Louis Electric

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24 Windy City Gems

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“The Supro Ozark features the powerful Valco string-through pickup at the bridge,” Ivankovich says. “It's most famous for being Hendrix’s first electric guitar. Jimi’s was an off-white, 1957 Supro Ozark 1560s that his father bought for him in 1959 at Myers Music in Seattle for $89. This screamer is paired with a rare blue Tolex Supro 1624t amp.”
Photo by Chris McMahon.

Valco
In many ways, Valco’s story is a classic American tale of reinvention, which is to say that separating fact from fiction is difficult and possibly pointless.

We do know this much: Before there was Valco, there was the National Stringed Instrument Corp., a California-based manufacturer of resonator guitars dating back to the ’20s, and the Dobro Manufacturing Co. National created steel-bodied guitars, notably the “tri-cone,” which used three resonating metal cones to amplify the sound, and the “biscuit,” which featured a single resonating cone. Then, as now, guitar players wanted to be heard, and that desire drove the development of these resonator guitars and the electric guitars and the amplifiers that would soon follow.

George Beauchamp, one of National’s founders, is credited by some with creating the “Frying Pan,” an electric lap steel guitar, in 1931 with Adolph Rickenbacker. Rickenbacker had founded Ro-Pat-In Corp., which became Electro String, which eventually evolved into Rickenbacker International Corp. He worked at National, and later at Dobro, and was largely responsible for the production methods that made it possible to mass-produce metal and Bakelite guitar bodies.


“Single-cutaway Valco Res-O-Glas guitars came in many flavors,” Ivankovich says. “The basic models were the Holiday and the Sahara, which evolved into the more elegant Coronado, Val Trol, and Martinique models. The pickups are humbucker sized, but they’re single coils. In the higher-end models, the bridge pickup is the patented Silver Sound pickup, featuring two magnetized poles with the coil in the bridge base. It attempts to deliver an acoustic sound. By today's standards it falls way short of that, but it’s an interesting tone.” Photo by Chris McMahon.

In 1927 or ’28, John Dopyera, another National’s founder, started Dobro Corp. with his four brothers. They also produced resonator guitars and were direct National competitors. (The Dobro features a different resonating device, a single bowl-shaped resonator, which Dopyera developed but kept from National.)

The Dobro name is a mash-up of “Dopyera” and “brother,” and which also means “good” in Slovak, the brothers’ native language. Dopyera retained some National ownership rights and responsibilities, and there was what we would now call “co-opetition” between the companies. They effectively merged in the early ’30s, becoming the National Dobro Co.

Louis Dopyera and employees Victor Smith and Al Frost bought the company around 1934 and renamed it Valco, combining the first letters of the founders’ first names. In 1936 they relocated to Chicago to be near suppliers and other manufacturers, according to Victor Smith, as quoted in Wheeler’s book. Other Dopyeras started other guitar companies in warmer climates.

Using parts from Harmony and Regal (another significant Chicago-based guitar manufacturer), they built wooden-body resonator guitars, Spanish guitars, lap steels, and later, electric guitars and amps. Regal also built resonator guitars using Valco parts, selling them under its own brand. Valco created the Supro brand, applying it to Regal- and Harmony-built student acoustic models. They later used the Supro brand on electrics, amps, and bass guitars. They also introduced the Airline brand, under which they sold the same guitars and through Montgomery Ward.

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