Ca. 1935 Vivi-Tone Tenor Guitar

Lloyd Loar is most famous today for his work at Gibson, where he refined their archtop guitars and mandolins into their modern forms. An established professional musician when he joined the company in 1918, Loar had numerous ideas about improving Gibson’s existing designs and he used his position as acoustical engineer to put those ideas into practice. Many of those ideas remain standard features of guitars and mandolins to this day, but they are not the sum total of Loar’s innovations: he continued to design and build instruments long after he left Gibson in 1924.

Loar proceeded to work as a consultant for a piano company, a professor at Northwestern University, a columnist for a music magazine, and an arranger and author for a music publisher. In November 1933, he and six other people incorporated the Vivi-Tone Company in Kalamazoo, MI – a stone’s throw from his old haunt at Gibson – for “manufacture and sale of wholesale and retail musical instruments, acoustic and electric products, including research, consulting services and financing such business.” There is no real evidence that Loar had worked on electric amplification during his time at Gibson, but by late 1933 there were several other parties tinkering with the idea – including early products from Stromberg-Voisinet, Rickenbacker, Dobro, and Audiovox. It’s not clear how or when Loar became interested in the idea, but he wasn’t about to be left behind.

Vivi-Tone’s pickup was closest to the Stromberg-Voisinet design in that the vibration of the strings was transmitted mechanically to the magnet. The vibration was transmitted through the bridge, which was connected to a magnetic pole – incidentally, the same mechanism used years later in Valco’s Silver-Sound pickup. The unit had quite low output even by the standards of other pre-War designs, but it worked: the resulting signal was sent to an amplifier, a unit built by Webster Electric and termed the “Aggrandizer” by Vivi-Tone. Several types of output jack were used; this guitar uses a circular plug that rotates to lock in place, while other Vivi-Tone instruments use a two-plug system (one for each contact).

The goal of early electrification was usually to make an acoustic instrument louder rather than create a whole new paradigm of tone. The Vivi-Tone system was closer than most of its contemporaries in that regard, for better or worse. The pickup detects any vibrations felt by the body, much like a modern acoustic with a piezoelectric pickup, so adjusting the guitar on the player’s lap results in a flood of noise from the amplifier. However, the string balance is excellent because the varying mass of the strings doesn’t interact with the electrical field. For the same reason, bronze strings can be used as well as nickel.

The bodies of the instruments were quite innovative as well. The majority of surviving instruments are acoustic, and Loar designed their backs to be secondary soundboards (even building the backs out of spruce). The sides are thick, laminated wood designed simply to hold the top and back in place. The acoustic guitars and mandolins look and sound unconventional, but they can be surprisingly loud. Vivi-Tone offered a wide range of instruments, though the only ones built in substantial numbers were guitars, tenor guitars, and mandolins. This suited not only the tastes of the time but Loar’s personal interests as a musician. The company is arguably most famous for its “solid” instruments – in fact, electric guitars and mandolins with thick soundboards minus the backs and sides found on the acoustic bodies.

While the designs were innovative, the electronics were ultimately primitive; by the end of 1935, a number of competitors had introduced electric instruments with more modern amplification systems. Vivi-Tone attempted to stay ahead of the pack by introducing an electrified piano called the Clavier, but this did not find favor with players and the company faded from existence by the end of the decade.

This particular tenor guitar features a reproduction pickguard, but all the other parts are original. Aside from a repaired back crack, it is in excellent condition and remains quite playable. The pickup still works. The trim probably dates it to around 1935, though assigning dates to Vivi-Tone instruments is always tricky.