1934 Dobro All-Electric

The first commercially marketed electric guitar was the Stromberg Electro of 1928. Given the lack of name recognition, you’d be correct in assuming that it wasn’t a success. It was expensive ($205 for a guitar and amplifier), not particularly efficient (a primitive pickup running through what must have been a very low-output amp), and ahead of its time – nobody knew what to do with it. Not surprisingly, few were sold and the product seems to have disappeared within a couple of years. In 1932, the Ro-Pat-In company gave electric instruments another shot under the Rickenbacher brand name. These instruments were more in line with modern design concepts, using pickups that were activated by the strings directly, rather than the top of the body as with the Stromberg Electro. Still, it took several years for the new amplification systems to catch on; there were few competitors until around 1935, as the market for electric guitars didn’t immediately develop.

That didn’t stop a few adventurous people from trying, though. In Seattle, Paul Tutmarc and Arthur Stimson developed an electromagnetic pickup that was more advanced than the contemporary Rickenbacher design. It still contained a horseshoe-shaped magnet, but it was positioned horizontally and contained entirely within the body of the instrument; there was nothing above the strings either to get in the player’s way or to act as a hand rest. There were two coils placed side by side (half the strings run over each coil), each placed at one end of the horseshoe magnet, and blades ran from the magnet poles up through the coils toward the strings. The pickup had very low impedance even by the standards of the 1930s, so an onboard transformer was required to step up the signal before it was sent to the amplifier.

Paul Tutmarc started building electric instruments in the early 1930s under the Audiovox brand name, while Art Stimson sold their pickup design – without Tutmarc’s knowledge – to Dobro for the paltry sum of $600. Dobro released their first electric guitar featuring the Tutmarc/Stimson pickup in 1933 as the All-Electric. At first glance it strongly resembled a conventional Dobro resonator guitar, but further inspection revealed that there are no holes in the cover plate. No soundholes were necessary, since there was a pickup rather than a resonator cone underneath. The pickup itself was angled to even out the tone across the strings, and the cover plate was engraved with the instrument’s name and a few dramatic lightning bolts for good measure.

I have not come across any exact sales figures, but very few All-Electrics must have been built. As with the Stromberg and early Rickenbacher designs, the market didn’t yet exist. There is a story floating around that Dobro made one dozen of an electric model, but all were returned to the factory because guitarists didn’t know what to do with them (all sources are vague on exactly which model this was). The All-Electric was introduced in 1933 and out of production by the end of 1934 if not sooner.

My guitar is not identical to the first batch of All-Electrics; it sports a 14-fret neck (the first ones had 12-fret necks), a non-slanted pickup, a different finish, tailpiece and . The output jack has also been moved from the butt of the tailpiece to the top of the body. The pickup is different as well – there is no transformer, yet the pickup appears identical to the patent for the original design. Perhaps Dobro realized that the output was sufficient not to require the heavy and expensive transformer, or perhaps they just put more winds on the coils to compensate. Gruhn’s Guide says that this later model was sold just to use up the existing All-Electric parts; due to the updated 14-fret neck and pickup, though, I wonder if it’s simply a more advanced version that was intended to bolster meager sales. I know of a few variations during the initial run – the tailpiece was changed from a unique stop-tail unit to a conventional Dobro one – so this could be a later step in the progression. I have decided to continue calling it an All-Electric since that’s what it says on the coverplate, but the true circumstances of its birth remain nebulous.

The guitar is mostly original, including the tuners and the bakelite knob; the tuner buttons have been replaced, but the machines are original. The wiring has been re-done (the volume control was disconnected when I bought the guitar, but has since been restored to use) and one of the pickup coils has been rewound. There is plenty of wear to the body and the neck, but not much to the frets except on the lowest ones. The binding has deteriorated somewhat, but it’s still intact except for one ½” section on the neck. Someone carved slots into the board, I presume to insert additional fret markers; these have been filled. The pickup has a clear, cutting tone due to its placement near the bridge, and it has a surprising amount of output for a 1930s design. It is very similar to the unit used in the first National and Dobro electric instruments, and variations of the Tutmarc/Stimson design would be used on National instruments until the end of the decade.