At the dawn of the 1930s a radical new class of musical instrument -- electrified and amplified -- was introduced to the world by a few pioneering companies across America. And although electric guitars would prove in time to be a revolutionary agent of change in music, initially the invention lacked an urgent marketplace demand. Indeed, it would take years for musicians to cozy up to the new-fangled contraptions, and even longer for general musical tastes to make room for their odd sounds. Among the very first to take on the mighty challenge of popularizing electric guitars right in the middle of the Great Depression was the Seattle musician/inventor, Paul Tutmarc, and his Audiovox Manufacturing Company.
The Silver-Toned Tenor
Paul H. Tutmarc joined his church choir as a child, and by the age of 12 was earning money by singing and playing guitar and banjo in order to help his Minneapolis-based family make ends meet. Tutmarc started playing Hawaiian-style steel guitar when he was 15, and eventually hit the road traveling with a vaudeville troupe on the Chautauqua circuit.
In 1917 Tutmarc rolled into Seattle to work at the shipyards and soon found steady work, first out in the rough-and-tumble Pacific coast town of Aberdeen, and finally in Centralia, where he and his wife, Lorraine, began raising a daughter and son, Jeanne and Paul "Bud" Tutmarc Jr.
Seeking out opportunities to sing and perform music, by 1926 Tutmarc was being touted on Tacoma's KMO radio as the "Silver Toned Tenor" and he began making appearances with Sam Wineland's Broadway Orchestra at Tacoma's Broadway Theater. Then, after moving to Seattle in 1928, Tutmarc began to perform on KJR radio and on the Orpheum, Pantages theatrical circuits, and with the Fanchon and Marco troupe.
It's A Great Life
By 1929 Tutmarc had begun working the Seattle theaters as a tenor soloist with a number of the top dance orchestras, including those of Jackie Souders, Jules Buffano, and the town's premiere bandleader, Vic Meyers. That same year he was singing at the 5th Avenue Theater (and on KGW radio) with Georgie Stoll's Syncopaters. Stoll was also Mario Lanza's musical director and he lured Tutmarc to Hollywood where Tutmarc ended up singing in two moving pictures, probably MGM's It's A Great Life and The Voice of Hollywood that starred the fabulous Duncan Sisters.
Back in Seattle, Tutmarc established a guitar instruction studio in his home, and then in 1931, moved into a downtown studio in the Fox 5th Avenue Theater building. By this time the dapper Tutmarc had become a true bon vivant around town and once had the unforgettable experience of singing "There's Danger In Your Eyes" to the visiting movie star, Jean Harlow, while suavely whisking her around a theater stage. With the rising strength of the Hawaiian music craze, Tutmarc's advanced skill at playing Hawaiian steel guitar made his new group, the Islanders, a popular feature at house parties, ballrooms, and other venues around the region.
It was the winter of 1930-1931, according to his son, that Tutmarc began experimenting in his basement workshop with a fellow tinkerer on a secret project. Tutmarc's collaborator was Arthur "Art" J. Stimson, a jack-of-all-trades from Spokane, Washington, who'd worked as an auto mechanic and an aerial photographer. Together the two -- each inspired by the telephone's mechanism -- created a large mutant version of Ma Bell's dinky transducer. They attached an iron blade with copper wire coiled around it to a large horseshoe shaped magnet. When placed inside Tutmarc's flat-top Spanish-style guitar and plugged into a converted radio, the magnetic device picked-up the instrument's sound, amplified it, and surprised the partners with the beautiful tone it brought forth.
The two partners soon realized the importance of their discovery, but they differed on the next step to take. Stimson wanted to sell or license the "pickup" to some big company, while Tutmarc thought it best to quietly seek protective registration for its design with the federal Office of Patents. Unfortunately after investing $300 with attorneys who initiated a patent search with the government, Tutmarc was ultimately advised that their pickup design was non-patentable because the telephone companies had already patented similar devices.
A disappointed Tutmarc put his electric guitar dreams on hold, while Stimson, apparently, headed off to Los Angeles where he said he was going to try to interest others in the idea.
One can imagine the shock then when Tutmarc -- a music teacher, shopkeeper, and dealer of instruments -- eventually took notice after a Los Angeles-based firm began selling their "Electro String Instruments" in August 1932. That company (eventually known as Rickenbacker International Corp.) was headed by a skilled engineer, Adolph Rickenbacher, whose machine shop had been fabricating metal parts for two of the town's successful guitar-making firms, the National String Instrument Corp. and the related Dobro Manufacturing Co. since about 1928.
Then, in the spring of 1933, the Dobro firm began marketing their All-Electric model of electrified Spanish-style guitar and Tutmarc must have wondered how these companies could be pushing products without patent protections. Little did he know that Dobro had actually filed (on April 7th, 1933) a patent application form -- not for the pickup alone, but in conjunction with the overall guitar design. What Tutmarc learned, in time, was that Dobro's patent application actually listed one "Art Stimson" as the assignor. Worse yet: Tutmarc's erstwhile partner had apparently peddled their pickup design to Dobro for the measly sum of $600.
The Audiovox Manufacturing Co.
Casting caution aside, Tutmarc finally forged ahead marketing his own brand of electric guitars. Though a bit late to the race now, Tutmarc became ever more determined to create a superior electric guitar and, through more experimentation, vastly improved his old design, effectively creating the world's first slanted split-polepiece magnetic "humbucking" pickup -- a design that Dobro, National, and other firms soon began emulating.
In 1934 Tutmarc relocated his shop to the Western Laboratories Building (806 Pine Street) -- conveniently located above the Birkel Electrical Supply Co., and just down the block from the grand Paramount Theater -- and soon formalized his guitar building enterprise as the Audiovox Manufacturing Company. Over time the Audiovox line of electric lap steel guitars earned a reputation amongst players for having powerful-yet-clean pickup sounds and Tutmarc established friendships with some of the era's top steel guitarists including: Sol "The King of the Hawaiian Guitar" Ho'opi'i, Dick Kaihue McIntire, and Frankie McPhalen.
Tutmarc himself was Audiovox's best promoter, and in addition to selling instruments to his students and working musicians, he consigned them to a few other regional music shops, and captivated listeners with daily "Free Concert Demonstrations" at his shop and at other downtown stores including the Sears, Roebuck & Co. department store and Myers Music store, and on his weekly KOMO radio show.
In February 1935, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer discovered Tutmarc and ran a photograph showing him with his latest invention -- an electrified, cello-sized, solid-bodied bass instrument -- and noted that "People have always pitied the poor bass-fiddler ... who has to lug his big bull-fiddle home through the dark streets after the theatre closes. But he doesn't have to do it any more. Because Paul Tutmarc, Seattle music teacher and KOMO radio artist, has invented an electric bull-fiddle. One you can carry under your arm ... . The first electric bass-viol is only four feet tall, instead of six. It could be made a lot smaller, but Tutmarc didn't want to be too revolutionary right off the bat. Bass violinists are a conservative race, and have to be accustomed gradually to the idea, he says."
Falling Through the Cracks of History
When Audiovox finally produced Tutmarc's next invention -- the #736 Electronic Bass Fiddle -- the refined instrument's main innovation was as a string-bass instrument designed to be held in the now-familiar horizontal position rather than the traditional vertical upright position. So because of its electrified nature, fretted neck (unlike upright basses), and truly compact size, this revolutionary instrument can be considered the world's first solid-body electric bass guitar.
However, even though Audiovox sold numerous Electronic Bass Fiddles to Northwest musicians, the instrument was so completely ahead-of-its-time that it never succeeded commercially. So, despite the trail-blazing uniqueness of Audiovox instruments, relatively few were sold, no national distribution strategy was ever implemented, and Tutmarc's contributions basically fell through the cracks of history. All of which helps explain why the Audiovox saga went missing in all of the early electric guitar history books, and other men -- like Fullerton, California's Leo Fender (who first marketed his famously successful bass guitar in 1951) -- long received all the credit for "inventing" the electric bass.
One additional factor was Tutmarc's failure to focus on promoting his inventions. Instead, he devoted much time to his shop, his students, his other hobbies, his church, and performing live. In 1943 the Tutmarc marriage broke up, and in 1944 he married one of his young guitar students, Bonnie Buckingham (1923-2019), and they began playing country music at rural dancehalls, urban nightclubs, and on local radio as a duo, or with either a trio or a full band, KVI radio's K6 Wranglers.
Tutmarc continued to market his Audiovox guitars up until around 1950 -- when daughter Paula was born -- but by mid-decade that marriage was straining under the weight of Bonnie's dreams of stardom (the movie star Rudy Vallee and other Hollywood bigwigs were showing interest in her) and it also eventually ended in divorce.
Bonnie soon adopted the stage name of Bonnie Guitar and in 1957 her Top-10 gem, "Dark Moon," launched a long string of national hits that made her the most successful country star ever to hail from the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, Tutmarc carried on performing until around 1966-1967, and continued teaching nearly up until his death from cancer on September 23, 1972.
Rock 'n' roll Guitars
Yet, the question remains: Given Tutmarc's early head-start over most of the other "Fathers of the Electric Guitar," just exactly why did he receive such a paucity of recognition for his contributions? It would seem that a combination of bad advice from patent attorneys and his own unfocused business activities led to the Audiovox brand being overshadowed by a whole slew of other, subsequent, companies -- mega-successful corporate guitar makers like Fender and Gibson who've received tons of credit in myriad guitar history books for helping give birth to the twentieth century's most popular form of music, rock 'n' roll.
No fan of rock music himself, Tutmarc apparently harbored thoughts somewhat akin to those conceivably held by guilt-stricken creators of the atomic bomb -- "Just look at what my invention hath wrought on humankind!" -- because in an April 1972 newspaper interview he pondered his role in history and wearily conceded that "A lot of fathers and mothers probably would like to kill me." But, perhaps in an attempt to ease the heavy burden of responsibility for having aided the rise of rock 'n' roll, Tutmarc also allowed himself that, "Then again, if it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else" (Duncan).