Monday, August 8, 2011

The Magnavox Ampeg Story

Both Magnavox and Ampeg are companies of tortured development, ever-changing and shifting priorities to meet with the demands of the fickle markets across the world for electric and bass guitars.  Ampeg's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't history and Magnavox's slow rise to the pinnacle of electrical product genius before fading into one of the boys of electronic manufacturing in Japan are epic in scope.  So sit back, be patient, and allow me to unravel the intertwined strands of these great companies during a period when they produced guitars for the foreign markets across the world, much to the delight of Japanese guitar collectors.

Ampeg began its life way back after WWII, just before the rock-n-roll craze of the 1950's.  It was an American amplifier manufacturer and fairly successful.  Even today, Ampeg amps from long ago are sought-after and desirable.  Anyhow, Ampeg began producing guitars in 1962 in partnership with United Kingdom company Burns, focusing on bass guitars because of their work with amps.  Ampeg grew successful and moved into making their own guitars by '66 and by 1969, partnered with Dan Armstrong to produce those unique Lucite bass and electric guitars we all know and love (even if we can't hold them up for very long).  Those guitars were 100% American-made.

You say: "Hey, Torch!  What's any of this got to do with Japanese Ampegs?"

I'll get back to that very shortly.

Magnavox also began in America, much like Ampeg, only decades earlier.  The company was founded in 1917 and began producing speakers for the emerging radio and later, television markets, eventually being sold to the Japanese as they began buying many of our our electronics manufacturers.  In the 1970's, Magnavox was on the cutting edge of early technology in both sound and video.  In 1972, the company was the first to develop a video gaming system and they also produced the first laser disc, forerunner to CD's and later the Blu-Ray disc, which was developed by a competitor, Sony Electronics.  In the early 1970's Magnavox saw that there were vast opportunities to make money producing electric and bass guitars for the American market.  Rather than start from scratch, they sought companies who already had guitar production, but were struggling against Japanese-made products.  They found Ampeg and Selmer.  Ampeg was purchased in 1971.  Selmer was purchased in 1969, although it's unclear if Selmer was an American manufacturer of undetermined origin.  It certainly could not have been related to the legendary Henri Selmer of Paris, France, as that company still exists today as a worldwide corporation of fine instrument craftsmanship.

Once Magnavox had both players in place, they began producing Japanese-made Ampeg badged guitars.  They also developed a new badge, Stud, which they made for a fairly short time, less than five years.  Ampeg guitars continued production until Magnavox suspended all guitar operations in 1980, because of their new focus on the emerging videodisc and gaming markets.  At that point, Ampeg ceased to exist.

There has been some hints that Magnavox was responsible for the MIJ Selmer badged acoustic guitars from this same time period.  While it looks very plausible, I have been unable to confirm that at this time.  Magnavox did buy the company, but whether or not they produced acoustic guitars is unclear.  It could be that Magnavox farmed out the production of the badge to another Japanese maker who specialized in acoustic guitar making.  We simply don't know.

Magnavox continues to exist to this day as a Japanese electronics manufacturer, while Ampeg was resurrected in the 1990's when it was bought by an American company.  Today, Ampeg guitars are once again being produced, however, it's unclear if they are being built in America as the company outsources work to places like Vietnam and China.

So that's the story.  If you have a Japanese Ampeg or Stud, you have a guitar produced by one of the largest electronics manufacturers in the world today.  It was an experiment by a giant Japanese corporation that ultimately failed because they did not have the expertise to make it as successful as companies like Matsumoku and Fujigen were able to.

Japanese Ampegs.  The lost and final decade of an American original.

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