Ever since Lonnie Mack unleashed The Wham of That Memphis Man and Buddy Holly sang “Peggy Sue,” Magnatone amplifiers have been the stuff of legend. Magnatone guitars, on the other hand, are one of guitardom’s best-kept secrets.
The Magnatone story starts at the small Dickerson Brothers factory near the heart of the Los Angeles music scene. In 1937, they began building Lumarith-covered (a.k.a. pearloid) Dickerson slap steels and small amplifiers for people who joined the American Hawaiian Teachers Association (AHT), which paid “enrollers” to persuade parents to put their kids in lessons, the cost of which included an instrument.
In 1947, Dickerson Brothers became Magna Electronics, which branded its amps and steels “Magnatone” and relocated to Inglewood. By the mid ’50s, they were making one-, two-, and three-neck steel guitars and increasingly popular amps.
In ’56, the company introduced its first Spanish-style guitar – the Mark III, “designed exclusively for Magnatone by one of the top designers in the field.” That designer was the legendary Paul Bigsby, who also created the upscale double-cut Mark IV and Mark V, introduced in ’57 with neck-through construction and sound cavities. Intended to compete with Les Pauls, they got some uptake with a few lounge-jazz guitarists, but otherwise didn’t gain much traction and lasted only into the following year.
In January of ’57, members of Magnatone’s management team sold their shares to F. Roy Chilton, former general manager of Thomas Organs, where he had been responsible for the Thomas electric organ; in August of ’58, Chilton commissioned a new factory in Torrance.
We can’t be sure, but Magnatone’s next guitar line, the Artist Mark VII, VIII, IX, and X Artist Deluxe Stereo (covered in faux-rosewood vinyl!) may have come from the new plant in ’59. They exhibited a boatload of Rickenbacker influence, which could have been coincidence given that Magnatone and Rickenbacker were practically neighbors. But it also could have been the influence of Paul Barth.
Former production manager at Rickenbacker, Barth started a company of his own and gave Semie Moseley his first guitar-making job. He was “producing” guitars under his own name as well as a line branded Barth Natural Music Guild, all of which were identical to the new Magnatone Artist line. So, either Magnatone made Barth’s guitars, or Barth made Magnatones.
In April of ’59, Magnatone merged with the organ maker Estey Corporation, with Chilton becoming President. Magnatone’s Artist guitars, meanwhile, proved no more successful than the Marks, and disappeared in 1960. The following year, Magnatone rolled out its third generation – the Golden-Voiced Magna-Touch guitars – definitely attributable to Paul Barth. A cross between a Tele and a Dano, they had hollow bodies. It’s not known how long they were produced.
In ’65, Magnatone gave it one last try, debuting the Starstream line – its first true solidbodies. Hyped as “Slimline electric guitars and basses with the new sleek silhouette in the latest Showman colors,” they were the three-pickup X-20 Typhoon, two-pickup X-15 Tornado, and the X-5 Zephyr (the bass was the X-10 Hurricane). All were made of Appalachian poplar with Canadian-maple necks, rosewood fretboards, and tilt-neck adjustment. Guitars had the company’s Lever-Lock vibratos, an innovative locking nut (from a time well before locking nuts), super-sensitive single-coil pickups (which are exceptional), and necks that promotional material claimed were “the slimmest ever.” Finish options were red, white, black, and sunburst, all but the last being metalflake. A molded hardshell case was an option. The Typhoon and Tornado were promoted as “professional guitars” with 251/2″ scales and slightly larger bodies. Their controls included on/off sliders with an extra “Lead/Rhythm” switch tied to a capacitor.
The Zephyr featured here was billed as a short-scale “3/4-size” guitar, though the scale measured 24″ – not really three-quarters, or all that short. The body is a little smaller, but doesn’t feel small by modern standards, and it lacks the Lead/Rhythm circuit. The Magna pickups are quiet, reasonably loud, and especially responsive to midrange tones.
Like Magnatone’s previous lines, Starstreams made it barely a year. In ’66, the headstock was changed to a more-hip (though slightly bizarre) offset three-and-three shape, and a thinline hollowbody appeared, perhaps imported from Italy. They also issued a guitar instruction book with a record of the great Jimmy Bryant playing a Magnatone guitar/amp set. Unfortunately, none of it helped.
In ’66, Estey closed the California plant and relocated to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where they made the giant solid-state amplifiers so popular at the time. It’s highly probable that all of Magnatone’s guitars were built in California, though some could have been assembled from parts in Pennsylvania. A few Italian guitars were imported carrying the Estey brand, and that was it.
In August of ’71, the trade press announced that the once-mighty Magnatone/Estey had been sold to Miner Industries, Inc., which intended to manufacture toys.
It’s unknown if Magnatone guitars are rare birds, but with runs of barely a year for each series, chances are that relatively few have survived. But they are of sufficient quality and interest to no longer be a secret.
Michael Wright profiled the Magna-Touch Model 100 in the January ’19 issue.
This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.