Vintage Brands and Manufacturers
Common confusions that drive me crazy
I spend an unhealthy amount of time browsing Ebay, Craigslist and instrument dealers’ websites looking for my next unnecessary acquisition, and I’ve noticed an amazing amount of disinformation out there regarding various brand names and manufacturers. Modern guitarists would be amused or confused by a guitar described as “Fender by Squier”, yet nobody bats an eye at “National by Supro” even though it's the same mistake. Allow me, then, to set the record straight; here are a number of famous names and accurate descriptions of what they represent.
Valco. The National and Dobro companies were merged in 1934, becoming the National-Dobro Corporation. In 1942, the company was reorganized into Valco (see this page for a more thorough history of the company). While many amplifiers would say “Valco” somewhere on the control panel, this was never used as a brand name any more than FMIC, CMI or Avnet were brand names for Fender, Gibson or Guild. Valco owned two brand names: National and Supro; all guitars and amplifiers sold under these brands were built by Valco. The company built myriad instruments for other brands as well, such as Gretsch, Vega, Airline, Oahu and Silvertone. Some of the hollowbody and acoustic guitars had bodies by Harmony, Kay, Regal and Gibson, but Valco should not be considered one and the same as any of those other companies. Valco gained control of Kay in 1967, so there was a brief period where the Kay brand appeared on Valco-built instruments, but this ended when Valco declared bankruptcy in 1968. There were some Japanese-built National instruments imported by Strum & Drum, a company that bought the National name, but these are easily differentiated from the original Valco products.
Kay. Kay and its predecessor brands – including Kay Kraft and Kamico, grew from the Groeshl Instrument Company of Chicago. The company was renamed Stromberg-Voisinet in 1921, then Kay Musical Instruments in 1931. Stromberg-Voisinet rarely sold guitars under the Stromberg name (not to be confused with the famous Stromberg archtop guitars) but often sold them to a variety of brands. Kay built a variety of instruments of varying quality; some of their pre-war acoustics were fairly high-end products and are highly sought-after today. By the 1960s they were primarily known for cheap, student-level instruments, though they still built a few mid-range models as well. Kay sold bodies as well as entire guitars to many other brands, including Oahu, Airline, Silvertone and National. It was bought by Valco in 1967 and went under in 1968; imported Kays from the 1980s onward bear no relation to the original brand.
Oahu. Oahu was not a manufacturing company but a music publishing house. They introduced their own line of musical instruments in the 1920s, sourced primarily from Kay/Stromberg-Voisinet and Regal. When electric instruments became popular in the mid 1930s, Oahu sourced their electrics from Kay and Dickerson (which would be come Magnatone). A few amps were made by National-Dobro. After World War II, most Oahu electrics and amps were built by Valco, though some 1940s-1950s lap steels were built by Kay. There is sometimes confusion because a few lap steel models – such as the famous Tonemaster – were built by Kay and later Valco with little cosmetic differences. The Valco-built versions can be identified by their string-through pickups.
Harmony. Mainly remembered today for their student-level guitars of the 1950s and 1960s, Harmony was founded in 1895 in Chicago. Their early instruments are easily confused with contemporary products by Regal and Lyon & Healy, but by the late 1930s their archtop acoustic guitars had taken on many features that they would retain through the 1960s. Sears, Roebuck and Co. purchased Harmony in 1916, and Harmony was the exclusive builder of Sears- and Silvertone-branded instruments for the next half century. They also sold guitars under the Harmony brand, and they sold instruments to a huge number of outside brands as well. Many (if not all) Harmony amps were outsourced; a few early ones were built by National-Dobro and a few 1960s models were sourced from Valco, but most appear to have been built by Sound Projects (owner of the Lectrolab brand). A number of Harmony guitars and lap steels in the 1950s and 1960s featured Gibson-designed P13 pickups, but the instruments themselves were not built by Gibson. Harmony ceased production in 1975; recent Harmony-branded imports bear no relation to the original company.
Regal. Yet another Chicago-based manufacturer, Regal was founded in 1908. Like Harmony and Kay, they sold instruments under their own name and under many other brands. A few early Regal-brand instruments were made by the Larson Brothers, but these are extremely rare. Regal built bodies for National, Dobro and Rickenbacker guitars, including many of the first electrics. Regal was the exclusive licensee of Dobro’s resonator patents for much of the 1930s, and many Regal models are identical (or nearly identical) to an equivalent Dobro. The company built electric guitars and lap steels starting in the mid 1930s. Regal was purchased by Harmony around 1950, and by 1954 the brand had disappeared. It was periodically resurrected over the next 15 years; Fender distributed a few Regal-branded acoustics, and a few Harmony electrics were sold under the Regal name. The current Regal-branded resonator guitars bear no relation to the original company (and are not strict recreations of its resonators, either).
Bronson. Bronson was a music publishing house founded by the same family that founded Oahu. Most of their pre-War line was sourced from the same manufacturers as Oahu, though they did sell a re-branded version of the Supro cast-aluminum electric lap steel. Their post-War steel line was a mix of Valco and Rickenbacker products. Like Oahu, the company does not appear to have survived the 1960s.
Teisco. Many people call any 1960s Japanese guitar a Teisco, which makes as much sense as calling any 1960s American guitar a Rickenbacker. There were several prominent guitar-making factories in Japan at the time, selling instruments to more brand names than anyone can recall. I will not attempt to disentangle the myriad company relationships here, but I will estimate that 75% of “Teisco” guitars on Ebay have no relation to that brand other than their country of origin. The Tokyo Electric Instrument and Sound Company was founded in 1946 and absorbed into Kawai in 1967; it ceased to export guitars in 1969.
Airline. The Montgomery Ward company sold instruments by mail-order at least as early as the 1930s. Some of its early archtop guitars were re-branded Gibsons sold under Ward’s own name and under the Recording King brand. Starting in 1958, Ward started using the Airline name on most of its instruments. They were built by Kay, Valco and Harmony until 1968, when the Airline name was phased out and a number of instruments were sourced from Japanese manufacturers.
Silvertone. Sears, Roebuck and Company sold instruments as far back as the 19th century, and probably started using the Supertone brand name in 1916 when they bought the Harmony Company. The brand name was changed to Silvertone sometime in the 1930s. Harmony sourced all of Sears’s instruments until the 1950s, when models were introduced by Kay, Danelectro and Valco. Sears started to import Japanese instruments in the late 1960s, and the Silvertone name was retired in 1972, by which point the guitar line was entirely built in Japan.
Lyon & Healy company of Chicago
built instruments under their own name (sometimes described in company
literature as their “own make” line), but they also owned the Washburn name. In
general, there was little difference between the two brands; both featured a
wide range of instruments from student-level to extra-fancy professional
quality. Lyon & Healy also built instruments for a wide variety of brands,
though some of their cheaper instruments are hard to distinguish from
contemporary Regal and Harmony products. Lyon & Healy ceased building guitars in
1928, but still exist as a manufacturer of harps. The Washburn name was bought
by Tonk Brothers, a distributor, who
sourced instruments from a variety of manufacturers including Regal and Gibson;
the brand was dropped altogether in 1940. The current Washburn line of guitars
is unrelated to the original brand. I refer you to
this book for more info on the original Washburn instruments.
I refer you to this book for more info on the original Washburn instruments.
Larson Brothers. Carl and August Larson were Swedish immigrants who settled in Chicago, hotbed of American instrument manufacturing. They started building instruments for the Maurer Instrument Company, which the brothers purchased for themselves in 1901. The two brothers – alone, without any other workers in their factory – built thousands of guitars for the Maurer, Dyer, Stahl and Bruno brands. (Aside from Maurer, these brands also sourced instruments from other manufacturers). They also built under their own Euphonon and Prairie State names. However, not one of their instruments bears the Larson name. Many, in fact, contain no brand at all but can be identified by the brothers’ trademark construction quirks. Many of their instruments were one-off experiments and custom orders for folks like Les Paul. The brothers stopped building towards the end of World War II. See this page and this book for plenty of excellent information on the Larsons and their instruments.
Gibson. For a company with such a renowned and well-documented history, it’s still easy to get confused about Gibson’s products in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. They used a few brand names for inexpensive instruments during the 1930s – particularly Cromwell and Kalamazoo – and sold guitars to numerous outside retailers such as Montgomery Ward. Many 1940s and 1950s National hollowbody electrics featured Gibson-built bodies, and a few National acoustics were made entirely by Gibson. The Kalamazoo name was revived in the 1960s, but most of their more affordable line was given over to the Epiphone name. See this website and book for more information.
Epiphone. Epiphone sold very little to outside brands. They built the Alkaire E-harp 10-string lap steel (later versions were built by Valco), plus a few rare guitars and mandolins under the Howard and Sorrentino brands (see this page for more info). However, their first electric instruments were given the Electrophone and Electar brand names; this was due to Epiphone’s reluctance to enter an uncertain new market. Eventually, all Electar instruments gained the Epiphone name as well. Gibson bought Epiphone in 1958, but many early ‘50s Epiphones are erroneously described as Gibson-built instruments.
Magnatone. 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. The Magnatone line expanded to cover everything from beginner steels and amps to professional-quality instruments. In 1955 it started building guitars, with which it would have limited success for the next decade. Magnatone produced amps and a few lap steels for a plethora of brands including Titano, Tonemaster, Da Vinci, Lyric, Noble, Panaramic, Twilighter and Leilani. The brand was discontinued in 1969.
DeArmond. Harry DeArmond is one of the great unsung heroes of the electric guitar. He developed the first pickup that could be attached to an acoustic guitar, and then proceeded to design over 170 more pickup models before his retirement in 1975. In addition to his aftermarket units, DeArmond’s creations came stock on guitars by Gretsch, Kay, Harmony, Guild, Martin, Fender, Premier, Magnatone, Kustom, Epiphone, Ovation, Micro-Frets, Standel, and many other brands. The pickups were all manufactured by Rowe Industries of Toledo, OH, and the Rowe name can sometimes be found stamped on the underside. However, neither Harry DeArmond nor Rowe have any connection to the DeArmond line of guitars built in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many pickups are mistakenly attributed to Rowe/DeArmond, such as those used on some Japanese guitars or ones built in-house by Kay and Valco.
Stella. The Oscar Schmidt Company was the biggest instrument builder of the 1910s and 1920s not based in Chicago; they had three factories in the US and four in Europe, but were based in Jersey City, NJ. Many of their instruments are difficult to distinguish from similar products by Lyon & Healy, Harmony and Regal, especially since Oscar Schmidt sold to a similarly vast range of brands. Their most famous creations were sold under their proprietary Stella, Sovereign and La Scala brands, but no instruments were sold under the Oscar Schmidt name. The company was dissolved in 1939; the Sovereign and Stella brands were purchased by Harmony, who continued to build under those names through the 1960s.