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“This is a 22-inch short-scale guitar with Valco single-coil pickups and a built-in tremolo circuit,” says guitar collector Daniel Ivankovich. “The short scale really adds fatness for open-tuned slide playing. The Valco amp-in-case is about 5 watts and has a similar tube configuration as the Fender Champ. No wonder it sounds so good.
Blues monster all the way!” Photo by Chris McMahon.
Chicago built guitars the way Detroit built cars.
For much of the 20th century, the United States was largely rural and people tended to buy guitars and other musical instruments from catalogs. Chicago’s centrality—with access to the Mississippi River, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and later the rails and highways—made the city a major manufacturing, commercial, and distribution center. It’s no accident that catalog and retail giants Sears, Roebuck & Co. (for many decades America’s largest retailer), Montgomery Ward, Spiegel, and others were founded there, and that these retailers played a critical role in the creation and distribution of guitars, amplifiers, and other musical instruments.
“From the 1930s through the early ’60s, Chicago was the world capital of guitar making,” says Daniel Ivankovich, AKA Chicago Slim, guitarist for the Chicago Blues All-Stars, orthopedic surgeon, and medical director of the OnePatient Global Health Initiative. “National, Supro, Harmony, Kay, Silvertone—they were all made here by the hundreds of thousands.”
Those companies and others headquartered in Chicago shared and swapped parts and designs and sold to the same distributors. Due to the low cost and wide distribution of their instruments, they produced far more guitars than Gibson or Fender. Some of their instruments were of dubious quality, often dismissed as “dime store guitars,” but others were—and are—excellent. More important, the ready availability of these guitars led to their prevalence in blues, country, early rock ’n’ roll, and the British Invasion.
“You can’t deny the influence of Chicago blues and Chicago-built guitars on contemporary rock,” says Ivankovich. “British musicians were enthralled by anything black and from Chicago. When the guys in England heard and saw these blues guys with their crazy guitars and outfits, they were copying every piece.”
Ivankovich has spent decades assembling the collection of Chicago-built guitars featured on these pages, and his vast collection includes all the major Chicago manufacturers and the dozens of brands under which their instruments were marketed. “Those department store guitars were very innovative,” he says, referring to the building materials and manufacturing methods used to mass-produce the comparatively low-cost instruments. “I’ve got picture after picture of artists who played Montgomery Ward guitars because they were affordable. They were everywhere. Maybe there wasn’t a Gibson dealer in your town, but there was a Sears, Roebuck catalog or store.”
“Where else could you find highly figured maple like this at a budget price? The sharp double cutaway is what sets this Airline Barney Kessel Kay apart from other semi-hollow body guitars of the era. Three Kay ‘Kleenex Box’ pickups scream bad-ass versatility and the Dakaware selector switch offers four pickup options, the last of which creates an out-of-phase type tone,” Ivankovich says. Photo by Chris McMahon.
Chicago-built guitars, like the bluesmen who played them, were discounted—until they received third-party validation from England. “Racism and segregation were too pervasive,” says Ivankovich. “In the United States, Hendrix was a prophet without honor. He had to go to England to get discovered. Hendrix started playing on a Supro Ozark. Eric Clapton played a Kay Jazz II and a Thinline. Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and all those guys had various Chicago guitars that they’d seen the blues guys playing. Jimmy Page certainly knew about Supro amps! Those guys were studious, looking at pictures and figuring things out. Half a world away, they were getting Chess 45s, Kay guitars, and Supro amps.”
Let’s take a closer look at some of the Chicago brands that helped shape guitar history.