You know that feeling you get from picking up an empty milk carton that you thought was full? That is what picking up the Danelectro '59 Original felt like when I first picked it up. That feeling was an excellent reminder of the brand's legacy. Danelectro began as a budget guitar—a Sears and Roebuck guitar (under the name Silvertone) whose case doubled as an amplifier. Of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover—or in this case, by origin and first impressions. After all, Danelectros have been found in the hands of Jeff Beck Jimi Hendrix, Derek Trucks, and, perhaps most famously, Jimmy Page. So, I knew that there should be some interesting tones waiting to be discovered.
There is an amazing moment in the rock doc It Might Get Loud
when Jimmy Page straps on his Danelectro (an original hybrid of a 3021 double-cut body and another Danelectro with modifications) and casually goes into that immortal “Kashmir” riff. The tone coming from the instrument and Jimmy's casual playing is nothing short of stupendous, and it made me eager to play one. The ’59 Original sent to me is a recent reissue based on the original 3021 model.
The finish is white with gold hardware, with the classic Danelectro hard-tail bridge and rosewood saddle and vintage-style tuners. Danelectro also offers a '59 Modified Black in the same line which is closer to the Jimmy Page instrument. The primary difference between the two models is the Modified has a more robust 'stop-type' tailpiece and an adjustable bridge. Otherwise, they are essentially the same guitar. The '59 Original's body is semi-hollow with a plywood frame and Masonite top, hence its unbelievably light weight of just over six pounds. The bolt-on maple neck is C-shaped and has a double acting truss rod. Scale is 25" with 21 frets and a rosewood fretboard. It also features the “Coke bottle” headstock and the classic 'seal' shape pickguard, giving the guitar a totally vintage look.
Out of the box, the ’59 Original was in desperate need of tuning. When tuned to the standard EBGDAE, I had to retune the guitar a couple times a session, but tuned to DADGAD, it locked on and rarely wavered.
My initial instincts were to be careful, as I didn't want to accidentally break a knob or tweak the neck by playing too robustly—that is how the guitar feels compared to pretty much any electric guitar I've ever played, with the exception of a Teisco. The neck is on the narrow side but also thick—at least thicker than a Les Paul and somewhat thinner than the vintage reissue Fenders. It is not fast by any stretch of the imagination. Eventually I grew accustomed to its quirky funkiness, and that's when I started enjoying it.
Embracing the Rawness
I have to say, playing this guitar made me smile. In our world of $5000 customs, $3000 Les Pauls, and the oh-so-beautiful Paul Reed Smiths, it was very satisfying to play an inexpensive, unrefined guitar. Its inelegance reminded me that rock and roll was never supposed to be pretty. It was, and is, the music of the voiceless rabble—the lowly of birth, if I may cop a Stones lyric. Something happened (I think it was the ‘80s) where prestige became a component of the music industry. Guitar heroes, like classical music virtuosos, became affiliated with prestigious and outrageously expensive instruments—from ‘56 Strats to the aforementioned Paul Reed Smith works of art. The Danelectro screams raucously, "to hell with prestige!"
Guitars are usually 'shes,' but the Danelectro is definitely an 'it.' And when playing it distorted there is this totally wild, round growl on the low end that made me want to solo on the wound strings. More than that, I found myself writing songs on it using the low E and A strings on the first five frets—nothing like instrument-based inspiration. At reasonably hi-gain settings, the guitar leaped into feedback every time I moved my right hand away from the strings. The feedback evaporated as quickly as it started when I returned my hand. Clean and with the volume wide open, the sustain lasted as long as my Strat—not bad for a plywood guitar. While there was a dash of bells in the sustain tones, it was also somewhat murky. I believe this is due to the pickups being on the hot side since rolling back the volume cleaned up the murkiness, perhaps at the expense of sustain. When played dirty, however, it aggressively sang out long and prominent.
Nuts, Bolts and Lipstick Tubes
This model has lipstick-tube alnico single coils in the bridge and neck. I rarely used the bridge pickup by itself, as it was a little too thin on its own. The neck pickup, which is actually a couple inches away from the neck, sounded midrang-y but with good single-coil cut. Using both pickups together kept the highs bright and warm and added enough bottom to allow me to play with the tone controls wide open. The pickups are wired in series so when using both together they cancel hum while fattening up the tone. Two sets of screws on the back of the guitar allow you to adjust pickup height a slight degree.
Both pickups are hotter than average as previously noted, and each has its own stacked pair of concentric knobs—one volume and one tone. The knobs are lightweight and feel a little bit like something from an old portable radio circa 1970. I had to slightly separate the neck pickup's knobs so that turning tone did not also turn volume, which later resulted in the adjusted knob coming loose with some spirited playing.
The Final Mojo
As proven by the long list of famous Danelectro players, Danelectro's usefulness extends beyond trashy-but-musical genres. From rockabilly to grunge, and classic punk to classic country, the Dano has the potential to bring the goods. In two-guitar lineups, its boisterousness provides a nice juxtaposition to more sophisticated guitar tones. No doubt, the alnico bar magnet pickup design coupled with the resonance of the body is a large part of the reason why. The guitar simply sounds interesting in a tonally rich, yet non-elegant way. It sustains nicely, feels good enough, and—best of all—inspires creativity.
On practically any other guitar, the flaws mentioned above would be unacceptable, but on the Danelectro, they add character and made me play with a totally different approach. I solo'd differently, I jammed differently, I even wrote differently. Accidental noises from picks or fingers that sound like string farts on elegant instruments actually sound musical on the Danelectro. It is a guitar that does not need to be played with great precision to sound good.
Though Danelectro's history and artist roster is part of the company’s legacy, the name might never have the respect Fender, Gibson and a handful of other guitar makers command. And they probably don't care—these guitars just want to be played.
At $349, buy two, because you might break one in a moment of orgiastic inspiration. Also a must-have if you play “Kashmir” in your band.
prestige matters to you or you’re in the market for an all-purpose instrument.