This article originally appeared in the January 1996 issue of Acoustic Guitar, but the story behind this intriguing segment of guitar history never gets old. For those interested in experiencing these instruments and learning about the current state of cowboy guitar culture, see Bill Leigh’s “Exploring Cowboy Guitars in a Post-Cowboy World” sidebar below.
Special thanks to the author, Michael Wright, and to Steve Evans of the Jacksonville Guitar Museum, for their invaluable assistance with this article. Photos courtesy of Steve Evans.
Back in the 1950s, before the age of hyper-marketed cartoon characters, kids had to settle for heroes such as newspaper reporters who could fly and—of more interest to guitar players—cowboys who could sing. While the old Gene Autry and Roy Rogers teleplays were more primitive than those of modern superheroes, their functions were remarkably similar; they served as simple, entertaining morality plays (good guys v. bad guys) and as vehicles for marketing related products. Among the items that capitalized on warbling broadcast buckaroos were cowboy guitars, a fascinating subset of guitar history that has recently grabbed the attention of a growing number of guitar buffs.
Cowboy guitars—usually fairly humble beginner instruments—are most often associated with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the whole “singing cowboy” phenomenon, which was enormously popular from the mid-’30s to the mid-’50s. However, the story is actually more complex and interesting than a simple response to box office heroes. Indeed, cowboy guitars have a venerable heritage that actually predates the singing stars of the silver screen and represents a fascinating example of the integrated marketing of popular culture.
Of course, the association of guitars with cowboys goes back quite a long way, almost to the beginning, you might say. The rugged and rowdy cowboy at home on the range singing songs around the campfire is a part of American mythology. Ironically, the earliest guitar-toting cowpokes urging little dogies to get along were more likely to be Mexican vaqueros than Yankees or northern Europeans in search of wide-open spaces. Nevertheless, the image is as American as apple pie.
The lithe guitar was the perfect portable instrument to accompany the winning of the West, far better than a portly piano. Indeed, when Sears Roebuck & Company produced its first full-line mail-order catalog in 1896, it offered a wide variety of guitars, built in Chicago and shipped throughout the country as it filled up with farmers and townsfolk. But these instruments are not the ones we now refer to as “cowboy guitars.” It was almost certainly Sears that invented the cowboy guitar, but not until the late 1920s.
On the surface, the appearance of the first cowboy guitar was related to cowboy music, which had become enormously popular in the late 1920s. Cowboy singers were usually men in cowboy outfits who played guitar and sang folk songs that were vaguely “western” in nature (versus East Coast Tin Pan Alley). Look a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover an amazing confluence of technology and marketing behind the lowly cowboy guitar.
To understand Sears’ relationship with the cowboy guitar, we must consider popular entertainment of the period. By the late ’20s, Thomas A. Edison’s ingenious invention, the phonograph record player, had become a fairly widespread medium in homes across America, often obtained from a mail-order catalog. And as the hardware spread, so did the need for “software.” In response, a whole recording industry sprang up, with record companies scouring the land looking for musical artists to record.
Among the many companies that got into the record game were catalog mass merchandisers such as Sears and Montgomery Ward. They sold the phonographs through the mail; it only made sense to sell the records, too. These retailers actually signed artists, whose records were then marketed through the mail-order catalogs bearing Sears or Ward house labels. Sometimes these artists recorded as themselves on the catalog labels, and sometimes they used pseudonyms (for example, Decca artist Tex Fletcher recorded for Montgomery Ward as Tack Foster).
Another entertainment medium that sprang up with remarkable alacrity in the 1920s was broadcast radio. By 1926 the first commercial radio networks were beaming signals across the nation. In addition to record players, the catalog mass merchandisers did a booming business selling radios. In the case of Sears, ever in search of business synergies to increase its profitability, the success of this market led to another software decision. In order to provide its customers with something to listen to on the radio, Sears owned and operated one of the biggest radio stations in the country, Chicago’s gigantic WLS, whose call letters stood for “World’s Largest Store.”
Radio programming in the ’20s primarily consisted of live music and drama (playing records on the air would only become common in the late ’40s), creating an almost insatiable hunger—and a huge opportunity—for able musicians. Sears’ WLS blanketed much of the nation’s heartland with a mix of sophisticated dance bands and the increasingly popular hillbilly and cowboy (or what we would now call country and western) music. Care to guess where, once you heard the artists on the air, you could buy their records?
In this story, at least, all roads do seem to lead to Sears. There’s one more piece to the puzzle. Remember that Sears had been selling guitars since the 1890s. In around 1916 it made another of its synergistic moves and purchased the Harmony guitar company to be the primary supplier of its catalog stringed instruments. Not only did Sears sell record players and the records, and sell radios and own the radio station, it made Harmony guitars. Some marketing genius put this all together in 1929 and introduced the cowboy guitar, yet another way Sears could profit from its performing stars!
THE FIRST COWBOY GUITARS
Named after a singer who accompanied himself on the guitar as he performed a repertoire of folk and western songs, and first released in 1929, the Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog guitar was a standard-sized (13-1/8 inch) flattop made by Harmony, which was sold bearing both the Sears Supertone and the Harmony labels. The Kincaid had a spruce top, a slotted headstock (typical of the era), and a rectangular pin bridge. The Supertone ($9.65) had a mahogany body, while the Harmony ($13.50) had a birch body. Both had a decal on the belly featuring a hound dog on top of a mountain and “Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog” written in script. This progenitor of the cowboy guitar was available until around 1933. Whether the Houn’ Dog sold well for Sears, or did much for Kincaid’s career, is unknown. But Sears soon had a bigger fish to fry in the person of Gene Autry.
Orvon “Gene” Autry was born in Tioga, Texas, in 1907, and by the late ’20s was performing with his guitar on KVOO radio in Tulsa, where he was first billed as “Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy.” Autry recorded some sides for Okeh Records and caught the attention of WLS, which brought him to Chicago to do the Gene Autry Program and to perform on the immensely influential National Barn Dance show. Autry, true to form, joined Sears’ stable of recording artists, and his records were available through the catalog. With WLS as a platform. Autry became a huge star.
Sears introduced its first Gene Autry guitar, the Roundup, in 1932, building on Autry’s WLS success. Basically, this was a Harmony guitar very similar to the Bradley Kincaid, except for a cowboy scene and Autry’s signature on the belly. The Roundup remained in the Sears catalog unchanged until 1935, when the girth was upgraded to a concert size (14 inches) and the neck increased to 14 frets clear of the body. In 1939 the Roundup grew again to grand concert size (15 inches), now with a maple body, a sunburst finish, and a tortoiseshell pickguard. Gone was the cowboy scene, replaced by a stenciled “Gene Autry” on the fingerboard. In 1940, by the way, Sears divested itself of the Harmony subsidiary, selling it to a group of Harmony executives headed by Jay Kraus, and in 1941 Sears changed the name of its guitars from Supertone to Silvertone. The Roundup went out of production in 1941.
In 1934, Gene Autry hooked up with Nat Levine of Mascot Pictures in Hollywood and made his first B-movie western, In Old Santa Fe. This essentially created the genre that would become known as singing cowboy movies and began a phenomenal streak of successful films that continued unabated through 1953, by which time, beginning in 1950, Autry had transferred his success to television. (He later made a name for himself in baseball as well, as owner of the California Angels.)
Seizing on Autry’s new success in films, Sears immediately produced another Gene Autry guitar. Following Autry’s 1934 picture In Old Santa Fe, in 1935 Sears introduced the Old Santa Fe guitar, an archtop with a pressed spruce top and maple body in a sunburst finish. The guitar had Autry’s signature under the tailpiece and “Old Santa Fe” and a little design stenciled on the headstock. The Old Santa Fe was available for only one year.
There was one final Gene Autry guitar, which was also a movie tie-in. In 1940 Autry made the movie Melody Ranch, and Sears followed with the Harmony-made Melody Ranch guitar in 1941. This was another standard-sized flattop, with a spruce top and maple body with another cowboy scene on the belly. The Melody Ranch appeared in the Sears catalog until 1955.
THE SINGING COWBOYS
The singing cowboy movies pioneered by Gene Autry proved right for the times. The stock market crash of 1929 had sent the country spinning into the Great Depression of the ’30s, and people needed cheap thrills to distract them. Melodramatic westerns with handsome heroes riding clever horses, bashing bandits, and pausing to strum guitars were just the ticket. For the next decade and a half, a host of musical Autry clones rode across the silver screen, including Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Rex Allen, Eddie Dean, and Jimmie Wakeley. These singing cowboys brought the first multimedia images of guitars to several generations of potential cowboy-guitar purchasers.
If Gene Autry had a challenger as champion of the singing cowboys, it was Roy Rogers. Rogers, who was born Leonard Franklin Slye in Duck Run, Ohio, in 1911, left the farm and headed west for Los Angeles with a guitar on his knee. There, as Dick Weston, he hooked up with other musicians and became one of the founders of the Sons of the Pioneers, a band that was featured on the popular KNX Hollywood Barn Dance show in 1936. The Sons of the Pioneers made their movie debut in ’36 as well, appearing in two Gene Autry flicks, The Big Show and The Old Corral. In 1938, Weston changed his name to Roy Rogers and starred in his first picture, Under Western Stars. In 1944, for the film The Cowboy and the Señorita, Rogers was joined by Dale Evans, who would become his wife and costar in a successful television career in the ’50s (which would later lead to restaurant fame).
Rogers did not inspire his first cowboy guitar until 1954, when Sears introduced the Harmony-made Roy Rogers, a 3/4-size guitar made of birch and decorated with Rogers’ signature and a cowboy picking by the campfire alongside his trusty steed. At least three cardboard (!) Roy Rogers guitars also appeared, beginning in 1957.
Relatively few cowboy guitars were actually named for film stars. The Western Rex was probably meant to accompany Rex Allen, either officially or by implication. The Lone Ranger was obviously based on the popular radio and movie series, and the Buck Jones was named after one of the first great western stars, but neither the Lone Ranger nor Buck Jones ever picked up a guitar and sang. Some other guitars were named for musicians, but most had generic names such as Singing Cowboys, Black Stallion, Pioneer Days, Lariat, and Plainsman. Some simply had cowboy motifs and no known model names.
GIBSON IN THE SADDLE
Most cowboy guitars were targeted at the beginner market and were made by large mass manufacturers, including Harmony, Kay, and Regal in Chicago, and United in Jersey City. However, even stately Gibson entered the cowboy guitar showdown—briefly and tangentially—with two signature models, the Carson Robison and the Ray Whitley, both of which were sold through Montgomery Ward.
Unfortunately, little is remembered of Carson Robison these days, except that he was a popular singer, guitarist, and composer who broke into radio broadcasting in 1924. Between 1929 and ’30 Robison recorded eight sides for Decca, including a duet with Frank Luther, another early pioneer minstrel, of “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies.” By the ’50s Robison was performing with a backup group as Carson Robison & and His Pleasant Valley Boys, in full cowboy regalia. He was apparently held in high regard by pickers of the time.
Gibson’s Carson Robison guitar was introduced by Montgomery Ward (carrying the Ward brand name) in 1935. It was basically shaped like a Gibson L-50, with a spruce top, a 14-inch mahogany body, and “Carson Robison” painted on the headstock. The same guitar was also marketed as the Kalamazoo KG-11 and the Cromwell G-l. In 1936 the body styling was changed to the L-0 profile (which can also be seen in the Kalamazoo KG-14 and the Cromwell G-2). In 1937 the guitar was renamed the Recording King Model K and became available in a 12-fret Hawaiian version.
In 1939 the body was enlarged to 16 inches, but by 1940 the Gibson Carson Robison had bit the dust. In 1941 Montgomery Ward reintroduced the Carson Robison model—now made by Kay—which lasted until 1942.
Ray Whitley is one of those peripheral characters in the singing cowboy story who’s probably best remembered today because of the Gibson guitar bearing his name. He was another cowboy crooner who began recording sides for Decca in 1935 with a small combo, and returned to the studio in 1936 with Ray Whitley’s Range Ramblers. He went back to Decca studios again in ’38 as Ray Whitley and His Six Bar Cowboys and recorded “The Cowboy and the Lady” (from the movie of the same name) and his most enduring cultural contribution, “Back in the Saddle Again,” the song that would become Gene Autry’s signature. In the late ’40s, Whitley became Jimmie Wakeley’s sidekick in flicks such as West of the Alamo (1946), Partners of the Sunset (1948), and Gun Law Justice (1949).
Gibson’s Ray Whitley guitar, also sold by Montgomery Ward, was a dreadnought introduced in 1939. It was very similar to a Gibson Advanced Jumbo, with a rosewood body. A second Ray Whitley was also introduced in ’39, with a mahogany body very similar to that of a Gibson J-55. Both models were discontinued a year later.
There were many versions of the cowboy guitar over the years. In one form or another, cowboy guitars were sold through the 1950s. At one point in the mid-’50s several cardboard guitars were marketed, including the Roy Rogers model, plus a Davy Crockett guitar and one generic model simply called the Range Rhythm. Emenee also waded in toward the end of the ’50s with a plastic Western Folk model, and as late as 1965 Mario Maccaferri’s Maestro company was still selling the No. 775 Western Guitar, which featured singing cowboys, bucking broncos, boots, and saddles on its top. But cowboy guitars were hardly more than toys by this time, a far cry from the modest but real instruments sold via catalog in the ’30s and ’40s.
By the end of the 1950s, singing cowboys were replaced by television cowboys, as Maverick, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, and many other westerns drove the simple naiveté of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers off into the sunset singing “Happy trails to you.” With their departure went the market for cowboy guitars. And hovering just over the horizon was a new musical style that threatened to shake, rattle, and roll things up and move kids—and mass marketers—in an entirely new direction. As a sign of things to come, in 1954, the Sears catalog started to sell solid-body electric guitars, but that’s another story…
The Cowboy Guitar Catalog
Given their humble origins, a comprehensive accounting of cowboy guitars is probably impossible. But with help from Mike Newton (a guitar enthusiast and invaluable resource in researching this subject) and Steve Evans (of the Jacksonville Guitar Center in Jacksonville, Arkansas), I have assembled a list of most of the cowboy guitars produced between 1929 and 1960. Here, in chronological order, are the principal cowboy guitars, followed by the manufacturer and brand names. —Michael Wright
Kincaid Houn’ Dog, 1929–33, Harmony. Supertone (Sears) and Harmony brands.
Roundup (Gene Autry signature), 1932–41, Harmony. Supertone and Silvertone brands (Sears).
Carson Robison, 1935–40, Gibson. Ward and Recording King brands (Montgomery Ward).
Old Santa Fe (Gene Autry signature), 1935–36, Harmony. Supertone brand (Sears).
Lone Ranger, 1936–41, Harmony. Supertone brand (Sears).
Rodeo, 1937–38, Regal. Montgomery Ward brand.
Home on the Range, 1938–39, Regal. Montgomery Ward brand.
Plainsman, 1938–43, Kay. Montgomery Ward brand.
Singing Cowboys, 1938–’60s, Harmony. Silvertone (Sears) and Harmony brands.
Ray Whitley, 1939–40, Gibson. Recording King brand (Montgomery Ward).
Buck Jones, 1940–44, Regal. Montgomery Ward brand.
Carson Robison, 1940–41, Kay. Montgomery Ward brand.
Red Foley Smooth Trailin’, c. 1940, Kay.
Del Oro model no. CJ9000, 1941. Kay.
Louise Massey, 1941–42, Kay. Montgomery Ward brand.
Melody Ranch, 1941–55, Harmony. Silvertone brand (Sears).
Red Foley, 1941–43, Regal. Montgomery Ward brand.
Regal #502, late ’40s–’50s, Regal.
Regal #520, late ’40s–’50s, Regal.
Lone Ranger, 1950, Harmony. Montgomery Ward brand.
Serenader, ’50s–’57, United. Bugeleisen and Jacobson brand.
Lariat, ’50s–’59, Harmony. Montgomery Ward brand.
Roy Rogers, 1954–58, Harmony. Sears brand.
Black Stallion, 1950s, Harmony.
Jerry the Yodeling Cowboy, 1950s, Regal.
Pioneer Days, 1950s, Harmony.
Rancher, 1950s, United.
Vaquero, 1950s, Kay.
Western Rex, 1950s, Harmony.
Roy Rogers (cardboard), 1957–74, three different scenes.
Davy Crockett (cardboard), mid-’50s.
Range Rhythm (cardboard), mid-’50s, at least three different scenes.
Emenee Western Folk (plastic), late ’50s–’60s.
Maestro No. 775 Western Guitar (plastic), late ’50s–’60s.
MODELS WITH NO NAME
“Bunkhouse orchestra scene” 1950s, Kay.
“Corral scene” 1950s, Regal.
“Cowboy scene” 1950s, United. Buckeye brand.
“Cowboy scene” 1950s, stamped “Made in Canada.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN
If you’re riding the dusty trail toward vintage cowboy guitars, you won’t do better than the Jacksonville Guitar Center, a privately owned guitar store about 20 miles outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, and two hours west of Memphis, Tennessee. This local guitar shop is also home to the Jacksonville Guitar Museum, a project of store owner and cowboy guitar enthusiast Steve Evans. Among vintage Fenders, Martins, and Gibsons, Evans has collected over 150 cowboy guitars from the 1930s to the 1950s, along with a few hundred plastic toy guitars from the era. Evans co-authored the 2002 book Cowboy Guitars (Centerstream Publishing/Hal Leonard), a detailed model-by-model catalog of the vintage instruments with a look at some treasure troves of notable collectors. He started acquiring cowboy guitars himself just a few years after opening his shop in 1975 at age 18. “I used to go to the Dallas Guitar Show and hand out business cards that said, ‘I buy cowboy guitars,’” he says of his early years. “I wrote an article or two and became known, and people started sending them to me.”
When it comes to corralling cowboy guitars today, Evans advises, “You wouldn’t go to guitar shows, you’d just go on eBay.” Indeed, with the generation of young buckaroos who looked up to those guitar-slinging cowpokes now riding off into the sunset, their children and grandchildren are discovering the instruments in their attics and basements, and posting them for sale online. In fact, says Evans, it’s prime time to find authentic vintage cowboy guitars on sites like eBay.com and Reverb.com. “I used to pay $275 for them at guitar shows—that was the going price. Now you can get them for as little as $150.” Search eBay for “Gene Autry Guitar,” and you’ll likely find, among plastic 1950s Emenee toy guitars, a selection of wooden 1940s Melody Ranch guitars for around $200 or $300, or often much less. Search “cowboy guitar” on Reverb.com and you’ll get a mixture of vintage instruments, both in playable and unplayable condition, as well as newer limited edition cowboy guitars from the last 20 years.
“When you find them, they’re not going to be playable unless someone’s done work on them,” notes Evans. “They’ll have cracks, the string action will be too high, and the seams might be coming apart. They’re fine for hanging on the wall. I leave the strings loose to keep the tension low. If you want to have a luthier fix up a guitar, it might cost you more than its worth. For example you might spend $150 on a guitar and $250 or more getting it into playing condition.”
One contemporary artist who has done just that is Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers. He can often be seen playing an early 1940s Gene Autry Melody Ranch guitar, though more work has been done on it than simply replacing its original rope strap with something more comfortable. “I bought it from Scott Baxendale of Baxendale Guitars in Athens, Georgia,” explains Hood. “He does what he calls Harmony Conversions, where he takes old Harmony, Kay, and Silvertone guitars and basically makes new guitars out of them using as many of the original parts as possible. Often the originals have warped necks and bad tuners, but he fixes all of that. He re-braces them and puts on new hardware, and sometimes electronics, but tries to make them as true to the original look as possible. He’s a master luthier, and Mike Cooley and I have several of his guitars, both new and conversions.” Hood’s Gene Autry Melody Ranch has the solid spruce top of the early models. It was fitted with a Fishman Matrix Infinity acoustic pickup with the controls removed; live, he blends an amp signal with a DI. He wrote most of Drive By Truckers’ 2016 album American Band on it, playing it miked in the studio and through a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp.
Current and recent production models of cowboy guitars are rare, but the Old West spirit remains, especially at C.F. Martin & Co. From 2000 to 2006, Martin released five limited “Cowboy X” models, which featured the artwork of noted counter-culture illustrator Robert Armstrong, who’s also an accomplished musician as a member of R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders. The first four Cowboy X models ranged in price from $999 to $1,199. They were 000-sized and made in the USA, with bodies made of a high-pressure laminate of wood and synthetic resin. Armstrong incorporated the image of company chairman and CEO C.F. “Chris” Martin IV, great-great-great grandson of the company’s founder, in the artwork on the guitars. He can be seen as a generous chuckwagon cook in one illustration, busting a bronco in another, and with a “CFM” branding iron on another. The final Cowboy X guitar from 2006, a smaller 0-size made in Mexico and offered at $599, features a Western sunset scene of Chris Martin serenading his wife and daughter. More recently, the company released Limited Edition Cowboy models in 2015 and 2016, both featuring the artwork of noted western painter William Matthews. The LE-Cowboy-2015 and LE-Cowboy-2016 were offered at $3,999 and $4,999 respectively. Examples of both the Cowboy X and Limited Edition models can be seen on eBay and Reverb.com. Martin currently has in the works another instrument featuring Matthews’ artwork, which they expect will debut later in 2018.
Other guitar makers have kept their spurs in the game as well. In the early 2000s Collings Guitars of Austin, Texas, offered the C10 Cowboy, a Limited Edition series of the company’s narrow-waisted, small-upper-bout instruments with rope purfling and a painted image of a singing cowboy with coyotes howling along. Waterloo Guitars, a vintage-inspired brand from Collings, offers an optional hand-painted Southwest scene on its WL-K, a smaller instrument inspired by Kel Kroydon instruments from the 1930s. In late 2005, Recording King, the brand that started as Montgomery Ward’s house label in the 1930s, debuted its Western Collectible Guitar Series, with instruments designed by cowboy guitar designer Greg Rich, who merits his own chapter in the Cowboy Guitars book. Designs included “Rodeo Sweethearts” and “Toonstone, AZ,” and each instrument came with a Songs of the Wild West songbook. In 2007, Gretsch offered the limited edition Americana Series of four inexpensive collectible cowboy guitars: the “Wild West Sweethearts,” “Sundown Serenade,” “Showdown,” and “Way Out West.” The boxes they came in were almost as fun as the guitars themselves, with messages like “AMAZE YOUR FRIENDS!” and “COLLECT ALL FOUR!,” and a guitar-focused cartoon on the back reminiscent of the old comic-book bodybuilding ads where a bully kicks sand in the face of a skinny kid at the beach. One Reverb.com listing offered the Gretsch Americana Series at $200 each or $599 for the set of four. Early last year, Gretsch created a custom red finish on the “Way Out West” guitar for country singer-songwriter Marty Stuart, who released the album Way Out West in March 2017.
Conceptually, deluxe cowboy collectibles may be far from the inexpensive toy and beginner instruments that were popular in the heyday of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, but the practice of building guitars in that tradition isn’t completely extinct. Boston-area toy manufacturer Schylling, which prides itself on “intriguing refreshes of . . . toys from the past,” offers a $25 wooden guitar with a scene of cowboys around the fire stenciled onto the top. And although it’s not quite a cowboy theme, Córdoba Guitars is carrying on the kid-focused guitar marketing tradition with its series of small guitars with laser-etched designs tied to the recent Disney/Pixar film Coco.
As for vintage instruments, Steve Evans suggests, “If you’re going to get into collecting, you might as well collect the fiberboard guitars that aren’t as valuable or the plastic toy guitars with cowboy images, but they just aren’t nearly as cool as the wood ones. However, if I were going to have just one cowboy guitar, I’d want the Gene Autry. It’s not the rarest, because they made them for so many years, but he’s the original singing cowboy that started this craze. It’s the most common, and you’ll probably get a pretty good deal on it.” —Bill Leigh
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.