By Steve Evans
When Sears, Roebuck & Co. introduced the Gene Autry Round-up guitar in the autumn of 1932, households across America were fond of listening to the up-and-coming performer, who could be heard singing his cowboy songs live on radio station WLS out of Chicago, a station owned by Sears (WLS stood for World’s Largest Store). Sears also owned the Harmony Guitar Factory, where the Gene Autry guitars were built.
The Gene Autry guitar was fairly small in size, but was a perfect fit for the younger fans of cowboy lore. The front of the guitar was stencil-painted with artwork showing a cowboy riding in a cattle roundup while swinging a lariat above his head. The “Gene Autry” signature was painted at the bottom of the scene, and the model name “Round-up” was painted up on the peg head. Sears was using the house brand name of “Supertone” on all of its guitars, and inside the sound hole was a Supertone label that read: “This instrument is guaranteed to be free from defects and flaws and to comprise the best materials and workmanship and tone that is possible for the price.”
The 1932 Round-up was, in fact, a high-quality guitar made with a solid spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides; it sold for $9.75.
Autry, aka the “Singing Cowboy,” went on to become hugely popular and had an unprecedented career in entertainment that spanned three decades. He recorded more than 300 records and appeared on radio and television, but he is best remembered for starring in 93 movies.
Of course, Autry sang and played guitar in these picture shows. But more important was how each movie contained a moral to the story. Autry always took a stand for what was right and morally correct, and his fans were well aware of his Cowboy Code:
1. The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
10. The cowboy is a patriot.
Autry served as a role model for the Greatest Generation. While his young fans were absorbing his cowboy code, they were formulating their own codes of ethics. If these youngsters were to be like their hero, they, too, would fight for what is right. Tens of thousands of those same fans became young men in the early 1940s who went on to be real-life heroes as soldiers fighting in World War II, many of whom gave their lives to protect America and the folks back home.
The Gene Autry guitar was produced from 1932 through 1955 and went through several changes in specifications, such as measurements, types of wood and finish colors. These changes were described in the Sears catalogs every year or two and may have occurred to make prospective buyers feel like the model was new and improved over that of the previous year.
When you find a Gene Autry guitar today, it will definitely have a few wood cracks and will need luthier work to bring the string action back down for comfortable playing, but this is typical for any 70-year-old acoustic guitar.
Most guitar collectors won’t go to the trouble or expense of restoring old cowboy guitars. Instead, they keep them as they find them, rusty strings and all, and hang them on the wall as art.
As collector’s items, Gene Autry guitars are pretty affordable. The most valuable is a first year production Round-up with “F-32” date stamp (fall of 1932), worth around $500, while a 1940s Gene Autry “Melody Ranch” can often be found for as little as $100.
In other words, you can purchase 150 cowboy guitars for the same investment as buying a restored 1965 Volkswagen Bus. That may be an odd comparison, but cowboy guitars really can be collected on a minimal budget.
Click above to check out a short video demonstration of a 1932 Gene Autry “Round up” guitar.
Evans opened the Jacksonville Guitar Center in Jacksonville, Ark., in 1975 at the age of 18. He has been collecting vintage guitars since then, and has co-authored “Cowboy Guitars” (Centerstream Publishing, 2002; My Link). Evans has dedicated one end of his retail building to the Jacksonville Guitar Museum, displaying his vintage guitar collection, which, in addition to vintage Fender, Martin and Gibson guitars, includes more than 150 circa 1930s-1950s Cowboy Guitars with Western artwork and a few hundred plastic toy guitars. Evans can be reached at the Jacksonville Guitar Center, 1105 Burman Dr., Jacksonville, AR 72076; 501-982-4933; My Link. Shop/museum hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.