Friday, November 14, 2014

Magnatone Amplifiers

Magnatone M-9
A friend of mine recently purchased a flawless Magnatone M-9 amplifier with true FM vibratro. This amp has the true vibrato sound Lonnie Mack used on his original recordings.

I know a good source that saw Lonnie Mack back in the mid 1960’s playing at local clubs.

Lonnie Mack originally used a Magnatone 260 to get his signature sound. This amp had the true FM vibrato, but no reverb.

Lonnie later ran his Flying V into an old blonde Fender Reverb Unit then into the Magnatone amplifier into a Magnatone M-9 that was modified by a fellow named Gene Lawson. Lawson removed the speaker and put in a step down preamp.


The signal was then sent to a blonde Fender Bandmaster head which powered two blonde Fender Bandmaster 2 x 12” cabinets. All of the Fender equipment had the “wheat grill cloth on them.” And that is how Lonnie got his unique sound back in the day.

Magnatone amplifiers had their start way back in the 1930’s when a young guitar student named Belva Dickerson needed an amplifier. Her father Delbert Dickerson was raised in Utah. His family had worked building stringed musical instruments, so Dickerson had acquired some knowledge and practical experience.

He also had been employed by a radio manufacturer in Salt Lake City prior to moving to Los Angeles. Rather than purchase a Rickenbacker or a National steel guitar and amplifier, Dickerson set out to build one for his daughter. He did this with the help of his brother Carl.

Belva’s instructor was none other than Sol Ho’opi'i, the well known Hawaiian guitarist. Ho’opi’i was so impressed with the instrument the Dickerson’s built that he recommended them to other players and students.

Thus began the Dickerson Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company. Dickerson applied for several patents including a magnetic pickup, and a guitar case and amplifier combination.

The steel guitars were covered in faux mother-of-pearl. He built guitars and amplifiers for a well known company called Oahu.

Dickerson was even able to put together an agreement with Ball Music Publishing Company to be the distributors for his products.

There was a music store in the area called Gaston Fator Guitar Studios. And in 1944 they bought the business from Dickerson.


Two years later they sold it to Art Duhamell.

It was Duhamell that changed the name to Magnatone. He called his new business Magna Electronics Company. By 1950 Duhamell had expanded his business to include three new buildings.

He hired Louis McKenzie as his chief engineer. McKenzie worked to develop new circuits and a modern art-deco cabinet for the amplifiers.

The line of steel guitars was expanded to include double necks and eight string models. Duhamell was going to make this business work.

In 1955 the company once again expanded and hired two new men.


One was a partner, Nate Hellman who was also an electrical engineer. Hellman hired Jack Bartholomew, another engineer. Both men worked to improve the circuits.

It was around this time, Magnatone got into the electric Spanish guitar business, with guitars being built by Paul Bigsby who built the Magnatone Mark III, Mark IV and Mark V guitars under the Magnatone brand.

This venture only lasted until 1955 and that is when the partners decided to sell the business. The new owner was Dow Radio Incorporated.


Joe Benaron on right
Dow Radio built and sold wholesale radio and sound equipment in the Los Angeles area. The men involved in this company had formerly been employed by the Pacific-Mecury Television Corporation from Van Nuys. One of them was Joe Benaron.

A few years earlier Benaron teamed up with Thomas George to build organs under the Thomas Organ name. Thomas Organ was a product of Pacific-Mercury under the supervision of F. Roy Chilton. Within a year of launching Thomas Organ it was the number two home organ in U.S. sales.

As you read further, keep the name of Joe Benaron in mind.

So far, the story is sort of boring, but stay with me.


Also coming from Pacific-Mercury was an audio engineer named Don L. Bonham. One of Bonham’s first engineering efforts was to integrate his vibrato circuits and designs into the new Magnatone amplifiers. In 1955 Magnatone introduced some advance circuits in its Model 160 Music Maker and Model 180 Triplex. The new models for 1957 had a more professional look; were bigger and more powerful than in years past.

It was Bonham’s FM vibrato circuit (frequency modulation) that put Magnatone in a class by themselves. These amps used a unique component called a Varistor.


As a word of explanation, the popular amplifiers of the day may have called their effect Vibrato, but it was actually Tremolo, that is rapidly turning the sound on and off. Magnatone's Vibrato actually shifted the pitch of a note or a chord.

By 1958 Maganatone increased their production. They added a new stereo amplifier and a three-stage Treble plus amplifier to its ranks as well as a line of tone cabinets, which had there design basis in organ tone cabinets.

Estey "Orca" Organ
One of the investors in the Magna Corporation had put a lot of money in the Estey Organ Company. The Estey company was at one time very active in building pipe organs, however that business was dwindling and the home organ market was expanding. But because of the success of Thomas Organs and the Magna Corporation, Estey Organ was acquired along with some prominent staff engineers in hopes they could have another success.

To accomplish this, production was moved from Estey’s home in Vermont where magnificent pipe organs had been built for decades, to Torrance California. Around this same time a new $199 organ was introduced. The companies focus seemed to be on the home organ market during the late 1950’s through 1961. But it would not be too long when the guitar market was poised for real growth.

With the onslaught of the British Invasion every kid in the United States wanted to be a guitar player. Magna Corporation was still building amplifiers which were up until now desired mainly by accordion players.


But now the company saw the growth potential in the guitar market.



It was in 1963 hey hired a professional guitarist named Tony Jerome to tour music stores and give clinics showcasing Magnatone equipment.

Magna also hired The Demeree Group, which was an industrial design company, to build a unique chassis for the amplifiers. Up until this year, Fender and Gibson had the control panel mounted on the upper backside of their amplifiers.


Now Fender moved the control panel to the front on all of their popular amplifiers. The Demeree Group came up with an unusual chassis that allowed the player to decide if the controls should be on the amps front or back, by merely lifting the amp unit from the cabinet and turning it to the desired position.

Around this time a custom series sealed speaker cabinet was also introduced to the line up. This was called a compression chamber, due to the closed back.

A line of student amplifiers called The Magna Starlite series was designed and produced. These were made of particle board and used smaller transformers than the professional models, which they assumed was what the budding young guitar player would want and need.




Guitars by Paul Barth
Luthier and guitar designer Paul Barth was brought in to revive the Magnatone Guitar series. Although under the Estey/Magna brand, these guitars were called The Starstream Series.

No matter what the company did, Estey was bleeding money and finally in 1964 filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.





Model MP-1
Changes in the main office were in order. A manufacturing consultant named Al Hamel was brought in and named the director of operations. The Estey base of operations was moved out of California to a small town 30 miles away from Pittsburg called Harmony.


About 15 key people move to this little town of Harmony Pennsylvania to set up shop. An old plant was secured and operations geared up to produce amplifiers and organs.


Home organs and combo organs were built to be sold by Montgomery Ward and other retailers. The Rock n’ Roll solid-state travel organ called the M-101 was also built here. This organ was made of the same plastic that had housed the M series amplifiers. Around 400 people were working at the plant.

In a bold move, in 1966 Magnatone came out with a new tube amp called the Pro series. These were designed to go toe-to-toe with Fender amplifiers. Unfortunately these amplifiers never gained the popularity of Fender.




R 30 Solid state amp
And by 1967 and 1968 solid state amplifiers replaced the Magnatone tube amplifiers. These amplifiers included as solid-state “true vibrato”, but without the use of varistors. The cabinets looked like furniture with wood finished sides and black trim, which was the influence of the organ market.





SV Solid state amp
These however would be the last of the Magnatone amplifiers. By 1969 the tradename Magnatone was used merely as an asset in a deal struck with the Programmed Learning Corporation. This company acquired and merged with Estey and became the Electro-Learner Corporation and the Estey Musical Instrument Company.

One of the principal owners of the new company was a musical instructor that invented and patented a series of music instruction programs. The new company planned to use Estey manufactured organs in their learning program. This new outfit went on to produce mostly organs through 1972.

Jaymar toy piano by Miner
It was in that year a toy manufacturer known as Miner Toys acquired the assets and moved the company to another manufacturing town in Pennsylvania.

the Magna Corporation and Magnatone had a few years in which the company turned out some very fine amplifiers.



There was a lot of innovation and incorporation of features from the organ side of the music business. And let us also not under- estimate the importance and impact of the organ industry on the early amplifier market.

Remember that Vox Amplifiers were started by Tom Jennings, who sold his own Jennings Organs at his store Jennings Musical Instruments.

And in 1965 Thomas Organ, which had it’s history steeped in Magnatone amplifiers, purchased the rights to become the sole importer of Vox Continental organs to the United States and went on to build their own variations of Vox organs.




The Thomas Organ Company also built the solid-state Vox Super Beatle amplifiers and variations of these amps due to the fact that Vox U.K. could not keep up with the the USA demand.

The individual who inked the deal with Tom Jennings and his partner Dick Denny was none other than Joe Benaron.

In early 2013 it was announced that the Magnatone brand would be revived. Ted Kornblum, with Loud Technologies (formerly St. Louis Music) has led the resurrection. Some of the new models will be very similar to those of 50 years ago. Input on design was contributed by the likes of Billy Gibbons and Neil Young’s guitar tech, Larry Cragg. Six new models were exhibited at the 2013 NAMM in Anaheim, California.





 



4 comments:

Elizabeth J. Neal said...

This amp has the true vibrato sound Lonnie Mack used on his original recordings. El Müzik Seti

marcus ohara said...

It absolutely does Elizabeth. I have done a little more research. The Estey Magnavox amps are sleeper amps. Folks are looking for old Fenders. But these are great amps. The tubes are a little weird but NOS tubes for them can be found.

Thank you for stopping by.
Marc O'Hara

Sal said...

Hi Elizabeth and Marcus,
My grandfather purchased a Magnatone custom 260 sometime between 1957-1958 from the Inglewood location. It is in very good all original condition, however, needs a few tubes replaced, is missing the gold V on the front grill, and a few knobs. I am interested in selling but first need to do more research, then will repost here again.

Thank you for creating the Unique Guitar Blog,
Sal

Pat said...

Hey Sal, I'm interested in your Magnatone 260. Please contact me.