1933 Vivi Tone

Written by Steve Evans, originally published in Nightflying Magazine, July 2013

This 1933 Vivi Tone is historically important, because it's one of the earliest electric guitars produced.

     The guitar featured in today’s article is one of the earliest electric guitars ever made. It’s an electric tenor guitar produced in 1933 by the Vivi Tone Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
     Lloyd Loar was the mastermind behind Vivi Tone, and his company not only produced this tenor four-string guitar, but several other electrified instruments including electric six-string guitars, mandocellos, mandolas, mandolins and violins.
     In the early 1920's, prior to the start-up of the Vivi Tone Company, Lloyd Loar was an acoustical engineer and designer at the Gibson Mandolin & Guitar Company. Loar came up with several great innovations for Gibson and was highly regarded for designing Gibson’s F-5 mandolin and the L-5 archtop guitar. An interesting footnote to Loar’s innovations is that before Loar’s use of “f” holes on the F-5 & L-5, all previous mandolins and guitars had been made with circular sound holes only! 
     One of Loar’s inventions for Gibson in 1924 was an unusual backbone-shaped prototype of an electric upright bass. Loar encouraged Gibson to start making electrified instruments, but the bosses at Gibson had no interest. This led to Loar leaving Gibson and starting the Vivi Tone Company.

     The Vivi Tone guitar shown in the accompanying photos has a serial number of #31 and was made in 1933, the first year of production for the Vivi Tone Company. It has a shaded sunburst finish with painted-on “f” holes. This is a four string “tenor” guitar and was meant to be tuned the same as a tenor banjo (C, G, D, A).
     This “boat-paddle” shaped electric guitar was made with a solid body instead of being hollow like a normal guitar. Having the “solid body” provided excellent sustain for electrified musical notes while eliminating the possibility of squealing feedback.
     Instead of the electric pickup amplifying each string’s movement in a magnetic field, Loar placed his pickup directly underneath the string bridge and the vibration of the whole bridge was amplified. The hook-up for an amplifier is  made on the underside of the guitar via two small female pin connectors, which were state-of-the-art in 1933, and were the same connectors used for the candlestick telephones of the time.
     Many people today assume that the first solid body electric guitars were the Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul, but the Vivi Tone electric predates both by almost twenty years. Besides the boat-paddle shaped tenor guitar, Vivi Tone also produced a solid body six-string guitar that was guitar-shaped, and several non-solid (acoustic) guitars which were available with or without electronics.

The solid body construction looks similar to a boat paddle, but was probably intended to resemble the shape of a lute.

Vivi Tone tenor guitars were tuned the same as a tenor banjo (C, G, D, A)
     From 1933 through April 1936, Vivi Tone produced a total of 485 instruments, but Vivi Tone was not proving to be a profitable company. Lloyd Loar accepted defeat and called it quits. An investor moved the Vivi Tone Company from Kalamazoo to Detroit, Michigan, where the company quietly faded away.
    Lloyd Loar’s vision of electric guitar music had simply come too soon.

Closeup of string bridge, 2 1/16" wide, made of metal and painted in dark brown lacquer. Note the thumbprint (belonging to Lloyd Loar or one of his co-workers) inadvertently left when the bridge was originally painted.

Vivi Tone label with hand-written model name "Tenor Guitar", and serial number "31", Made in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

     Recent history of this particular 1933 Vivi Tone: It was on display for 25 years at Boyd’s Music in Little Rock. When Boyd’s closed in 2000, Bob Boyd offered it to me for my collection and I jumped at the chance to own such a legitimate museum piece. 
In 2002 I carried this guitar to the PBS Antique Road Show, and the appraiser quoted its value at $1,000, the exact amount I paid for it at Boyd’s Music.
You can see this Vivi Tone on display at the Jacksonville Guitar Museum in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

To see this guitar in person, drop by the Jacksonville Guitar Museum, 1105 Burman Drive, Jacksonville, Arkansas, 501-982-4933.

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Copyright 2016 Steve Evans