Ted McCarty. Genius or very talented genius?


by Tim from Tym Guitars

In 1936, Theodore Milson McCarty began a career that combined his degree in commercial engineering with his passion for music. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati he ended up working for the Wurlitzer Co. as an accountant and quickly moved to director of purchasing for the companies retail section. In 1949, McCarty became vice president and general manager at Gibson, becoming president in 1950. He remained President until 1966. This period has become known as Gibson’s “golden age” of electric guitars and his genius and attention to detail as both a company president and an engineer is what is so amazing about him.

After coming on board McCarty was quick to start contributing to Gibson with the development of a new pickup attachment that was designed to electrify an archtop guitar without losing it’s acoustic tone. The attachment would also increase the potential number of Gibson electric guitars available since the attachment could easily and inexpensively be attached to just about any arch-top acoustic. This unit was to become known as the McCarty Pickup/Pickguard as found on the ES-300.


McCarty’s and Gibson’s best-known design is probably the Les Paul model. Designed in conjunction with Les, it had a solid mahogany body with a carved and bound maple “cap” which gave it a very expensive and traditional look. It had a set mahogany neck and rosewood fretboard with inlays and binding. It was introduced in 1952, as the now famous “Gold Top” with P-90’s and originally a trapeze tailpiece that had some design problems and was replaced by the wrap-around bridge/tailpiece (which in my humble opinion is still THE BEST bridge design you can get for tone on a solid body guitar) in 1954. This bridge was further developed into the McCarty designed Tune-o-matic bridge system, which was fitted immediately to the new Custom model in ‘54, which was all black with an all mahogany body and more binding and inlays. In ’56 the whole line, except the new junior and special models got the new bridge along with another one of McCarty’s improvements, the humbucker pick up. The humbucker (which was VERY similar to a unit Ray Butts had designed for Paul Bigsby that was later used on Gretsch guitars, but that’s another story) was in fact designed by a VERY talented electronics designer named Seth Lover who worked for Gibson at the time. This last version of the Gold Top culminated in the now classic and mythical Les Paul Standard, or Sunburst, in 1958. This is one of the most highly sought after solid body guitars in the world.

(Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top’s infamous ‘Pearly Gates’ 1959 Les Paul Standard)

Never one to rest, and with the upstart Fender Musical instruments out in California slowly taking some of his market, McCarty started to design a “semi hollow” guitar which would have the sustain of a solid-body electric, with the warmth and “fullness” of a hollow body. The ES-335 was created with both a central block running the length of the guitar and hollow wings. This model went on to become the 345 and 355 as the top of the line with binding and inlays similar to a Les Paul Custom and with stereo outputs.


In 1958 McCarty was tired of people calling Gibson conservative and set about designing 3 futuristic guitars based on simple geometric shapes that would blow their minds. Gibson shocked the industry when the company unveiled the Flying V, Explorer and Moderne (maybe, but that’s another story) at the 1958 NAMM trade show. These 3 guitars were made of Korina (Limba) wood, which wasn’t used in guitar construction at that point but was similar to mahogany in weight and density but much more pale in colour. They were far too radical for a conservative market and bombed and were dropped within a couple of years. They are now some of the most collectable solid body guitars on the market (see a pattern starting here?)


While these new designs were too far ahead of their time, the company’s next solid body and replacement for the now slow selling Les Paul model, the SG, found better acceptance. Les didn’t like the shape of the SG and this, together with his contract expiring, forced Gibson to remove any mention of Les Paul on the guitar. It wouldn’t be until a bunch of pasty English “blues” players cottoned onto the Les Paul standard in the mid ‘60’s that Gibson would eventually re-issue the carve top Les Paul in ’68. During that period, Gibson did not make a Les Paul guitar.

In 1963 McCarty introduced another design that has become iconic in the guitar world. Although he didn’t design this one, he hired an auto designer named Ray Dietrich to design another futuristic but subtler guitar to compete with the Fender Jazzmaster in looks. Named the Firebird because of its original bright red finish, it used a new “mini” humbucker borrowed from the Epiphone range that McCarty had just purchased for Gibson and was starting to use as an alternative to dealers who didn’t sell Gibson (but that really is another story).


Due to the fact that it had been designed by an outside source who knew little about guitar building and the fact that it had a neck through design made up of 5 pieces of mahogany with 4 pieces of walnut laminated for strength, it was expensive to build and by ’65 it was revised to the new “non reverse” version with glued in neck like other Gibsons.

Although surrounded by a very talented and hard working team, all of these designs and ideas from this one man is why his time as Gibson president is known as the “Golden Age” as most of his inventions are now industry standards being used by Gibson and their competition. Put that together with the fact that he is also responsible for increasing Gibsons production from 5,000 guitars a year in 1950, to more than 100,000 a year when he left 16 years later and IMPROVING quality control along the way, you can see why I admire this man so much. For me he’s up there with Semie Moseley, Paul Bigsby, Roger Rossmeisl, Travis Bean and Paul Barth, among others as one of the most outstanding and fearless guitar designers of his time, AND he drove a company to bigger and better things along the way.

In 1966 McCarty retired from Gibson and became President of the Bigsby Company. 

McCarty died in April 2001, at the age of 91.