1950s Magnatone G-85-DW Lyric

When it comes to lap steels, Magnatone is largely remembered for the inexpensive models that the company cranked out by the thousand. Many – perhaps most – bear the brands of retailers and distributors who ordered batches of instruments with their own names on the headstock. However, the company also built steels aimed at professional players; an early brochure (from when the company was still called Dickerson) proudly claims endorsements from steel legends Sol Hoopii and Dick McIntire. There are enough pictures of both to suggest that they actually played Dickerson/Magnatone steels beyond the photo shoot for that catalog.

The Hawaiian guitar craze had largely subsided by the 1950s, but that didn’t stop Magnatone from keeping up with new developments in the market. They introduced a double-8 model by 1952, followed by triple-8 model within a year; a quad-8 model was introduced by 1957. All Magnatone steels initially featured a scale of roughly 22½”, but around 1955 the professional models were upgraded to 24½” necks. This longer “string suspension”, as Magnatone called it, produced longer sustain and a brighter sound. At the same time, the multi-neck instruments were further enhanced with a second pickup on each neck. This was almost certainly inspired by their neighbors at Fender, who brought out the Stringmaster in 1953. New bridge and nut designs offered greater stability, and a redesigned tailpiece allowed for easier stringing. Magnatone continued to use the same model names that had graced the short-scale models: the dual-neck G-85-DW was named the Lyric and the triple-neck G-85-DW was named the Maestro in the catalog, but the redesigned instruments no longer bore these names at the end of the fretboards.

This G-85-DW is typical of Magnatone’s later professional-level steels. The combination of maple and walnut was probably chosen for its aesthetic appeal; the tuner covers, while not necessary from a functional perspective, nevertheless kept up with similar hardware from Gibson and Rickenbacker. The price tag of $219.50 plus $49.50 made it competitive against the closest equivalents from those companies plus Fender and National. The Magnatone’s weight also gave it an advantage; as dual-neck consoles go, it was one of the lightest around. This example is all original and shows only minor wear given its age.

Ultimately, design improvements couldn’t overcome declining sales. Magnatone stopped building steels altogether by 1960 and concentrated on Spanish-style electric guitars and amplifiers for the rest of its existence.