Bell Musical Instruments
A History of Broadway Guitars
No history of Broadway guitars would be complete without some suitable mention of Bell Musical Instruments of Surbiton, Surrey, which was one of the main outlets for Broadway and other guitars throughout the '60 and early '70s.
Bell Musical Instruments was founded in, or around, 1947 by Arthur Bell. In the first instance, Bell produced and sold accordions, which were a feature of the Bell Accordion showroom at 157-159 Ewell Road, Surbiton, Surrey. It was a mecca for accordion players from London and surrounding areas throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s. The Bell-labelled accordions were manufactured at a sister site on Aycliffe Trading Estate site, near Darlington, Co.Durham.
However, after Arthur Bell’s death in 1961, the company were taken over by the German company, Hohner. Hohner took over the production of accordions but continued to sell under the Bell label, which was well-respected and well-established. The head of affairs at the Surbiton accordion showroom and shop was Jack Larkin, who having studied in Italy, had a good understanding of the accordion manufacturing process, coupled with good management skills.
Above: Jack Larkin, Director of Bell Musical Instruments
Above: Bell Musical Instruments of Ewell Road, Surbiton in Surrey. The large building on the left was the main showroom.
At some point in 1961, Hohner added a general music showroom to their empire, which was sited immediately opposite their accordion shop, which was also placed under the directorship of ‘Jolly’ Jack Larkin, Bell Musical Instruments was born.. Hohner allowed Larkin’s marketing strategies to expand their stores without hindrance and within a very short space of time, Bell Musical Instruments flourished.
Larkin now further developed the next stage of the company's marketing strategy. With the strapline, “Britain’s Largest Musical Instrument Suppliers”, and their two main outlets; one in the north-east of England and their new main headquarters and showrooms in Surbiton, the stores attracted a large following. At the Ewell Road site in Surbiton, Bell Accordions continued to occupy the showroom on one side of the road, with Bell Music on the other. Bell Music sold just about everything; Hawaiian electric lap guitars, keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars, drum kits,amplifiers and accessories.
Larkin built up quite a reputation for his new store. In it's heyday the store in Surbiton had a ‘jaw-dropping’ clientele. Bell Music attracted many big names of the day who often bought their gear from them.
Eric Clapton purchased his first electric guitar there - a Kay Jazz II, (actually bought by his grandmother through Bell's hire purchase scheme!) Other top names included Jeff Beck, The Rolling Stones and many others, who were regular customers. Bell Music was also a ‘mecca’ for aspiring bands and lesser known musicians, all keen to try out the latest gear!
However, the strategy for providing shopping via a mail order catalogue was the single most important factor in securing Bell’s reputation. The first catalogue, comprising of guitars and accessories (shown below left) , was introduced in 1959 and backed by a national advertising campaign.Small advertisements appeared in the national press, such as the Sunday Express or Sunday Pictorial and also in the music press, encouraging the public to send for their catalogue, from which their range of musical goods could be obtained.
Right: Eric Clapton, seen with his Kay Jazz II semi-acoustic purchased from Bell's, playing with The Roosters in 1963, prior to joining The Yardbirds.
The advert (above centre) advertised Bell Music’s 24 page catalogue, “packed with models of all kinds from 4 gns. to 100 gns.”. Bell proclaimed themselves to be “ by far the largest stockists of guitars in Great Britain. Obtaining a Bell Musical Instrument catalogue was easy enough. Advertisements, such as this one appeared in the music press such as New Musical Express and in national Sunday newspapers.
Bell Musical Instruments catalogues were the way in which budding musicians could access the range of new electric and acoustic guitars offered for sale in the UK.
Broadway guitars were well represented in their catalogues until the end of their production in 1963. The Broadway BW1 & 2 appeared in Bell's first catalogue in 1959. The Guyatone factory also produced and exported other electric guitars, which were also equally well represented in the Bell Music catalogues. Besides their house branded Guyatone range, other badged guitars produced by Guyatone included Barclay, Broadway, Coronado, Crestwood, Futurama, Howard, Hi-Lo, Ibanez, Ideal, Imperial, Johnny Guitar, Kent, Kingston, Lafayette, Marco Polo electrics, Montclair, Omega, Orpheus, Prestige, Royalist, Saturn, Silhouette, Silvertone, Vernon, Winston and Zenta. That was a significant range of names produced by a single company!
Bell's promotion of guitars wasn't confined to Guyatone imports. Their catalogues offered Burns, Watkins, Hagstrom, Vox, Fenton-Weill, Rosetti and a whole host of other brands, to whet the appetite of the teenage guitarist! An added incentive to shop at Bell's was the hire purchase availability, which many took full advantage of!
My own Broadway Plectric 1921 was dispatched from Bell Music, along with a copy of the indispensable ‘Play In A Day’ by Bert Weedon, pictured (below, left) and still in production today! Bert Weedon’s tutorial was a major influence on many leading British musicians, including Eric Clapton, Brian May, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend. Bert Weedon OBE sadly passed away in April 2012.
Below:: Front and back covers of the 1963 Bell Musical instruments catalogue.
Above top left: Page 7 of the same 1963 catalogue with the Broadway range of guitars available
Above right & bottom left: Some further pages from Bell Musical Instruments catalogues from the 1960’s, provided by Reg Godwin.
Above bottom right: The Broadway Plectric solids and the Broadway 1857 bass found in the Bell catalogue for 1962, provided by Guy Mackenzie.
Below: Later catalogues of Bell Musical Instruments. The one on the left is from 1973 and on far right from 1968