Chicago Musical Instruments: What Did This Company Bring To Music?

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 26, 2022

Always the latest guitar gear & tricks?

Subscribe to THE newsletter for aspiring guitarists

We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy

hi there I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

Chicago Musical Instruments Co. (CMI) was a musical instrument distributor, notable in that had controlling interests in Gibson Guitars from 1944 to 1969, Lowrey, F. E. Olds brass instruments, William Lewis & Son Co. (stringed instruments), Krauth & Beninghoften, L.D. Heater Music Company, Epiphone Guitars, Selmer UK, and other musical instrument brands.



Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) was one of the most influential and innovative companies in the development of electric musical instruments. The firm was founded in 1927 in Chicago, Illinois and revolutionized music with the introduction of its amplified guitar-like stringed instruments, beginning with the Fender Electric guitar. By targeting teenage instrument buyers, selling instruments through department stores instead of music shops, offering budget models for amateur players, and launching a national advertising campaign targeting teen audiences on radio and in print media, CMI fostered a new kind of instrument player – teenagers who wanted to use electric insturments to create their own ‘rock and roll’ rhythms. CMI changed the face of American music forever by introducing an entirely new generation to the joys of playing electric guitars and other electric instruments.

CMI made several other key contributions to popularize electric instruments around 1950, including production-line manufacturing techniques; amplifier designs that increased volume without radical distortion; modestly priced student models (for example, its Student Series guitars); distribution strategies that allowed accessibilty to consumers; lower prices ensured by economy-of-scale production methods; ‘pleasing’ physical designs aimed at attracting teenagers; improvements in pickup single-coil technology during this period too (Eric Clapton famously used a Stratocaster on his seminal Layla album); advances in amplifier design that minimized distortion while delivering greater volume levels; public relations campaigns via magazine articles and product endorsements by popular artists. CMI’s innovations transformed pre-existing folk music throughout America into modern rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today.

History of Chicago Musical Instruments

Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) has been producing musical instruments since the early 1900s. Their mission was to create quality instruments that were accessible to musicians of all levels. The company was responsible for a number of iconic instruments, such as the first electronic drum machine and the first guitar synthesizer. Let’s explore the history of this company and the contributions that it has made to the world of music.

Founded in 1883

Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) was founded in 1883 by Lyon and Healy, a group of music dealers from Chicago who wanted to expand their product line of sheet music and musical supplies. The company quickly gained national attention for its production of high-quality pianos and organs as well as its innovative player piano designs.

Throughout the years, CMI would continue to innovate and set new standards in the music industry. In 1925, they developed the first electric pick-up device that could be connected to existing instruments (such as mandolins and guitars) allowing them to be amplified. This technology allowed performers to play venues such as arenas where previously acoustic instruments may not have been loud enough. The company also developed the first full-size orchestral string bass which had a larger body and longer string length for deeper tones.

In 1929 CMI acquired Mele Brothers Music Company in Los Angeles which expanded its reach beyond just acoustic instruments into electronic organ sales, giving them a variety of digital models in both church organ & theatre pipe organ markets. During this same time frame fretted instruments such as lap steels, banjos & mandolins were also added into their product lines along with amplifiers, reverb units & recorders during 1940s through 1960s.

Over 100 years later what is now Gibson Brands continues to carry on many aspects of CMI’s legacy through owning several companies including Epiphone Guitars (which was acquired by Gibson in 1957), Mandolin Brothers (acquired by Gibson in 2001), Baldwin Piano & Organ Company (acquired by Gibson in 2001) as well as several other musical products brands associated with certain manufacturers such as Maestro products from National/Valco Industries or Dobro Resonator Guitars from Astro Amp Manufacturing Company which still carries on many of the design principles established by original versions that were produced under names like Lyon & Healy or Harmonium back during time that was co-owned between CMI & Ditson Music Stores during early 1900s until approximately 1924.

Early Years

Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) was a musical instrument and electronics company best known for the production of guitars, amps and music keyboards. Their sound has become an integral part of the history and evolution of modern popular music.

Founded in 1883 by Theodore Wulschner along with a few German workers in Chicago, Illinois, their workshop soon became famous for its quality workmanship. Early production under the “CMI” label included pianos as well as banjos, musical boxes and several other types of stringed instruments. In 1893, CMI’s staff had grown to 18 employees with three factory locations in New York City, Nashville and Chicago.

By 1921 CMI had become one of the largest manufacturers of instruments with over 1,000 employees producing more than 27 different models including the shako-keys player piano and Venetian harpsichord. It revived some older European stringed instruments styles such as bow-back lutes, bowed psalterys, viols/violas de gamba and galoubet bund frets which they also began to manufacture at this time while also increasing their production capabilities to include amplifiers during this decade.

Throughout the 1930s CMI heavily marketed their reed organs as well as newer amplifiers to churches while producing new lines of electric screens used in pipe organs at movie theaters which eventually ushered in a new era for professional musicians who were beginning to rely on electrically amplified instruments. With marketing campaigns centered around Vaudeville acts featuring jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong playing Gibson lap steels produced by CMI during this decade it was certainly an exciting time for American music fans looking for fresh sounds from big-name stars like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra who would use CMI’s pianos or electronic keyboards on stage throughout their careers later on as well .

Expansion in the 20th Century

The 20th century saw Chicago Musical Instruments expanding its business offerings and innovating in the world of music production. This period of growth began with the purchase of a German manufacturer, who became the Chicago’s Piano Company, and the expansion of their own production lines, which manufactured organs and accordions. With their increased capabilities and expertise, they began to produce various radios, amplifiers, and even a short-lived piano line.

In addition to the production of consumer electronics and musical equipment, Chicago also produced some of their own instruments including reeds for brasswind instruments and recorders. After WWII, they released an electric guitar in 1949 that proved to be a success due to its affordability for consumers. The company was renamed CMI (Chicago Musical Instruments) in 1950 and was quickly acquired by CBS corporation after only two years due to its quick success within the market despite its modest beginnings in 1883.

CMI continued producing musical instruments under CBS until it was eventually sold off in 1985. Under CBS ownership, CMI released several guitars such as Les Paul models like P-90s reissues as well as more popularized models like the SG Special in 1968 before ceasing production entirely by 1969. Despite no longer offering new instruments since 1970s, CMI revived their iconic SG Special model based on designs from 1968 as well as new ones currently produced under Epiphone which continues to pay tribute to one of American’s oldest music companies established over 100 years ago that continues bring joys through sound despite everything else going on around us worldwide today.

Products and Innovations

Chicago Musical Instruments, or CMI, was an American musical instrument manufacturing company founded in 1878. CMI is well known in the music world for their innovative products and they are regarded as one of the most influential companies in the music industry. In this section, we will be looking at some of their key contributions to the music world and examining the products and innovations they brought to the industry.

Acoustic Guitars

The Chicago Musical Instruments company was founded in the late 1890s and was a manufacturer of various fretted instruments, including many types of guitars. Among their most popular creations were their acoustic guitars which featured innovations such as laminated pressed sides, x-braced bodies and adjustable necks. The quality craftsmanship and advancements that these signature acoustic guitars provided set them apart from the competition, making them some of the most sought after instruments by professional and amateur guitarists alike.

Furthermore, the Chicago Musical Instruments company had other significant accomplishments, such as producing some of the first electric solid body basses in 1936. This new type of instrument heralded a whole new era of music production and performance, one that continues to this day. With their high level of craftsmanship and creative innovations in guitar design, Chicago Musical Instruments was certainly an important force in shaping the sound of modern music.


Chicago Musical Instruments is best known for its innovative amplifiers, many of which would go on to become standard industry equipment. Their first amplifier, the “CMI Special” was released in 1932 and boasted a 12-in x 12-in speaker. One of their most popular amplifiers was the 1937 “Ottoman Stand” amp. This was extremely popular as it allowed for side-by-side placement on the stage, saving valuable space.

CMI produced a number of amps for guitar and bassists during their reign, but it wasn’t just amplifiers that defined CMI’s legacy in music production. They also introduced various soundproofing techniques to their designs that allowed the sound from their amps to project more clearly throughout a room or hall without losing volume or quality due to reverberation and feedback. Their renowned “Stringtone Cabinet” enabled players to blend multiple tones within one cabinet with impressive clarity when compared to other models of the time.

In addition, they were well known for their rotary speakers which featured rotating circular speakers encased in cabinets that truly showcased the power and potential of CMI’s amps. To this day, some players prefer these over more modern options due to how they interact with different kinds of tones and styles. In particular, harmonica players often use rotary speakers with great success as harmonica may have feedback problems when amplified through regular speaker cabinets.

Electric Guitars

Chicago Musical Instruments was an iconic instrument manufacturer that was responsible for introducing a number of remarkable electric guitars. In 1950, CMI introduced the ES-175; this guitar featured two parallel pickups, a solid body and stoptail bridge, and a semi-hollow design which allowed for a richer sound than most solid body guitars.

This guitar became one of the most popular jazz guitars on the market. It has gone unchanged since its introduction and is used in performances from all genres of music. CMI also introduced the Stratocaster in 1954, featuring three pickups and an innovative design that enabled musicians to change pickups with great ease. It has become one of the most popular guitars in history, used by countless professional performers across many genres.

CMI also developed some more obscure instruments; pre-Gibson Les Paul models were designed between 1952 and 1958 using CMI’s own specifications. They were not as successful as Gibson’s later version but they were highly sought after by collectors due to their rarities and vintage features. Other less notable programs included production of basses such as the 352/3 Bass V and 335 bass models leading up to 1964 when competition had become too intense for CMI to remain competitive in electric instrument production.


Chicago Musical Instruments was a key innovator in the keyboard production industry. Over its 30-year life, the company produced classic keyboards such as the Wurlitzer Electric Piano and Mellotron, both of which are credited with bringing a whole new level of creativity to musicians in the 1960s. The Wurlitzer was one of the first electric pianos, while the Mellotron made possible new sounds through its innovative use of prerecorded tapes.

The company also released several lesser-known but popular models such as spinet organs, combo organs and string machines. The spinet organ was a type of upright organ that allowed for smaller physical framework than traditional organs such as those found in churches. Combo organs used electronic oscillators to imitate other instruments like wooden pipe organs and flutes. String machines were an early type of synthesizer designed to emulate orchestral string sections.

The technology Chicago Musical Instruments produced revolutionized both popular music and studio recording techniques throughout the 20th century and provided creativity tools which contemporary musicians still use today.


Chicago Musical Instruments, once known as Wm. Lang Company was founded in 1866, and throughout its more than 140-year history has been innovating and creating modern drums.

The first key product in the drum department at Chicago Musical Instruments was designed by A.J. Heublein and Elias Howe in 1882 – the “Patent Improved” snare drum (there are no known specimens of this drum remaining). This early iteration from CMI represented a drastic change in snare drum design, with two parallel tension rods instead of standard hoops and a teardrop-shaped shell made from multi-ply wood or metal components that encased the open ends of the two tension rods for superior sound quality.

In 1911, another breakthrough product came from Chicago Musical Instruments – their patented “Improved Stave Tube” tomtom design. This version featured both solid vertical sides as well as a hollow center made up of curved staves that allowed for controlled resonance when struck like a conventional tomtom drum.

Throughout the 20th century, Chicago Musical Instruments continued to innovate with milled aluminum shells like their legendary 1965 Super Sensitone drums being renowned by professional musicians worldwide due to their perfect tone and feel. CMI also led breakthroughs in electronic drums throughout this time period too with innovations like their 1980 Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) – the world’s first synthesized wind MIDI controller capable of producing realistic bassoon sounds!

Effects Pedals

Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) played an important role in the development of musical technology, particularly with effects pedals.

Developed by the company’s founders, Donles and Leonard, their first effects pedal was called the “Sound Master.” This pedal offered a reverberating effect, allowing guitar players to simulate studio recordings on stage. They also created a fuzz box known as the Solodar Tone Generator and several reverb pedals like the Super Vox. All of these effects pedals have heavily influenced rock and roll music as we know it today.

CMI’s next big contribution to music was their introduction of analog synthesisers in 1967 with their keyboard-driven “Synthesizer Control Voltage Generator” (the SCV). This instrument allowed players to control other elements such as pitch and amplitude when playing together with other instruments in an ensemble setting – this was an important innovation that revolutionized how people composed music.

Their most far reaching legacy came with their Universal Audio 1176 Limiting Amplifier. This legendary unit is still highly regarded and a staple in recording studios all over the world. It’s also been featured on many recordings by musical giants such as Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Prince, Led Zeppelin and many more – helping shape popular music for generations to come!


Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) was a major force in the music industry from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through their innovative products, such as the Hammond Organ and the Wurlitzer Electric Piano, CMI helped to shape popular music for decades. CMI’s legacy lives on through the musical instruments that still bear their name. Let’s take a closer look at their legacy and how it shaped the music industry.

Impact on the Music Industry

Founded in Chicago, Legacy Musical Instruments is a company that revolutionized the music industry. From the invention of the electronic guitar to their ongoing production of musical instrument parts, Legacy has brought numerous innovations to modern music.

The most notable of these inventions is their industry-leading electric guitar. The design was revolutionary for its time and revolutionized how modern music would be played and produced. This particular brand of electric guitar quickly gained popularity within the blues musician community and evolved into being a popular choice among rock, jazz, and country musicians as well.

Legacy continues to innovate today, producing some of the highest quality musical instruments in existence as well as parts that many renowned musicians use in concert touring and other events. Their commitment to delivering top-notch instruments has led them to hold several patents on both sound technology and instrument construction techniques.

The impact that Legacy Musical Instruments has had on the advancement of music is undeniable. For over five decades they have continued their dedication to bringing efficient instruments with impeccable sound quality to all levels of musicians across all genres. To this day, they are still one of the most respected companies within the music industry today and continue to be pioneers in music technology as a whole.

Influence on Modern Music

Legacy was a major innovator in the musical instrument industry, particularly in the creation of woodwinds and brass instruments. Their products have had an immense impact on modern musical culture, producing some of the most iconic pieces that are still in use today. The company produced a wide range of models that could be used by beginners as well as professionals — from student level horns to concert grade orchestral pieces.

They were best known for their high quality brass and woodwind instruments, which continue to be some of the most sought after today. They created iconic models like their BBb tuba and flugelhorns, several pocket cornet models, as well as a range of saxophones and clarinets. Along with their winds, Legacy also produced exceptional trombones, among other brass pieces .

Legacy’s influence on modern music can also be seen in the evolution of many popular genres from jazz to classical music. The company was one of the pioneers who helped introduce electric instruments into small ensembles — a trend that has now become ubiquitous across all genres. Their legacy continues onwards even after its Dissolution in 1986 through their unique craftsmanship and timeless designs whose reverberations can still be heard today around the world.


Chicago Musical Instruments, better known as CMI, was the world leading manufacturer of musical instruments and related products during their 61-year run from 1906 to 1967. During this time, they pushed the boundaries of what was possible in terms of launching new and innovative product lines. The company launched its own versions of violins, guitars, instruments for European orchestras and organs that included electric organs. Through their extensive research, development and production efforts CMI introduced a vast range of products that made a lasting mark on music history.

The impact of the Chicago Musical Instruments Company goes beyond just developing new technology and designs. CMI had always been ahead of the curve in terms of being one of the first companies to market and advertise heavily to musicians around the world – prompting more musicians all over the world to start playing instruments. Through their advertising campaigns musicians were given new knowledge about different ways to play instruments which in turn enabled them to become better players and performers overall. In addition to helping popularize playing music, CMI also contributed greatly by creating training methods aimed at helping people learn how to play musical instruments faster and easier. This had an invaluable effect on music education as a whole which ultimately resulted in us currently having access to advanced teaching methods that help future generations progress faster than ever before.

All things considered, it is no surprise why Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) remains highly regarded today by many industry experts not only for its contribution towards manufacturing top-notch musical products but also for its impact on how renowned performers prefer to use these products when performing or creating music worldwide.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

Microphone gain vs volume Subscribe