Ca. 1959 Premier E712 Bantam Deluxe

The United Guitar Corporation remains one of the more enigmatic manufacturers of the 1950s and 1960s. Little information is available, and some of it is contradictory. United has been described as the successor to the Oscar Schmidt Company; while United and Oscar Schmidt both operated factories in Jersey City, NJ, I have not been able to conclusively link the two companies or prove that they used the same factory. There is also another company called Code (pronounced Co-dé) which is often mentioned in the same breath as United, but about which even less is known. It’s not clear when United was founded or when it went out of business, but it appears to have built guitars from around 1950 into the late 1960s.

Perhaps the lack of information results from the fact that the United name may never have appeared on a headstock. An advertisement in the early 1950s indicated the launch of United-brand guitars, but none have surfaced and it’s likely that they never got beyond the prototype stage. It appears that United sold them exclusively to retailers and distributors under the customers’ names – mostly New York-based retailers and distributors. The most famous of these brands was the Premier brand, but United guitars can also be found with Stewart and Orpheum on the headstock. John D’Angelico attached his own necks to United bodies to form his lower-priced electric guitars.

The Premier brand was owned by the Sorkin Music Company, a mail-order distributor of musical instruments based in New York City. Owner Peter Sorkin founded the Multivox company in the late 1940s to build guitars and amplifiers for his distribution company; while Premier amplifiers were built in-house by Multivox, all their guitars were sourced from United. The fiction was maintained, however, by tacking a Multivox serial badge onto the back of the headstocks.

Premier guitars used fairly expensive components, such as Grover tuners and pickups by Franz and DeArmond, into the early 1960s; as the decade progressed, however, these were gradually replaced by Japanese pickups and cheaper hardware. Although United remains an obscure manufacturer, the quality of their guitars was consistently very high until the mid 1960s. When combined with the excellent pickups and hardware chosen by Sorkin for the Premier line, the result was a series of instruments that sound and play remarkably well for a brand sold through mail-order catalogs.

This guitar is an example of Premier’s most popular archtop design, the Bantam. With a diminutive 13.5” lower bout, the Bantam offered the sound of a fully-hollow archtop without the bulk of a large body. The same design was sold by several other brands, often without f-holes and with cheaper pickups and cosmetics. Premier offered some of the flashiest guitars available in the 1950s, competing only with Gretsch for the most eye-catching guitars. While Gretsch made extensive use of bright colors, Premier opted for sparkles: pieces of mylar embedded in clear plastic made the pickguards and knobs visible from across the room as light reflected off them.

The Bantam was available with a variety of options: one or two pickups, thin or thick body, regular or deluxe cosmetics, and your choice of several finishes. Each version had its own model number in the Sorkin catalog. This version is the E712 Bantam Deluxe in blonde, the top of the Bantam line (and second only to the 17” Cutaway Deluxe model in the Premier line). The Deluxe appointments include gold-plated hardware, gold-sparkle plastics, curly maple veneers, block fret markers, and an inlayed headstock veneer. While Bantams are often described as Deluxes, this is often misleading – the vast majority of them do not have these features.

This particular guitar has the sealed Grover tuners, which ups the price to $342 (not including the case) in 1956. I do not have the original bridge, so I’m not sure if it came with a tune-o-matic, but that would have been an extra $12.50.  Even without it, the price of this guitar puts it in the same league as some of the nicest guitars of the day. It was considerably more than the $265 required to buy a Guild M-75 (probably the closest model in terms of construction) and even $2 more than a blonde X-175, and it’s in between the costs of a sunburst and blonde Gibson ES-175D. Given that the quality of construction is equal to any of those guitars, this price seems easily justifiable, even when it rose to $367 by 1959.

While Premier catalogs showed most of their higher-end guitars with DeArmond 200s, these pickups are rarely found on Premier guitars. Slightly more common are the Franz units usually seen on Premier “scroll” solidbodies, but most Premier archtops are found with the DeArmond units on this guitar. These were cheaper to produce than the 200 since they have fewer parts, but the sound is still excellent: slightly grittier than the 200 but with similarly hot output. This guitar has a replacement bridge, replacement binding, and a couple of replaced tuner ferrules. Premier guitars usually suffer from deteriorating binding, a function of the chemical makeup of the plastic which was not foreseen at the time. The guitar has also been refretted and the neck appears to have been reset, and a factory-original shim was removed from the neck pickup to bring it down to the correct height. The part of the tailpiece that screws into the body appears to be a replacement as well (though the other part is original), probably because it snapped. However, after all this work, the guitar is still fairly clean and plays beautifully.