Magnatone Mark IV

Southern California was the Mecca for electric guitars and amplifiers in the period after World War II through the 1960s, with companies such as Fender, Rickenbacker, Standel, Carvin, Mosrite, and Bigsby all making their home in and around Los Angeles during that time. Another important player in the electrified instrument game was Magna Electronics, who began making their “Magnatone” lap-steels and amplifiers shortly after the war ended.
Publish date:
Updated on

Magnatone would come to be known for their unique amplifiers, notable for their “true vibrato” system, which actually changed the phase of the signal as opposed to merely volume—a sort of precursor to the stereo chorus sound. Legendary recordings by Lonnie Mack and Buddy Holly showcase the unique Magnatone vibrato, and the amps are highly revered in collector circles today. In fact, most people think Magnatone only produced amps, but they did make several attempts at a guitar line from the mid ’50s through the late ’60s. Their designs never quite caught on, however, and today it is quite rare to see a Magnatone guitar.

Around 1956, the company introduced the single-cutaway Mark III and Mark III Deluxe, and the double-cutaway Mark IV and Mark V. The Mark IV featured a trapeze tailpiece, and the top-of-the-line Mark V sported a Bigsby vibrato. Much ado has been made of late by eBay sellers advertising these Magnatone Mark IV and Mark V guitars as “Bigsby” instruments, clearly capitalizing on the furor surrounding Paul Bigsby’s custom electric guitars and their resale value. A more accurate account can be found in the 1956 Magnatone catalog, which simply states: “For the pattern and design of these models, Magnatone is indebted to America’s leading guitar authority, Paul Bigsby.”

The Magnatone Mark IV pictured here exhibits all the signs of an amplifier company attempting to make guitars for the first time—with predictable results. It originally came with a trapeze tailpiece, but, along the way, it was retrofitted with a Bigsby vibrato, making it sort of a bastard Mark V model. Although it’s crudely made compared to Bigsby’s finely crafted instruments, this is a great-looking and great-sounding guitar, with an interesting pedigree to boot. On its own merits, it is a truly unique example in American—and Southern Californian—guitar history.