit into the soundhole of any guitar. A third outfit meant for f-hole guitars was made available from May ’36 as the ES-85. These add-on units could be purchased with or without amplifier (in the latter case, at $35 for the ES-85/ES-96, and $20 for the ES-75), and ordered as an option on any new instrument.
Despite the inception of its own electromagnetic pickup, Gibson continued to focus on attachments rather than market a bespoke electric guitar with built-in pickup and controls. This apparent lack of initiative can partly be explained by what the company saw as its priority – the success of the redesigned range of archtop guitars unveiled in ’35 with the new Super 400 and the “advanced” L-5, L-7, L-10, and L-12 (and L-50). Whether in terms of reputation or finance, these were critical to Gibson’s future in the post-Depression era, more than any hasty foray into the brave new world of ES guitars.
Judging from the total number of attachments and/or electrified instruments shipped in ’36, Gibson’s strategy, centered on add-on units, proved shrewd and successful. Nearly 170 electrified guitars of all types – mainly L-00s (47 units) and L-1s (30 units) – were shipped in ’36 equipped with either one of the available attachments, while a combined total of about 250 units were also delivered on a stand-alone basis – chiefly of the ES-85 type for f-hole guitars (130 units). Gibson’s attachments did indeed offer a flexible option for those tempted to electrify their guitars (old or new), and furthermore, there was not much like-for-like competition for them at the time.
When the annual trade convention took place in July of ’36, Gibson’s display included one L-10 and one L-1 respectively fitted with ES-85 and ES-96 pickup attachments, while competitors such as Epiphone, National-Dobro, or Vega showcased their dedicated ES guitars. Despite the absence of a “real” ES guitar, one of the company’s flyers at the show proclaimed, “Gibson has elevated electric guitars out of the novelty stage.” True on the EH front, but not quite yet for ES-type guitars.
Giant retailers like Montgomery Ward (then owner of the Recording King brand) and Spiegel May Stern (then owner of Old Kraftsman) were far more enthusiastic than Gibson about ES guitars. Montgomery Ward had been quick to ride the electric wave, and by the spring of ’36 was advertising an ES built by Regal – which implies the instrument had been commissioned in late ’35. This early electric guitar was unusual insofar as it had a 3/8″ top without soundholes, clearly braced not to vibrate, and a fairly amazing humbucking pickup. Montgomery Ward had a long-standing relationship with Gibson going back to their 1929/’30 catalog, which had since been consolidated and would eventually yield some of the fanciest Gibson-built instruments of the ’30s. Spiegel (its corporate name shortened by ’37) was also listing an ES model in the form of a 151/2″ archtop with a round soundhole built by Kay and equipped with a piezo behind the bridge.
There is evidence to suggest Montgomery Ward and Spiegel approached Gibson at about the time of the 1936 summer trade show to request ES and EH guitars for their respective catalogs. On September 11, 1936, samples for these instruments were shipped to both Montgomery Ward and Spiegel. Montgomery Ward was probably the quickest to firm up its order, because the earliest production 1270s with matching amplifier were delivered beginning December 23, 1936 (batches 1000B and 1091B). The first ES guitars built for Spiegel left the Kalamazoo factory about a month later, from January 20, 1937 (batch numbers 1056B and 1143B).
Ward’s Gibson-built 1270 was a 161/4″ archtop with f holes and a solid spruce top (originally pressed rather than carved), maple back and sides, and finished with a brown sunburst shading on top. The model was fitted with a bar pickup characterized by its rounded bobbin ends and fastened to the top with three adjustable screws. The specs of this pickup were the same as Gibson’s bar unit, including a fairly low DC output by modern standards of about 2.5k Ohms. The 1270 was fitted with a single volume (and no tone) control positioned close to the pickup on the upper bass side of the guitar. The complete 1270 outfit sold for $65 cash in 1937, including a three-stage/five-tube, 15-watt amp built with a 10″ Jensen speaker… the flannel-lined case had to be bought separately for $7.45. In the Ward’s catalog narrative, the true origin of the model was subtly referred to with a mention that the instrument was a “product of America’s most famous maker of fretted instruments.”
Spiegel’s 34-S model was identical in shape and construction to the Montgomery Ward’s 1270, with a slightly fancier peghead, adorned (on most known production units) with a white-stenciled curlicue around the “Old Kraftsman” name. This may explain why the RJ8709 outfit including amplifier (as it was referenced in the 1937 catalog) was slightly more expensive at $69.95 – but conversely its case was cheaper at $3.95. The amplifier could be purchased separately for $44.95 and therefore the 34-S guitar alone was worth a modest $25. Available examples show its body was made with laminated maple back and sides, but at least one 34-S was built with mahogany back and sides. There was no hint of the Gibson origin in the Spiegel catalog, which simply claimed that the model had “4 times the volume of a single guitar.”
The contract with Spiegel was short-lived, possibly because of Gibson’s relationship with Montgomery Ward and/or the lack of differentiation between their respective models. Although two batches of model 34s were launched, only 42 instruments are listed in factory shipping ledgers between January and August of ’37 before the Gibson-built “Old Kraftsman” ES model was removed from Spiegel’s Fall/Winter 1937/’38 catalog. Meanwhile, Gibson’s “electric” relationship with Montgomery Ward blossomed, and in ’37, no less than eight batches each comprising 25 model 1270s (and then its successor, model 1128) were built. The total number of ES guitars with a bar pickup eventually made for Montgomery Ward from late ’36 until the termination of their contract in 1940 can be estimated at 900 instruments in various configurations.
In the summer of ’36, the interest of a retail behemoth with multi-million sales power like Montgomery Ward served as a wake-up call for Gibson top management, who decided to launch its own ES model sooner rather than later. The sequential batch system in use at the factory suggests that Gibson initially thought of introducing the equivalent of an electric “black special” (like the bargain-priced “black specials” sold to dealers since the Depression). The production of 10 ES guitars entirely finished in black with a white-stenciled Gibson script on the peghead was launched in September of ’36 under batch number 1058B – that is after the first batch of Montgomery Ward’s 1270 (1000B) and Spiegel’s 34-S (1056B). But the black instruments from batch 1058B were put on the backburner, and later randomly delivered from February, 1937 – some with a bound neck and body back, others without.
A more-upmarket ES model was needed to burnish Gibson’s credentials, and it would have a sunburst rather than black, a pearl-inlaid rather than a white-stenciled script as well as individual tuners rather than three-on-a-plate keys. Unlike the Montgomery Ward and Spiegel electrics, it would also have an adjustable truss-rod, a solid spruce carved top (with X bracing), solid maple back and sides, with a slightly arched flat back like contemporary flat-tops. A bound fingerboard and a shaded neck would bring further differentiation, though some very early ES-150s do not have these appointments.
Three batches of what would become the ES-150 – as per a “150” designation already in use on Gibson’s main lap-steel, loosely based on the retail price with amp – were put into production under batch numbers 1098B, 1136B, and 1137B, each comprising 25 guitars. And Gibson made sure to fast-track these guitars so the first ES-150s could be delivered before Montgomery Ward and Spiegel received their ES models.
The earliest ES-150 was shipped on November 20, 1936 (to Baileys House of Music), but its detailed factory order number is not specified in the ledgers. A thorough cross-check with the other ES-150s from the first batches suggest that its actual number could be any of 1098B-19, -23, -24, or -25. Incidentally, Gibson’s ledgers have an entry suggesting that an ES-150 was shipped six months earlier on May 20, 1936, but this is merely a registrar’s mistake, which happens on practically every other page in the ledgers’ hastily hand-written entries. The number of this supposed ES-150 (454-4) and its case (5) indicate, unequivocally, that it is actually a misspelled EH-150 lap steel!
Gibson may have been a cautious follower rather than a bold innovator in 1935-’36, but the Kalamazoo-based company would nonetheless soon emerge as the undisputed market leader in the field of electric Spanish guitars.
Part two of our story will describe how the pre-war ES-150 spawned an entire line of ES models, which enabled Gibson to become an undisputed market leader. We will also shed new light on the shipping numbers of the ES-150 for 1936 to ’40.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.