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  1. #1

    Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Please see two posts below for this - sorry, I messed the font up in this original post, but I fixed it below, two posts down:
    Last edited by AlienVintage; 07-20-17 at 02:48 PM.

  2. #2
    Les Paul Forum Member TM1's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    on the middle & bridge pickup of my L.P. Custom

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    No offense, but I can't read this with the black background. I love Gibson Lapsteels and own three early BR-9's. I'd love to be able to read this..

  3. #3

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Sorry guys - not sure why the font was so weird in the original post. It must have happened when I did the copy/paste from where I typed. Here it is again in a better font:

    There isn't a lot of of good, reliable information out there about the Gibson Ultratone lap steel - in fact, even certain popular vintage guitar reference books and websites are wrong on various details concerning the Ultratone.

    I have done a fair amount of research on this lap steel model, over the years, and I am thinking that right here in this (new) thread would be a good place for me to share what I have learned. Some of this info is not necessarily groundbreaking, but on the other hand, some of it, I have never read anywhere else. Also, I am hoping this thread might help to cut down on some of the confusion about this model, if people can find this thread by searching/Googling. Furthermore, I would love to hear if anyone has any additional knowledge to share about this model. By the way, I was inspired to type this out, after reading this thread from a couple of days ago:

    Anyway... I was originally going to simply respond in that other thread, but then I thought it might be better to start a new thread, from scratch, just so that it might be more easily searchable, and organized, as a reference, for anyone interested in Ultratones, going forward.

    Personally, I find the Ultratone model to be a fascinating little subject in Gibson's history. I think fellow guitar nerds will find it interesting as well.

    The Ultratone lap steel started production in 1946, and production (shipping) ended in 1959.

    When the Ultratone was first introduced, it was very briefly referred to as simply the BR-1 model, until it very soon got the name Ultratone. By the way, the "BR" stood for Barnes & Reinecke, which was the outside industrial design firm that Gibson had hired back then to design Gibson's lap steels.

    In short, even as the hardware and certain other features continued to evolve, you can divide the Ultratone into two basic "versions":

    "Version 1": From 1946 through 1950 (maybe into part of 1951), they were white, and they looked like the one linked to in the initial post (from the original thread - the one I linked to above). No serial numbers.

    "Version 2": Then, from around 1951 through the end of production/shipping (1959), they were yellow/gold, and they looked like Tom's in his posted photo (note that there were a couple of additional tweaks that happened during that early 1951/1952 time period - for example, the tuner style was changed, the design on the plastic cover changed, etc. - but it basically looked like this yellow/gold type from 1951 through 1959). Serial numbers (stamped) started to appear in 1953 (as on Les Pauls).

    [Note: there is also a very short-lived seal brown finish version of the Ultratone, in 1955, but only a few of those seal brown ones were ever made, essentially for show/demo purposes, and thus, the yellow/gold "Version 2" continued to ship into 1959.]

    My understanding is that there was also a 7-string option available for the Ultratone from 1948 through 1955 (so, the 7-string option was available for both Version 1 and Version 2, during these specific years).

    The detail that probably most intrigues many of you: the change of pickup to the PAF occurred in 1957. The earliest PAF-equipped Ultratones had 1957 serial numbers. These serials began with 7-64xx. I have (so far) documented three examples in this serial range - I would love to document even more of them, since they are extremely rare to come by.

    Here is something I have not seen written about anywhere else: the earliest (1957) Ultratones had a very interesting build quirk: they were originally routed for the model's standard P90, but *after the fact*, the pickup route was enlarged/modified to fit a PAF.

    *Yes* - these 1957 Ultratones were originally factory-routed for the P90, and then, after the fact, Gibson enlarged the pickup route to accommodate their (new) PAF model pickup. When you first look at the pickup route on a 1957 PAF-equipped Ultratone, you will think to yourself: "hey, it looks like someone just modified the old route to fit a PAF." That is because this is exactly what Gibson did, in the factory, in 1957. In this way, to me, the 1957 Ultratones are like a moment frozen in time - the dawn of the PAF era - as reflected in the modified pickup route. It is a very unique route - a quirky, on-the-fly solution to a quirky Gibson factory "problem," and marking a very significant turning point in Gibson's history.

    Something that drives me a little bit crazy, whenever I see it: another Gibson lap steel - the Century - is very often mistaken for the Ultratone. What confuses people: the Century had the same body shape/outline as the Ultratone, but the Century was actually a "lower" model than the Ultratone, and there were differences (including no binding, different finish, likely lower quality wood selection, never got the PAF). During the "Version 1" body style years, the Century was black (as opposed to the white used for the Ultratone), and during the "Version 2" body style years, the Century was blue, and later bittersweet (salmon) (as opposed to the yellow/gold used for the Ultratone). Just by quickly eyeballing, it is very easy to spot a Century, and to know that it is not an Ultratone: look for black (during the "Version 1" years), look for blue and (later) bittersweet (during the "Version 2" years), and look for lack of binding - then you know it is a Century, and not an Ultratone.

    The Ultratone was positioned as Gibson's top-of-the-line lap steel model. My personal opinion is (and I think this is probably also generally the way that Gibson viewed things): when I think of Gibson's lap steel line in the 1950s, I think of the Ultratone as (sort of) the "Les Paul Standard" equivalent of their lap steels (binding, tuners, cream plastic, humbucker starting in 1957), and I think of the Century as sort of a Les Paul Junior or Special, and so on, down the line (to where the korina Skylark was actually more like a Melody Maker equivalent, including the use of the same Melody Maker pickup).

    As we know, it is always somewhat "dangerous" to use the historical retail price as any meaningful collectibility metric (for example think of Les Paul Customs vs. Standards, back in the '50s as compared to today, or ES-335s vs 345s vs 355s, back in the '60s as compared to today...), *but* it is worth mentioning, as of 1958 Gibson catalog, the Ultratone was actually priced higher (more expensive) than a Les Paul Special, which gives some idea about where Gibson intended to position the Ultratone, from a pricing standpoint, in their overall hierarchy of products.

    Also worth noting is how relatively low the production numbers were for the Ultratone, especially in the final few years of production. A lot of guitar guys today consider the Skylark lap steel to be interesting and cool, because it was made of korina (obviously like Vs and Explorers were), but the truth is that the Skylark was a much more basic, simple - and common - student model, as compared to the Ultratone. Just to give you a basis for comparison, there were 64 Ultratones shipped in the three years of 1957-1959 (PAF era), as compared with over 1,100 Skylarks during those same three years.

    If you add up the total shipping numbers for the "Version 2" Ultratone, from 1951 through 1959, there were (roughly) about 500 six-string ones, and about 70 seven-string ones. The vast majority of the (approximately) 500 six-string ones were shipped pre-1957 (pre-PAF era). Of the (approximately) 500 six-string ones, there were probably around 60 (maybe even fewer) shipped with the PAF pickup. So...very, very few original '57-'59 PAF Ultratones.

    As another side note, and something that often comes up when people talk about the Ultratone: aside from the Ultratone, the *only* other Gibson steel (across Gibson's full line of lap steels, console steels, and pedal steels) that featured the PAF was the EH-610 pedal steel (starting in 1957). And when I say PAF, I am talking about the (6-string/regular guitar) PAF that we know and love in vintage guitar culture - the one that we love in Les Pauls (and I am also including the '57 early pre-decal PAFs in this mix).

    [There were other Gibson steels that got the *8-string* version of Gibson's humbucker (the Console, and the other pedal steel models excluding the EH-610), but this 8-string version of the humbucker (while a fascinating subject, in and of itself - probably something for another post, maybe we can even get into the subject of '50s Gibson 8-string humbucker anatomy) is *not* what we would refer to as a (6-string) PAF in today's vintage guitar terminology. Interestingly, Gibson's 8-string humbucker actually first appeared in 1956, about a year earlier than the 6-string PAF (this is another source of confusion for people - but again, we would really need to distinguish 8-string humbuckers from 6-string humbuckers).]
    Last edited by AlienVintage; 07-22-17 at 01:31 PM.

  4. #4

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Here's a photo of the modified/enlarged pickup route on a '57 Ultratone:

    And here's a photo of the route for the P90 (pre-1957):

    Also note the different bridge (different mounting screw arrangement; also the hole for the mounting screws for the plastic cover does not run through the bridge itself) used for the '57 Ultratone.

  5. #5

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    David Lindley ? scorching steel - The Prince of Polyester
    El Rayo-X

    Did he use a Gibson ?

    Saw him a few times in local dive bar here in DC in the 80's The Roxy

  6. #6

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    David Lindley - oh yea , 1988 Roxy, DC
    Mercury Blues

  7. #7
    Les Paul Forum Member TM1's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    on the middle & bridge pickup of my L.P. Custom

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Cool! My friend Phil Chen on Bass!! Same bass Phil played the solo on Rod Stewart's "Hot Legs"
    Hard to believe this was 29 years ago..

  8. #8
    Les Paul Forum Co-Owner Tom Wittrock's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2001
    Lost in the Ozarks [again]

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    That's a double neck National/Valco product [most likely Supro or Oahu brand] .... a "console steel".

    I don't recall seeing him play an Ultratone. I have seen him use a bakelite Rickenbacher lap steel.
    Pauls to the walls!

    Hüter der Flammen!

    Click here:

  9. #9

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Very interesting thread!
    Game on!

  10. #10

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Interesting stuff AV!
    That rough shod P90-to-PAF modification reminds me of the allegedly factory added third pickup on the recently discussed Elderly Explorer

  11. #11

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Here are three examples of the factory-modified (enlarged) pickup route. All three of these are ‘57 Ultratones, all in the 7-64xx range:

    Note also the bridge on these, which was totally unique to the PAF model Ultratone. These unique bridges were the only ones that will accommodate regular (six-string-guitar/normal-spaced) PAF string spacing. The bridges on the earlier (pre-PAF) P90 Ultratones had wider string spacing, and the bridges on Century lap steels also had wider spacing (the Century models had either a wraparound Les Paul style bridge, or a more “traditional” looking (not wraparound style) lap steel bridge, depending on the year).

    When looking to quickly spot a real PAF Ultratone bridge (‘57/58/59), the easiest thing to look for is the screw post (for screwing down the plastic cover over the pickup) is actually located just *next to* the bridge, as opposed to running *through* the metal bridge itself. Look at the three photos above - that post is screwed into the wood itself, as opposed to running through the metal of the bridge. When strung up, you can even see with the eyeball how much narrower the string spacing on PAF Ultratones is, when you use the various fretboard dots as eyeball markers.

  12. #12

    Re: Vintage Gibson Ultratone lap steels - some interesting info, details, and history

    Check out the difference in string spacing that you can see, even without measuring. For example, look at the relative positioning of the 1st and 6th strings, compared to the red dots. Again, the bridge on the ‘57/58/59 (PAF) Ultratones was unique only to those (60 or so, maybe fewer) guitars, and different from earlier Ultratones as well as any other Gibson lap steel model.

    1957 Ultratone (with PAF):

    1954 Ultratone (with lap-steel-design P90):

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