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Weird Guitars: Vintage Freak Show

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Eko 500/4V
Back in the ’90s I ‘d occasionally come across old Italian electrics like this well-worn Eko, shining like crazy neon signs among the “super strats” and SGs on shop walls. Many players considered these throwaway instruments, so you could buy them really cheap as novelties. Otherwise, they’d just sit there, collecting dust for eternity.

Italian imports were flooding the American market in the 1960s. Perhaps the most famous brand was Eko, which was located in Recanati, Italy. American guitarists were offered a huge assortment of Eko models, almost all imported by the Lo Duca Brothers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Eko founder and president Oliviero Pigini ushered in electric guitar production around 1960. Eko electric guitars featured many novel design features, with the bodies and necks often covered in colorful celluloid and sparkle finishes. This Eko is listed in a 1964 catalog as an Eko Model 500/4V. The faux-wood-grained celluloid covering is called “Hazel,” and the back has a dark, burl-like look.

The 500’s pushbutton switching—inspired by accordion designs—offers some interesting pickup combinations. The catalog describes them this way: “M-Full Guitar (all pickups), 1-Jazz (neck), 4-Twang, 1+4-Take Off, 2+3 Full Rhythm, O-Off.” The four patented, alnico 5 single-coils have plenty of clarity and snap. Some Eko enthusiasts note subtle differences between similar-looking pickups on different Eko models, and they often resort to counting the number of tiny metal “blades” in an effort to account for the differences. Which versions are best remains debatable, but my favorite examples tend to sound punchy, with lots of output, almost like a hot Stratocaster pickup. While not designed for dive-bombing, the tremolo is also quite good, with a smooth, rolling action.

Some of Eko’s extreme designs inspired the era’s Japanese makers. American importers, always trying to outsell the competition, often requested close copies of Eko guitars, and soon Eko had a hard time competing. Eko was nearly squeezed out of the American market, though the company managed to survive the lean late ’60s and continued to make quality guitars in Italy until 1985. Since then, R&D for Eko guitars has been carried out at the Italian headquarters, while the guitars are built in China and Czech Republic.

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