The Valco-produced English Tonemaster is a rare, lap-steel-inspired gem from the 1950s—when genres and guitar design were fluid.
The 1950s were a peculiar time for the electric guitar. Innovators, designers, and tinkerers were pushing the boundaries of the instrument, while musicians were experimenting with various playing techniques and sounds. There was an evolution of sorts (or de-evolution, depending on your slant) from solidbody “sit-down” guitars, like pedal and lap steels, to “stand-up” or “upright” solidbody electrics. If you look at an early Fender catalog—let’s say from 1953—you’ll see the Telecaster (and Esquire), the Precision Bass, and then a whole bunch of steel guitars. There was a shift underway, and many manufacturers began to blur the lines of what a guitar should look, sound, and play like.
So, let’s examine a guitar from the mid-’50s that had a bit of a personality crisis, born out of the American Valco Company, which also suffered from fits of mania … but in the best ways. I’ve spoken about the company a lot in this column, but to summarize: Chicago-based Valco made instruments under several different brand names, including Supro, Airline, National, and Oahu. They were a quirky organization with a lot of interesting ideas and build styles. One of Valco’s lesser-known brands was English Electronics, which was sold out of a music store/studio in Lansing, Michigan.
Here's a look at the distinctive strings-through bridge pickup.
The English Electronics Tonemaster is a perfect example of this transitional era in instrument production. Half lap steel and half electric guitar, this model was meant to appeal to all sorts of players and was totally unique. There was a similar and more common model in the Supro-branded lineup, the Supro Sixty, which made its appearance in the 1955 catalog and was among the first standard Supro electrics to feature a lap-steel pickup. Both the Supro Sixty and the English Electronics Tonemaster came equipped with similar single volume and tone knobs as well as that same pickup, whose design allowed for the strings to pass through the middle. In the Supro catalog, the pickup was described this way: “The dynamic ‘locked-power’ unit design provides the sensitive extra responsive punch that Western ‘take-off’ players are always looking for—each string has its own individual adjustment to assure perfect string output balance.”
The English Tonemaster logo on the headstock is straight out of 1950s industrial design.
That lap-steel pickup in the bridge position made for a real treble-laden adventure. I love the “take-off” tone descriptor used in the catalog, because when one of these is dialed in, the guitar surely does have a sharp attack. The Supro Sixty was renamed the 1560S Ozark around 1958, but it kept the unique lap-steel unit at the bridge. The Supro Sixty/Ozark was cool and had a good five-year run. But the lesser-known, way cooler, and way rarer, cousin the Tonemaster was the king-daddy!
Half lap steel and half electric guitar, this model was meant to appeal to all sorts of players and was totally unique for its time.
I’ve never seen an English Electronics catalog and I don’t know anything about the owner, Norman English, but I do know that one reason this guitar was unique in the Valco lineup was that it sported not one, but two, pickups: that lap-steel pickup at the bridge and a proprietary Valco unit at the neck. That neck pickup, which is often confused for a humbucker, is actually an in-house designed, patented single-coil with some amazing tones to offer. With these two units, the sound of the Tonemaster was wide-ranging, going from nasally and thin at the bridge to thick and loud at the neck. The Tonemaster also included a pickup switch, but the one on mine was more like a blender without a detent for each position. I’m not sure if my switch was broken or if it worked as intended. Thankfully, Valco used a serial number plate, often found on the back of the headstock, and that number put this guitar in the 1957 range.
The bridge pickup cover is on in this shot. The neck pickup is a single-coil, despite appearances.
Stuff like this makes me ponder the era when electric guitars and lap steels were transitioning to different styles of music and playability, and there weren’t many definitive lines between country & Western, rock ’n’ roll, swing, and rockabilly. Things were blurred and woven into one another, as they are in this guitar!
1950s English Electronics Tonemaster Guitar Demo
Gibson introduces five pedals in the Maestro Original Collection line, paying tribute its classic models and adding modern features and expanded versatility.
Now, after decades, Gibson has revived the Maestro brand for 2022 with the debut of the Maestro Original Collection line of effects pedals with five new pedals--the Fuzz-Tone FZ-M, Invader Distortion, Ranger Overdrive, Comet Chorus, and Discoverer Delay--all designed, voiced, and styled for the musician looking to shape a unique sound. The Maestro Original Collection pays tribute in sound and style to the brand’s pioneering classic models, while staying true to Maestro’s trailblazing spirit with modern features, expanded versatility, and advanced tone-tweaking capabilities.
Maestro’s influence has shaped music, from the Rolling Stones to the Raconteurs, Pete Townshend to George Harrison, Clapton to Frampton, and the Foo Fighters to the Black Keys. “Maestro was the first commercially successful pedal, it changed everything, and set the entire world of pedals and effects into motion,” says Mat Koehler, Senior Director of Product Development, Gibson Brands. “We’re using the distinct Maestro aesthetic to develop unique takes on each of these effects in a way that’s fun and looks back at the past, but with an awareness of what modern guitarists require. Maestro sounds are relevant to new, casual, and professional level players and everyone at Gibson felt a responsibility and obligation to revive Maestro because it’s vital to pedal history.”
Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-M
Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-M Demo
Maestro Ranger Overdrive
Maestro Ranger Overdrive Demo
Maestro Invader Distortion
Maestro Invader Distortion Demo
Maestro Discoverer Delay
Maestro Discoverer Delay Demo
Maestro Comet Chorus
Maestro Comet Chorus Demo
Maestro is available worldwide at authorized Gibson dealers; for more information visit: www.maestroelectronics.com.
Master builder Dennis Galuszka recreates the legendary "Chicago" guitarist's legacy with a collectible, limited run guitar.
The Fender Custom Shop pays tribute to an acclaimed pioneer by recreating Kath’s custom Telecaster guitar—which was played throughout his live performances with Chicago and truly embodied the notion of “custom” long before the Fender Custom Shop was founded. Master Builder Dennis Galuszka has replicated the guitar in exacting, every scratch-for-scratch detail, from the Pignose stickers to the gaff-tape-sealed rear body route and every other custom element. With up to 50 units made worldwide, the Limited Edition Terry Kath Telecaster is a meticulously crafted homage to one of the true guitar greats of our time.
“Terry Kath is one of the most incredible guitar players that ever lived,” said Mike Lewis, Vice President Product Development at Fender Custom Shop. “His iconic playing style paved the way for many guitar players and has inspired other legends through the years. When his daughter, Michelle, told us they wanted to entrust the Fender Custom Shop to recreate Kath’s famed, fan favorite Telecaster guitar from Chicago, we were honored. Fan’s had been making their own versions of this guitar for years, but this time master builder Dennis Galuszka replicated every single detail - from the synchronized Strat guitar tremolo with sawed off Tele bridge plate to other custom elements of the body adorned with stickers and other personalized touches.”
“This moment has been a long time coming,” said Michelle Kath Sinclair, Terry’s daughter. “When we were making the documentary about my dad (Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience), we didn’t know where the guitar was, so the film almost became a hunt for this Telecaster guitar. We finally found it at my grandpa’s house; he labeled all of the guitar cases and this one said “Terry’s Favorite.” Finding this guitar meant everything to me, because it feels like I have a piece of him with me that’s so iconic.”
“Bringing the guitar to Fender for the first time was probably one of the most exciting days,” she added. “Going into Dennis’ workspace, I got to see his tools, how the flow works and how they go about the process of making the guitar, which is really cool. He nailed it. My hope for the replicas is that they find really good homes with people who are just as excited as we are about them being in the world. It means a lot to our family.”
The Terry Kath Telecaster | Dream Factory | Fender
For technical specs, additional information on new Fender products and to find a retail partner near you, visit www.fendercustomshop.com.