Bigsby is one of the major names when it comes to speak about the history of electric guitar. If it is difficult to find today one of his few guitars built, there is a cheaper alternative.
Indeed in 1956, Magna President Art Duhammel hired Paul Bigsby to design some electric Spanish style guitars to be sold alongside the steel guitars and amplifiers in the Magnatone catalog. Bigsby and Duhammel already had a working relationship with some the Magnatone steel guitar design and consulting work, so collaboration for the new MARK series guitars was natural progression.
Electric Spanish guitars were still somewhat of a new invention by 1956. Leo Fender's first electric guitar had hit the market in 1950, and Les Paul's Gibson offering had followed in 1952. Duhammel had the right guy with Bigsby, too. Bigsby was as much of a pioneer as Leo or Les with his one-off guitars built for guys like Merle Travis and Grady Martin.
Designing the guitars was one thing, and production of them was another. Bigsby had no interest in monitoring the production of these guitars, and furthermore, by all accounts, it seems that by 1957 or so, he was completely burnt-out on building or designing electric guitars for anyone. After designing these guitars for Magna, he shifted his focus to his own company's production of the Bigsby Vibrato Arm, which was sold as a boxed unit, for individuals or manufacturers to install on their guitars. The Vibrato was a simple assembly that was made of cast and stamped steel parts, and was easily assembled. There was no finicky wood to expand, absorb moisture, and crack.
As for the Magnatone electric Spanish guitars, by all accounts, Bigsby only designed the guitars. All production details were left up to Magna. There were two guitars designed and sold in 1956 and 1957. The first guitar was the Mark III and the Mark III Deluxe, and the second guitar, which appeared in Magnatone catalogs about 1957, was the Mark IV and Mark V. Not many of either of these guitars were built, and both were offered concurrently in the 1957 catalog, with production lasting into mid to late 1957.
Major endorsements came from Bob Gibbons of the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show and Gene Davis.
Whether these guitars were built at the Magnatone facility in Inglewood, or elsewhere is unclear. The production span of 1956 through 1957 straddled the Magna ownership change of early 1957 when Duhammel and Hellman sold the company to Chilton, Buckles, and Walsh (see history). By this time, Bigsby had moved on to other projects, and the new owners were left to find a new guitar designer.
The first production guitar was the Mark III followed by the Mark III Deluxe. These early Magnatone guitars were sold at much lower price than the Fenders and Gibsons. A single pickup Esquire listed at $150, and first production Magnatone/Bigsby guitar, the Mark III, listed at $89.50. It was a single pickup, mahogany bodied guitar, with an "M" stamped in the tail piece. A selling point of the Mark III was the Perfecto-Tuned offset bridge with four way adjustable string guides. The neck was built with a U-channel shaped steel re-enforcement (non-adjustable), and covered with a hardwood fretboard.
Although, they were made of mahogany, most if not all of the early Mark III guitars were painted an opaque "Desert Sand" beige finish. The $89.50 list price most-likely mandated the selection of pieces of mahogany that were probably not suited for natural finishes.
The dual pickup Mark III Deluxe model was added at some point, as were a few other opaque finishes (red and black, at least). Another significant aesthetic change was the adoption of a formica pick-guard that was full body shaped and extended to the edge of the guitar body.
Magnatone built a Mark III with the name "Lyric". The name was etched on a plastic headstock piece instead of the Mark III moniker, and the body was fitted with the full body shaped pick-guard. This was probably a move to cut assembly and finish time.
To further drive down costs, the original thru-body neck design was discontinued in favour of a set-neck arrangement. Wood materials also varied including maple necks and bodies.
The earliest 1955 guitars were neck through designs and had hollow side wing sections. This was changed to a solid body with a set-neck by 1956.
The Mark III and Mark III Deluxe were offered in 1957 catalogs along side the the Mark IV which was introduced in 1957. The III Deluxe was fitted with the chrome control panel and knobs from the IV. On the Mark IV, this control setup fits and looks nice, and it is a little crowded on the smaller Mark III body.