Ca. 1934 Audiovox Lap Steel and Amplifier

Electric amplification of sound was not new in the 1930s; the basic technology was many decades old, though moving-coil speakers were developed only in 1924. Still, in the space of just a few years, a number of inventors made some headway toward producing a guitar that could be plugged into a modified radio. The phenomenon wouldn’t gain traction until 1935, when several of major guitar manufacturers introduced their first electric products, but a number of smaller electric builders sprang up in the preceding years.

One such builder was Audiovox, which sprang up in Seattle from the combined efforts of Paul Tutmarc and Arthur Stimson. Tutmarc was an accomplished musician on guitar (Spanish and Hawaiian style) and banjo. Stimson was a mechanic and photographer who had a knack for reverse-engineering electrical devices. Sometime in late 1930 or early 1931, Tutmarc and Stimson experimented with an electric pickup that would reproduce the vibrations of the strings when plugged into a converted radio. The pair attempted to patent the invention, but attorneys told them that telephone companies already owned patents on similar devices and a new application would be rejected.

Undeterred, Stimson went on a tour to find a buyer or licensee for the invention. While he was making sales pitches in the Los Angeles area, Rickenbacker began selling their first electric instruments and amplifiers – proof that the concept worked. In 1933, to Tutmarc’s surprise, Dobro began selling their All-Electric model with a pickup patented to Art Stimson. Without telling his partner, Stimson had sold the design to Dobro for just $600. Now faced with some degree of competition (though neither Rickenbacker nor Dobro sold many electric instruments at this time), Tutmarc began building steel guitars and other instruments under the Audiovox name. After building the first few himself, he hired a professional woodworker, Emerald Baunsgard, to produce and finish the bodies; Tutmarc continued to fit the pickups himself.

The first Audiovox steels, like the one pictured above, may have been influenced by Rickenbacker’s “Frying Pan” Model A. Although made of walnut rather than aluminum, they had small octagonal bodies and slotted headstocks. They were the first electric steels to feature inlaid fret lines, a feature that would become the norm by the end of the 1930s. The pickups consisted of coils at each end of a horseshoe magnet, wound together as the earliest known humbucker. Each coil sported a magnetic pole; the two poles were soldered together and sanded smooth to produce a single blade of metal that nonetheless kept the magnetic polarities separate. The bodies were somewhat crudely routed to accommodate the pickup and volume control, with a copper plate hiding the innards. Later top plates were nickel-plated but early ones were coated with a salt solution that produced a crystalline pattern as it dried. The nuts and bridges were machined from bronze; despite the 8-string headstock, all early Audiovox steels appear to have accommodated 7 strings strung in a re-entrant tuning.

Audiovox steels are uncommon, but the amplifiers are considerably more so. The circuits were designed by engineer Bob Wisner and the cabinets were built by Frank Galianese. At least two early models were produced, with this 5-tube push-pull design being one of the larger examples. Later Audiovox amps dropped the metal screen over the speaker and the metal corners, just like many other companies did as the 1930s progressed. The location of the volume knob on top of the chassis is unusual, even for Audiovox, and may represent a later addition (some early amplifiers by other companies had no controls at all). Some of the company’s small, early amps lacked any controls, the idea being that players would control the volume entirely from the instrument. In the days before precedents were set, this was not a unique control philosophy.

Audiovox grew their lineup considerably, building a range of standard models and custom electric creations. They appear to have abandoned the early octagonal-bodied steel design by 1936 and began offering several single-necks and a double-neck model. Recently, Audiovox has gained recognition as the first builder of electric bass guitars, though the concept would not catch on for another couple of decades. The original Audiovox line was produced until around 1950, but it appears that very few were produced after the 1930s. Paul Tutmarc’s son Bud continued to build similar designs for a while, sometimes under the Serenader name.