1965 Magnatone X-20 Typhoon

Magnatone built guitars for about a decade, but they made little impact compared to the brand’s amplifiers and lap steels. The Mark series of the ‘50s were never produced in large numbers, and the numbered models of the early ‘60s are all quite rare. The most well-known Magnatone models are the Starstream series, though even these were never manufactured on a large scale.

The Estey Organ Company purchased Magna Electronics in 1959, acquiring the Magnatone name and product lines with it. After a few years continuing to outsource guitar production, Estey decided to move it in-house and revise the guitar line in an attempt to increase sales. Paul Barth, who designed the bulk of Magnatone’s previous guitars, was again hired to create the Starstream models. Simultaneously, engineer Larry Ludwick was brought on board to create the necessary tooling. Everything was set up at Estey’s factory in Torrance, CA. Production started in late 1964, and it seems to have ceased by the end of 1966.

Unlike previous Magnatone guitars, all of which looked solid but in fact had large chambers inside the body, the Starstream models were true solidbodies. Built of poplar with maple necks, they were light in weight and easy to handle. Visually, they owed some debt to Fender, especially the belly and arm contours, headstocks and vibrato plates, but they never appeared to be straight copies. The X-20 Typhoon was the top of the line with three pickups and four sliding switches; below it was the two-pickup X-15 Tornado and ¾-scale X-5 Zephyr. Rounding out the lineup was the X-10 Hurricane bass. They were initially available in sunburst, blue, red, black sparkle, and white; black was replaced by green by 1966.

The Typhoon listed for $290, in the same range as a Stratocaster at the time. While both guitars had three pickups, any electrical resemblance between them ended there. The Typhoon’s circuitry ranks among the most complex of any vintage guitar, to the point that the average guitarist would find the switching arrangement highly unpredictable. The three sliders on the treble side act as series/parallel, phase reversal, and on/off switches for the pickups, sometimes adding capacitors to alter the sound further. This would seem logical enough, but the fourth switch (on the bass-side horn) completely re-wires the circuit so that the functions of the other three switches are completely changed. This fourth switch is termed a “lead/rhythm” switch in the catalog, but none of the switches is a conventional pickup selector.

The pickups are rather unusual as well. The bridge and neck pickups have bar magnets and adjustable screw poles, while the center pickup uses an older Barth design of pin magnets underneath non-adjustable poles. Due to the complexity of the switching, it’s never obvious which pickups are active without tapping on each of them – and even then, it’s not obvious whether any resistors are in the circuit. All three pickups are fairly microphonic, to the point moving any of the switches sends an audible click through the amplifier.

The hardware is innovative, if not particularly revolutionary. The “Lever-Lock” vibrato allows the player to anchor the arm by swiveling it into a ~45° range marked on the base plate. Combined with the “rocker” bridge – an interesting take on Fender’s “floating point” system – the vibrato is better at keeping the guitar in tune than most of its contemporary units. There is no conventional nut, but rather a zero fret and an adjustable string tree that “prevents strings from jumping.” The “Tilt-Neck” system adjusts the neck angle by the turning of a screw; this was not uncommon at the time, but Magnatone was sufficiently proud of it to point it out using a sticker on the neck plate.

Due to the wide range of sounds available from the switching system, it’s difficult to compare the Typhoon to other guitars. The pickups all have low to moderate output, with more mid-range and less treble than most Fender guitars on the loudest settings. Some settings resemble Rickenbacker solidbodies with “toaster” pickups, others recall the “quack” of a Strat, and others are simply unique. The neck is similar to older Magnatone models: it stays fairly narrow toward the body, with a medium C profile. This particular guitar retains all its original parts including the often-missing bridge cover.