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Sound like 1956 with Magna-Sonic pickups

guitar_closeup75If you play an electric solid body guitar today, you’re tipping your hat to Paul Bigsby, whether you know it or not. In 1948, Bigsby built what many believe to be the first modern solid body— a single pickup beauty for Merle Travis. After that, the orders started coming in: good for a businessman, but bad for a businessman who wanted to make everything himself, including pickups. As a result, a real Bigsby guitar is few and far between. Plus, forget about affordability—in 2012, one sold for $266,500!

Until recently, those in-the-know could cop the sound without breaking the bank by purchasing a vintage Magnatone guitar. Bigbsy was hired in 1956 to design several guitars for the Inglewood, California company.  No one really knows how involved he was in the process, but some Magnatone models featured pickups that sound “virtually identical” to Bigsby’s own, according to guitarist and Bigsby owner Deke Dickerson. Since Bigby’s name wasn’t physically attached to the guitar, a Magnatone used to be yours for a song. The word is out now, though, and that song will set you back $5000-$9000.

If that’s too rich for your blood, then you need to meet John Munnerlyn.


Munnerlyn is a graphic designer who created skateboard artwork for years. He’s also a huge rockabilly nut, having played in many rockabilly bands since the 1980s in California.

That’s how he met Ashley Kingman, guitarist for Big Sandy and his Fly Rite Boys. Kingman’s go-to guitar was a Magnatone Mark V:


But after 15 years of constant use, Kigman’s Magnatone was falling apart. So Munnerlyn stepped in and offered to build him a new one. Once the body and neck were done, Munnerlyn had to deal with the pickups.

“I first made a set of prototype pickups. I was sort of guessing how they were made,” Munnerlyn recalls. ‘We were really nervous about taking Ashley’s pickups apart, because he couldn’t get a replacement anywhere, and he was relying on that guitar for his tone.” However, Kingman wasn’t satisfied with the prototypes, which led them both to a point of no return: “We’ve realized we had to open his originals to find out how they were made.”

Inside was nothing like what he was expecting. But Munnerlyn was able to tap that mojo, and is now selling his own version, called the Magna-Sonic.


Like the originals, the Magna-Sonics are low output, which mean you’ll have to turn your amp up. “Lower output pickups are great because you don’t lose your dynamics and sensitivitly,” says Munnerlyn. To build them, he had to make covers, pickup mounting rings, source the screws for pole pieces, custom order magnets, round over the tops of the pole pieces, and get them nickel plated. “There is a lot of work involved,” he said.



As for the sound? “Compared to other Bigsby-type pickups I’ve heard, these pickups want to rock a little more. They’re really good for rockabilly and blues–and of course Travis picking. They have a percussive attack that thickens up the sound a little bit. They’re not super thin sounding like some single coils. The back pickup is a little more like a P90.” He believes they are perfectly suited for a Tele:


Munnerlyn makes them to order. A single is $275, a pair is $500.

Check out how they sound here:

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8 Responses to “Sound like 1956 with Magna-Sonic pickups”
  1. Very cool… Don’t think I’ll be poppin’ for a set though…

  2. Very cool, look and sound decent but the price draws me back a little. I understand the development and costs that go into it but Idk if I can justify $275 for one. Guess we will see how the market goes about them.

  3. I think tk smiths pickups may be worth considering if you’re willing to consider these.

  4. bblumentritt bblumentritt says:

    How to make a good pickup, by the VP, General Manager, and Plant Manager for Leo Fender:
    3/16″ Alnico magnets
    Vulcanized fiber top and bottom forms, depending on the pickup.
    #42 0r 43 plain enamel or single Teflon magnet wire, depending on the pickup.
    Hook-up wire for the leads, a single layer wrapped around the coil for protection.
    Paraffin for pickup dipping.
    Rosin core solder.
    Punch holes in fiber forms for lead wires and magnets. Press in magnets. Insert ground lead wire and solder to magnet wire., wind using foot pedal controlled sewing machine motors and rubber band belts on the pullies. Hand scramble wind 1500-2000 turns of wire. Cut magnet wire and solder on hot lead, and single wrap this lead around the coil, and insert through the wire hole in the coil form. Dip into melted paraffin. Let dry in chicken wire basket. “And friend, after that you had yourself a darn good pickup.”

    These early pickups are considered something like the Holy Grail. It’s amazing to me that such a simple design, produced by a housewife with a sewing machine motor using rubber bands to turn the winder, could produce pickups that are highly sought after and considered “special,” with modern pickup winders using all sorts of scientific jargon to “custom wind” for that “vintage sound” using “period correct” components.

    It’s no secret. Take some alnico magnets, wrap some wire around them, and you have a vintage Fender pickup, or Bigsby pickup for that matter.

  5. achase4u says:

    “It’s no secret. Take some alnico magnets, wrap some wire around them, and you have a vintage Fender pickup, or Bigsby pickup for that matter.”

    You are correct that this was the mentality by Fender, however so many things are different now than back then. There were fewer magnet suppliers who were also in the US(not China) using raw materials that weren’t recycled like everything has been now. Same goes for the wire used. Now if Leo were alive today – I feel like he would have found the more affordable supplies out there and just used them. As long as it didn’t sound bad, I’m sure he’d use it.

    So the issue is, do you want to follow the old Fender mentality which is pretty well stated above by bblumentritt, or are you after the sound that Fenders old pickups had? Because they are two very different things.

    If the former, then yes use whatever supplies are affordable and available. Many fine pickups are made this way – but I can guarantee they aren’t the same sound as Fender’s old pickups. Both are valid, but certainly not the same.

  6. achase4u says:

    And good show, Munnerlyn! Very cool recreation.

  7. DaveyLove69 says:

    I like the sound of those pickups, nailed that 50s tone for sure. Your song choices were well suited for that style too. Great playing. :)

  8. Bob Logan says:

    I likie, just a little pricy

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