or Where are they now?
Independence day in the US can be a time to reflect on American history – that and drink beer, fire up the grill or go on a picnic and end the day watching fireworks. But American history is often brought to our attention on July 4th since our independence from England is a big event in our history.
Which got me to thinking about the history of American guitar companies. Many famous brands of guitars which started production here in the USA now exist as a name being used by an unrelated company for importing guitars into this country. Other brands are still being made but ownership has passed to one of a few big guitar companies. It’s difficult to trace this history without a “score card”.
Here’s my attempt to organize this information.
- Martin Guitars was founded in New York by C. F. Martin, Sr. in 1833. It is, of course, still in existence though now headquartered in Nazareth PA.
- Washburn was founded in 1883 in Chicago. The company was founded by George Washburn Lyon and Patrick J. Healy. Lyon and Healy were sheet music publishers who expanded to musical instruments. The current Washburn guitar company was formed in 1964 when Rudy Schlacher began importing guitars under the Washburn name. Washburn guitars are no longer made in the USA. Lyon & Healy is still in existence as a manufacturer of harps in Chicago.
- Gretsch was founded in Brooklyn in 1883 by Friedrich Gretsch. Although the company is still owned by Gretsch, they made an agreement with Fender in 2003 where Fender is handling distribution and development of Gretsch guitars.
- Harmony was founded in 1892 in Chicago by Wilhelm J.F. Schultz. Sears acquired them in 1916. Harmony made guitars for others under many names, some of which they acquired from other companies due to bankruptcies. These include Oscar Schmidt, Stella and the Sears brand Silvertone. Harmony went out of business in 1985. A new company is currently selling guitars under the Harmony name – many of these are classic Harmony designs such as the Harmony Rocket electric guitar.
- Gibson was founded in 1902 in Kalamazoo, MI. A group of investors bought the rights to a mandolin patent obtained by Orville Gibson and named the company after him. Orville however was only an employee for a short time. Gibson is still in business as one of the oldest and largest guitar companies.
- Epiphone began in Manhattan in 1903 when Anastasios Stathopoulo set up shop (not as Epiphone). When Anastasios died of cancer in 1915 his son Epaminondas (Epi) took over the business. Epiphone and Gibson had an on-going rivalry first in banjos and then in archtop guitars. Gibson finally acquired Epiphone in 1957. Although Epiphone guitars continued to be made in America for a time after the acquisition (often in the same factory, side-by-side with similar Gibson models), Epiphone is now a Gibson brand for overseas, imported lower cost guitars, though many are based on Gibson designs.
- National Guitars was founded in 1927 by John Dopyera and George Beauchamp. John Dopyera left the company to start Dobro after a patent dispute with National. National Reso-Phonic Guitar company currently makes reproductions of original National designs but is not related to original company.
- Dobro was founded by John Dopyera and a brother after he left National Guitar in 1928. The history of Dobro and National is long and complicated. Dobro merged with National in 1934. They contracted with Regal to build their guitars and for a time Regal was the exclusive builder of resonator guitars. They lost the rights to the names during World War II which led to a number of other names. The Original Musical Instrument Company was the last name used with Hound Dog being a brand of resonator guitar when Gibson eventually purchased them in 1994. Gibson currently sells Dobros (single cone, spider bridge resonator guitars) and Hound Dog brand guitars. Epiphone has also made resonator guitars.
- Kay was founded in 1931 by Henry “Kay” Kuhrmeyer. They supplied guitars to Montgomery Wards and others. During the 1950s their electric guitars were competitors for the Silvertone and Danelectro guitars. The company dissolved in 1968. Kay guitars are not currently in production. However, Kay also produced cellos and basses. Engelhardt-Link purchased the acoustic line of instruments from Kay. These are still being produced in Elk Grove Village, IL.
- Rickenbacker was formed in 1931 in Los Angeles by Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp. The company is still in existence making guitars in the USA.
- Fender was started by Leo Fender in 1946 in Fullerton, CA. Leo Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965. In 1985 Fender employees purchased the company. Leo Fender founded Music Man in 1975, and later founded the G&L Musical Instruments company. Fender brands currently include brands include Fender®, Squier®, Guild®, Gretsch®, Jackson®, Charvel®, EVH®, Tacoma…
- Nathan Daniel formed Danelectro in 1947 in Redbank, NJ. I’ve mentioned Danelectro guitars in my blogs previously. The company was sold in 1966 and stopped production in 1969. Danelectro branded products are now owned by the Evets Corporation.
- Guild began in New York in 1953 but eventually moved to Rhode Island. Fender purchased Guild in 1995. Guild is currently a Fender brand of acoustic guitars. The classic Guild electric guitars are no longer being made.
- Charles Kaman began Ovation guitars in New Hartford, CT in 1965. In 2008 Fender acquired Kaman Music Corporation including Ovation®, Takamine® and Hamer® guitars.
- Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug founded Taylor Guitars in 1974 in El Cajon, CA.
- Heritage Guitars was founded by former Gibson employees who were left behind in Kalamazoo MI when Gibson moved production to Nashville, TN in 1985.
This is not a complete list of former or current American guitar companies. Among the omissions are Steinberger electric guitars and basses, now part of Gibson and Carvin, who is still independently owned and sells only direct, not through distributors or stores. I have not included the past great archtop luthiers such as D’Angelico, D’Aquisto or current archtop makers such as Bennedetto. Nor have I included the many smaller USA luthiers who are currently building excellent guitars such as Huss & Dalton, Foggy Bottom or Collings.
I’ve also omitted many details and tidbits about each of these companies histories. Perhaps I’ll start a series on Guitar companies and expand the details there.
In the meantime, celebrate the 4th, have a hot dog, grab a beer and pick up your guitar.Footnotes: