1961 Magnatone 200

The Magnatone brand is remembered today mainly for its amplifiers. Their larger amps’ refined tone, sometimes combined with lush reverb and a unique vibrato, has ensured their legacy in the upper echelons of the vintage amp market. Lap steel players also regard the brand positively; Magnatone built steels ranging from affordable (but well-built) beginner models to professional-quality multi-necked creations with a variety of frills. Magnatone also built electric Spanish-style guitars, but with much less success; the story of their guitar line is largely forgotten, but no less interesting than the rest of the company’s history.

The Dickerson Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company was founded in 1935, and by the end of the decade it was supplying lap steels and amps to Oahu, Bronson and many other brands. It also sold instruments under its own Dickerson name, but these are actually less common than re-branded products. Beginning in 1944, the Dickerson Company was sold to a series of owners; in 1946 its name was changed to the Magna Electronics Company, and the brand name was changed to Magnatone. By the end of the 1940s, Magnatone had begun to expand its line from its core of student-level steels and amps to feature bigger, more expensive instruments aimed at professionals.

In 1956, Magnatone took the plunge and introduced its first electric guitars. These were designed by Paul Bigsby, a luthier whose custom creations for a variety of country music stars have created an almost mythic legacy in the guitar world. The Bigsby designs – the Mark III, III Deluxe, IV and V – were solid, high-quality guitars that are sought after as much for their sound as the connection to their famed creator. At the time, however, they met with limited success due to Magnatone’s small distribution network. By about 1959, the original series was retired in favor of new models – the Mark VII through XI. These were designed by Paul Barth, who had previously worked for Rickenbacker and National. Barth’s new creations had three-ply bodies of birch; the thick center section was heavily routed, creating a semi-hollow guitar that appeared to be solid. The result looked like a trendy new solid guitar, but with a lot of resonance and very little mass. Their shape was somewhere in between contemporary Fender and Rickenbacker designs, and the pickups had a bright, twangy sound that recalled those competitors.

Ultimately, the second Mark series lasted even less time than the first; it disappeared from catalogs in 1961. Magnatone introduced the Starstream line of guitars and basses in 1964, which also lasted a few years, but these were a significant step down in inventiveness and subsequent historical interest. Although examples of the Starstream line pop up fairly regularly, none of Magnatone’s guitars sold in great numbers. Historical information on them is limited, and there are many gaps in the story that remain.

Emerging from one of those gaps is this guitar, a model 200. This model appeared in the 1961 amp catalog along with two cheaper models: the 150 (one pickup at the neck) and the 100 (one pickup, ¾ scale). This catalog page is the only information that I have been able to find on these models. Called the “Golden-Voiced Magna-Touch guitars”, they appear to be a last-ditch effort to save the second Mark series by redesigning them. There are a few improvements, such as the adjustable poles in the pickups, but these were available on the old Mark IV and V. The pickups are now mounted directly to the back of the body, dispensing with the fiberglass pickguard of the VIII, and the bridge is somewhat improved. Because the top has a wide expanse with little support, it has been fitted with two large braces like an acoustic guitar. The catalog picture shows a screwed-on top, but mine was glued; at some point, someone had to break the glue seal to perform work inside the body, revealing the annoyance of such a design.

The pickups have an unusual construction: underneath the bobbin, there are two bar magnets for each string. These are supposed to touch the screw poles in the center, but they seem to be glued into wooden holders. A few magnets don’t actually touch the poles, which indicates why adjusting the poles has little effect. Two screws hold the pickup cover in place, while the bobbin and magnet/holder assemblies are held firmly by the downward force exerted by the cover. I have added a shim under the bridge pickup of my guitar, which not only raised its output to match the neck but also dramatically improved its tone. It’s unclear who designed the pickups on all Magnatone guitars; it may have been Bigsby, but it may have been someone else at Magnatone.

The truss rod cover is missing, the knobs and one strap pin are replaced, and much of the internal wiring has been redone (leaving the original 1961 pots intact). The bridge may be a replacement, but it’s hard to tell for certain. There is average wear along the body’s unbound back edge, plus moderate finish checking all over the body, but otherwise it’s in good condition. The neck is slim (and, as I recall, identical to the two Mark VIIIs I used to own). The guitar has moderate output for a ‘50s instrument, with plenty of twang and a hint of hollowbody resonance from the unique construction. The adjustable pole pieces are an improvement over the Mark VIII, whose fixed pickups were not well balanced. It’s the best example of a Model 200 I’ve ever seen – which isn’t saying much, since until recently I thought the guitar might only exist in a catalog picture.