Dating back to the 1930s, the story of Magnatone is filled with a legacy of innovations from big to small. In the world of guitar amplifiers, the brand was one of the first to introduce the world to vibrato, giving players true pitch shifting, unlike some competitors who wrongly named their tremolo features.
While the original Magnatone went out of business in the mid-1970s, the name has once again been picked up by Ted Kornblum, formerly of St. Louis Music. By teaming up with his former St. Louis Music colleague, Magntaone's head engineer Obeid Khan, Kornblum has brought the company back to the amplifier world and given it new life.
Vintage King sat down with Kornblum and Khan to talk about the evolution of Magnatone since relaunching the brand in 2013. Read on to learn about the duo's history in gear, their initial thoughts on Magnatone products and the start of creating new amplifiers.
How did you become interested in creating, developing and designing gear?
Obeid Khan: I used to tinker with stuff as a guitar player, starting out as a kid. Messing around with whatever I had around the house and my dad would help me out. That was it. It’s the typical story and you just go from there. Now, all these years later, I’m still doing it.
Ted Kornblum: I’ll tell you something interesting, I ran into someone in Nashville, [Obeid] went to college with the guy or played in a band with him. What he said about Obeid was that “Obeid was the kind of guy who wasn’t just interested in playing it, he wanted to look and see what was going on inside of it.” He was more than just a guitar player. He was a guitar player, but curious electronically.
For me, my grandfather started St. Louis Music in 1922 as a distributor. Before I really quite knew what my dad did there, I would go to the office where he was working at and go down to the warehouse when it was closed on the weekend. I was always focused on artist relations. I’ve learned basically everything I know from being around professional musicians and players. I really was born into the industry.
OK: I used to work for Ted’s father and Ted came in as artist relations. After that company was sold, I did a few things here and there. Ted stayed with the company for a bit. Then there was this brand name that he had bought and he said, “Hey, let’s do something,” and so we did.
When was the first time you picked up a Magnatone product? What were your initial impressions of the gear?
OK: I was always vaguely familiar with Magnatones. I hadn’t really extensively played them. It was really when Ted brought it on, we had a couple engineer cohorts and Ted would bring these 280s around. So I have to say I wasn’t really that familiar with Magnatones and it didn't really appeal to me from a player’s point of view. When it came back around, I appreciate the sound it had, but it wasn't very beefy and didn’t cut through the mix.
TK: I was frustrated working for my father’s family business, so I decided to look and see if there were any brands distributed by my grandfather that, maybe by chance, nobody owned. It turned out that Magnatone had expired, in terms of the trademark, so I registered and tucked it away as a secret. It was a Plan B, in case I didn't want to work for the company.
Through the years of dormancy, I was on eBay everyday. I learned about Magnatone from eBay because nobody else was searching for Magnatone during the past 10 years. I had the brand, I wanted to bring it back to life and, as archaeologists do with dating, I was using eBay to learn what Magnatone products were. I realized it was a much bigger brand than I thought.
What did you envision for Magnatone and how did you want to bring it back?
TK: I felt I needed to reach some benchmarks of certain sounds we were shooting for. I had worked with Crosby, Stills and Nash, they endorsed Alvarez for me when I was in high school. We had Neil Young, but we never had any reason to bring him anything. His guitar tech was named Larry Cragg, he’s retired now, but spent 32 years as Neil’s tech.
I put him onto the benchmarks that we were looking for with the Traditional collection [the Twilighter, Stereo Twilighter and Single V] and he said to me, “I will help you, and I would love too, but if you make them the way they were, I’m not interested. To be honest with you, they didn’t sound that great.” He said, “Take the vibrato that they invented and patented, use the same silicon carbide varistors, but basically make me a Tweed Twin with two twelves in it, tremolo, vibrato and reverb. We’ll start with a great amp and come back to the market with a vengeance.” It’s like taking the best part of Magnatone, which is the vibrato, and beefing up everything.
The thing that is important for people to know is that Magnatones weren't really built well. Even the cabinets, they weren't finger-jointed and they were just plywood. The company thought they would stay in the studio throughout their life and never go on the road. On the inside, it was just completely like a spider web.
In Part 2 of our interview with Ted Kornblum and Obeid Khan, the duo talks about how to handle relaunching a famous brand, spreading the gospel via Billy Gibbons and the future of Magnatone.