While a lot of vintage-guitar enthusiasts are content to pursue well-known treasures, there are others who appreciate a good mystery. For me, it’s been a pleasure to spend a good chunk of my life being a guitar detective who has tracked down mysterious guitar stories that were in danger of slipping away into an eternal sleep of unelucidated obscurity. But even with all the histories I’ve rescued from the dark, there remain those cases that resist enlightenment. Like this ca. 1959 Rex solidbody electric guitar. What the heck is this? Let’s review what we do and do not know about it, and maybe some of you can help with solving its mystery!
To begin, let’s acknowledge that the internet is of almost no help. If you search, you will find all sorts of contradictory information about Rex guitars, including the “fact” that they were definitely made by Harmony as well as the “fact” that they absolutely couldn’t be Harmonys. You’ll find that the brand was possibly made in Czechoslovakia or maybe in Germany by Framus. You will also see that Gretsch sold Rex guitars in the 1920s and find unanswered queries about a “Rex Royal” company that may have been Canadian and was supposedly owned by Gretsch. Also that Rex was a brand name used by Great West Music Wholesalers in Canada. And that’s just for starters.
The first true indisputable fact is that this guitar was purchased used in 1994 at the Trading Post, a sort of quasi-pawn shop that at the time was located in the wonderful and now defunct South Jersey Pennsauken Mart across the Delaware River near Philadelphia. In a world of international guitar travel, that doesn’t mean much, but it’s something. Somehow or other, this guitar got to the U.S.
Secondly, it is almost absolutely certain that this guitar was not made by any known American guitar manufacturer. There is no aspect of this guitar whatsoever, from looks to components to “feel,” that marks it as American. So far, it’s never been seen in any American guitar catalog. What’s more, there’s nothing at all about it that says Asian, meaning Japanese. Even if the dating is only close, Asian workmanship would not be this good at least until the 1970s. Even if the dating is way off and this was from the 1970s or even later (and it’s not), it is not of any known Asian origin.
A third thing we do know is that Gretsch did market a line of Rex-brand acoustic guitars in the 1920s and early ’30s (at a time when it was primarily a banjo company), before it began using the Gretsch name on guitars in 1933. We do not know who made them, but they were probably sourced from someone else. A possibly related clue lies in the little known fact that during the 1930s Gretsch also sold Rex Royal accordions, probably from Europe.
More tantalizing and still for sure is that in around 1948, possibly somewhat earlier and later, Gretsch was selling a line of Rex guitars built for them by Kay. These were mostly archtops, including the Lancer, Aragon, and Royal, and some flattops known as Playboys. This is the only confirmed existence of the Rex Royal name on guitars and it is associated with Gretsch. They could have marketed these guitars in both the U.S. and Canada, but only the American presence is currently certain. In any case, the guitar shown here ain’t no Kay! And probably has nothing to do with Gretsch.
Likewise no mention of or association with anything called Rex has ever been found for Harmony. We have no knowledge of a Rex Royal guitar company in Canada, and the Kay explanation above is far more likely.
All this turns our suspicions eastward. Not to the Far East, but across the Atlantic.
Let’s pause for a description. With a somewhat narrow familiar single cutaway shape, this Rex has tortoise-bound flat (not arched) flamed maple top and back over a core that looks to be very light-colored solid mahogany. The glued-in neck – baseball bat thick suggesting ’50s – is a sandwich with mahogany on the outsides and a strip of flamed maple in the middle, separated by two strips of what looks like rosewood. There doesn’t appear to be any metal reinforcement. The bound rosewood fingerboard has brass frets. The pickups are meaty single coils. The plastic pickguard shows slight playing wear but there is a rectangular area around the pickups with no wear, suggesting that there were pickup covers at one time. The wrap-around bridge/tailpiece has a crude bar saddle that is manually adjustable. This has a nice ballsy single-coil heft to its sound.
Everything about this guitar shouts European, though – like Monk – I could be wrong now! The individual covered tuners with the fancy buttons are nickel and look and feel Euro. They turn in an opposite direction of normal tuners. When you Google Rex you find a UK site with a Rex archtop purchased in the UK in 1958 with a square cutaway, waist f-holes, and dramatically bent tops and backs that are clearly of European origin, suggesting possibly Germany or Italy. Its logo was also a crown, but different. One thing is fairly certain – this is not is a German Framus guitar, an Italian guitar, or of English, Dutch, or Swedish manufacture.
So, where do we land? What seems most intriguing is the Czech suggestion. After World War II, Czechoslovakia was carved out of eastern parts of Germany and included a handsome swatch of guitarmaking regions. This territory continued production under Soviet rule. Czechoslovakia is just east of Germany and just north of Italy. The mix of pretty good workmanship and somewhat backward design and components are just what you’d expect of a Communist product.
For now, this Rex solidbody must remain a mystery. While not all of you will agree, I think the world is a better place for still having mysteries. But then again, I’d sure like to solve this one. If you know anything, please let us know!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s January 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.