Funky, Cheap Electrics: Formerly Low End Kitsch... Now Cool Collectibles
From Supro to Tiesco to EKO to Vox, Airline, Harmony, Mosrite and more, we look into the charm and market for cheap, funky vintage electrics.
My name is Bob, and I’m addicted to cheap, funky electric guitars. Oh sure, I love my Les Pauls and the rest of my high-quality guitars, but lately the allure of a good Supro, a cheesy Japanese Teisco, or one of those tacky, plastic-covered Italian EKO guitars has been calling me. Even the “mother-of-toilet-seat” ones are starting to look good. Why is this happening? Maybe it’s because many of these cheaply made, once-maligned pawnshop rejects from the ‘50s and ‘60s are easily obtainable, generally priced right, and after a proper setup and often-needed repairs, play pretty darn well, and with a sound, look and vibe unlike most any high-end guitar. And who wants to look and sound just like everyone else?
Decades ago, this writer got into the vintage guitar game with the purchase of a couple dozen big-name electrics. All are regrettably gone, and today—as the father of two kids with a mortgage, car payments, and the usual dayto- day expenses we all share—high-dollar vintage guitars are way beyond my grasp. I made some serious money on the guitars I sold, and eventually disavowed vintage guitars, but have regained a strong desire to re-enter the arena. The solution was to buy “sleeper” guitars: the cheap, easily affordable stuff. Of course, if I find a ’59 Sunburst Les Paul under a farmer’s bed out in the boonies, I’m not going to turn it down.
So, I started in the usual places: eBay, Craigslist, Vintage Guitar magazine, guitar dealers, various websites that cater to weird guitars, and to collectors like Mike Robinson, owner of Eastwood Guitars, a company that specializes in reproductions of bizarre guitars. I found out quickly there were plenty of choices out there, but as is the case with well-known vintage guitars, the rarer, odd stuff is more costly than commonly found models. Here’s an overview for those of you interested in collecting weird vintage guitars from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Livin’ In The USA
Harmony Guitars of Chicago was by far the largest maker of budget-priced guitars in the US for 83 years. In 1965, Harmony shipped a whopping 350,000 guitars, and sold 10 million guitars between 1945 and 1978, astounding numbers, to say the least. The instruments were sold primarily at Sears and JC Penney, and later by music distributors. Hollowbody electrics like the Rocket are now collectible and favored by blues players, and can normally be had for a fairly reasonable price, unlike their Gibson counterparts from the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Harmony’s earliest solidbody, the Stratotone, a rudimentary instrument also a favorite among blues players, commands big bucks on the collectible market. One mint example recently fetched $1500 on eBay. Harmony, like other American manufacturers of low-end guitars, fell victim to the influx of cheaply made Asian guitars that began to flood the US market in the mid-‘60s. Today, a company in Elk Grove, IL owns the name Harmony, and has begun reissuing some of the company’s better-known electric models.
‘60s Smith (Mosrite) “Mel-O-Bar” with zebra-padded, explorer- shaped body; ‘60s Silvertone Jupiter with black sparkle finish and De Armond pickups.
In 1949, Nat started building amplifiers for Sears and Epiphone, but in 1954 he went into business making guitars under the Danelectro name, while he continued to sell to Sears and later Montgomery Ward under the names Silvertone and Airline. Nat was an expert at producing highly playable guitars for very little money. By the time he sold out to MCA (Music Corporation of America) in 1966, Nat had produced some of the most playable, interesting, and innovative low-budget electric guitars ever made. Hundreds of thousands of kids started with a Danelectro-built guitar, and today, literally every vintage “Dano” is collectible. More common models like the Convertible and the Short Horn are available in their various incarnations, but are becoming harder to find as collectors seemingly hoard old Danos. Rarer models, like the U series guitars in custom colors, the black Short Horn “Jimmy Page” model, the Guitarlin, and Long Horn basses, will set you back serious coin, but you can pick up a vintage Danelectro Convertible or U-1 for under $500, and they make a very good utility guitar.
The National/Valco Company had a long and checkered history that started with the Czechoslovakian Dopyera brothers, who founded the company and invented the Dobro as well as steel-bodied acoustics favored by bluesmen. In the 1950s, Valco produced some of the coolest low-end guitars imaginable. Their USA map-shaped Res-O-Glas guitars have a cult following, and fetch high prices on the vintage market—a fact that frankly baffles this writer, because the guitars were not well constructed, often play poorly, and sound nearly as bad. Fiberglass isn’t exactly conducive to great tone. Valco, however, hit a home run with their wooden-body Supro guitars, originally intended as the company’s budget line. Models such as the Les Paul Junior-like Belmont, its twin-pickup sibling the Dual-Tone, and the early and very basic single-pickup Ozark, have endeared themselves to guitarists worldwide, including Link Wray, Joe Perry, Rory Gallagher, David Bowie and many others. Supros make excellent slide guitars. Valco pickups look like humbuckers, but are actually large single-coil units with a raunchy, distinct tone all their own. Yours truly just recently won a nifty white ’58 Dual-Tone on eBay for $660.
Valco also made Supro-style solidbodies that carried the names Tosca, Bronson, and Dwight, specifically for musical instrument retailers or distributors. These show up on eBay with some regularity, and are quite rare yet surprisingly affordable. And finally, there are the Valco-made Airline guitars, most notably the angular, bright red Res-O-Glas “Jetsons” model made famous by White Stripes’ guitarist Jack White. Originals now sell for high dollars, but you can grab a faithful repro by Eastwood for much less. Also in the USA corner, Kay guitars have attained cult collectability status. Like Harmony, Kay guitars were specifically aimed at the beginner and intermediate market. When Kay attempted to manufacture a high-end instrument for jazz guitarist and endorser Barney Kessel in the 1950s, they were not taken seriously. Today, those Barney Kessel models and their offshoots, with Art Deco “Kelvinator” headstocks and “Kleenex Box” pickups, go for big bucks on the collectible market due to their rarity, but more common models, like the solidbody Vanguard and almost all Kay archtops, are plentiful and inexpensive. In serious financial trouble, Kay was acquired by Valco in 1967, and both companies tanked as a result the influx of Japanese imports in 1969.
Magnatone was a small American company based in Texas. Today, they are more famous for their amplifiers (Stevie Ray Vaughan favored them) than their guitars, which are less well known and never caught on. Paul Bigsby had a hand in designing some of the Magnatone models, which bore names like Typhoon, Starstream, Hurricane and Zephyr. One Magnatone had a distinct Rickenbacker vibe, very similar to the John Lennon 325 Rickenbacker model. A guitar teacher I knew years ago used a guitar like this for years, and all his students wanted to buy it. According to Magnatone collectors, the guitars are well made and highly playable. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is a notable Magnatone collector.
Hailing from San Antonio, TX were Alamo guitars, which are even more obscure than Magnatones. They are very rare and can be compared favorably to certain Danelectro models. Even Gibson got into the low-end act in the ‘60s with their Kalamazoo guitars, whose bodies were manufactured out of mediumdensity pressed fiberboard. The most common Kalamazoo model was styled along the lines of the SG Melody Maker, and used the same pickups. Another resembled the Fender Mustang. Gibson kept the line going into the early 1970s, but it suffered at the hands of cheaper Japanese imports, and Gibson finally tossed in the towel on budget instruments.
The Japanese Connection
Now, let’s look at those infamous, cheesy Japanese guitars from the ‘60s, bearing names like Teisco, Teisco Del-Ray, Jedson, Tulio, Kingston, Lyle, Duke, Heit, Kimberly, Zim-Gar, Apollo, Kent, Norma, and several others, including Silvertone. These “prizes” were manufactured from 1948 until 1969 in the Kawai factory for various music distributors, and are now known as “stencil brands.” The distributor specified the name to be printed on the headstock. Often, there were subtle design variations on guitars, depending upon the distributor’s specifications.
1965 Harmony H 15 Silhouette (later renamed H 15 Bob Kat) with De Armond “Golden Tone” pickups; late-‘60s Vox Folk Twelve Electro; ‘60s Valco/Airline Res-O-Glas model.
During the mid-‘60s, there was a tremendous demand for guitars in the wake of the British Invasion and The Beatles’ success. Some American manufacturers had difficulty producing a truly low-end, inexpensive electric guitar for beginners, so the Japanese filled that niche quite nicely. Many youthful guitarists started on Japanese electrics. Regardless of what it was, if it was made in Japan, it was regarded as cheap junk back then. During the mid-‘70s, the Japanese finally began producing quality guitars, but up until then, the instruments were decidedly inferior in most ways to their American or European counterparts. Of the vintage Japanese names out there, certainly the most well known is Teisco, but as mentioned, you will find many names on these guitars. In addition to the models commonly available in the USA, there were Japanese guitars that rarely made it to this country. Some of them are weird beyond belief.
Teisco/Kawai guitars were generally based loosely on Fender designs, complete with as many as four single-coil Strat-like pickups that were sometimes microphonic, six-on-a-side headstocks, offset-waist body designs and more switches than your mom’s Waring blender. Playability was questionable at best, and the necks varied in thickness from guitar to guitar. This author bought his first electric in 1966, a Teisco of the lowest quality, for a mere $15. Among the most distinctive Teisco models were the May Queen, with its artist’s palette-shaped body, and the Spectrum 5, which has become expensive and desirable, primarily as a result of its use by Eddie Van Halen in one of his group’s MTV videos. More common varieties of Teisco guitars can still be purchased for very little, particularly on eBay, often for under $200. Rarer models usually go for a little more. Blues, punk, and surf guitarists like Teiscos for their raunch appeal and trebly twang. My white Teisco-made Kingston single-pickup axe is a nasty slide guitar. Think Hound Dog Taylor. And the whammy bar is still on there.
1965 ’66 Vox Guitar-organ with power supply; ’66 Goya electric (made in Sweden by Hagstrom) in gold sparkle with Electric and Acoustic buttons, s/n 477/520; Goya “Boombox” Bass Boost pedal and “Attache” briefcase amp (about the size of a backgammon board with brown vinyl covering, 12 watts).
In the ‘60s, the worldwide demand for guitars resulted in instruments produced in all parts of the globe. We can offer only a brief overview of that scene. A detailed listing of electric guitars made around the world could be a book unto itself.
Italy was one of the most prolific producers of weird electrics. Brand names like EKO, Crucianelli, Goya, Meazzi, Galanti, Welson, Bartolini, Davoli, Gemelli, the original Vox guitars, and the wacky but wonderful Wandre guitars, are all collectible today. Of these brands, EKO instruments, distributed in the USA by the LoDuca Brothers of Milwaukee, are the most readily available, and the most common models can be purchased for under well $1000. Many Italian guitar builders also made accordions, so you’ll see heavy use of plastic covering on the guitars, the same type also used on drums. It’s not uncommon to see sparkle tops and various shades of marine pearl on Italian guitars, something that gives them a unique look, not to mention their own tonal characteristics. EKO guitars often came festooned with lots of switches, as many as four pickups, and other examples of strangeness. With some work, EKOs can usually be made to play relatively well, but caveat emptor: EKO quality is decidedly hit and miss, as is the case with most low-budget guitars of the ‘60s. Interestingly, Hanson Guitars of Chicago builds a very convincing replica of the EKO 500 3V-but with a Teisco-style headstock! I’d like to try one out.
The German industrial machine, crippled after World War II, recovered in the ‘50s and produced several brands of guitars that were popular in Europe but largely ignored in the USA, until a certain Paul McCartney popularized the Hofner violin bass. Vintage Hofner six-strings are well made instruments, but they are rare. Hofner guitars are being produced again and have garnered new fans as well as nostalgia nuts. Other German brands were Framus, Hopf, Hoyer, and Dynacord. Bill Wyman played a Framus bass. American guitars were very hard to come by in postwar England due to restrictive import laws, so English guitarists had to make do with inexpensive Euro and Asian imports, as well as their own guitars, with names like Burns, Watkins, Wilson, Fenton-Weill and Hayman. Vox guitars, originally made in Italy and later in Britain, were widely used in the ‘60s—the most famous example being the white Teardrop model played by Brian Jones. All Vox guitars are collectible, but still a bargain compared to American vintage pieces. New Vox guitar models are available today. Burns guitars were also popular in England, and were endorsed by luminaries like The Shadows, the Searchers, and many others. After being out of production for years, Burns Bison guitars were revitalized a few years ago.
Sweden is most famous for their Hagstrom guitars, often Fender-like and moderately priced, but nonetheless high-quality instruments that were somehow relegated to the world of the pawnshop. They were readily available in the USA in the ‘60s, and are being manufactured in Korea today. Bizarre electrics from Western and Eastern Europe, former Iron Curtain countries (check out the hideous Russian-made Tonika guitar) and other countries, are hard to find and far too numerous to list here, but they are generally some of the crudest, most off-the-wall guitars ever made.
Is It Nostalgia?
Flash-forward forty years, and guys like me are buying these once-derided losers for their coolness factor. Why? Nostalgia? That’s certainly part of the equation. In all likelihood, the rush to collect off-brand electrics stems partially from the aforementioned desire for individuality. Let’s face it, high-end instruments are everywhere these days. They’re ubiquitous. No offense to anyone, but some of us want something different that sets us apart from the crowd. Stratocasters and Les Pauls are great, but how many can you handle?
The Experts Check In
Ron Rothman, proprietor of Rothman’s Department Store of Southold, NY, is generally regarded as the world’s leading authority on Harmony guitars. “My experience with these guitars goes back to the early ‘60s,” he reported. “My first guitar was a Harmony acoustic. I would spend hours looking through catalogs from music distributors like Targ & Dinner, Buegeleisen and Jacobson, and C. Bruno that had pages of assorted Harmonys to look at.”
When questioned about why there is so much interest in old Harmony guitars, Ron replied, “They are one of the last affordable vintage USA-made guitars. They are retro, they look cool, and they offer unique-sounding pickups. The H-22 bass is one of the best sounding basses out there. The Richie Valens Stratotone, metal- bound Espanada, and the 3-pickup guitars with all the knobs and switches are desirable. The DeArmond pickups they used give them a unique tone that differentiates them from other major manufacturers. Rockabilly jazz boxes (by Harmony) are popular and sought after.”
Doug Tulloch, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on Danelectros, had this to say: “I bought my first Danelectro, a 1958 model #3011, from a barbershop for $80. This was the late ‘70s. That’s when I fell in love with the brand. The fact that they’re very playable, light, sound great, and built in the USA, was instrumental in my developing an interest in the company and the guitars. Also, back in the day they were cheap! Danos are more desirable and in demand than ever. I recently had the honor of procuring a ’67 Danelectro for Pete Townshend.”
Ben Taylor, co-owner of Southside Guitars of Brooklyn, NY, is a vociferous fan of funky electric guitars. “I became a fan of these guitars when I was living in Portland, Oregon in the 1990s and playing in bands,” he told me. “Oddball guitars were cheap, and they often had cool and unique tone possibilities. I had no interest in playing a Strat or Les Paul, or interest in emulating the sound of guitar gods like Hendrix and Page. Plus, the oddball guitars were super-cool looking.” When asked about the reason for his attraction to weird electrics, he had this to say: “I got into learning about them. So many foreign companies were building guitars in the 1960s. I have enjoyed learning about the different brands, and then trying to find and play them. Many are pretty trashy, but some, like Vox, Hagstrom and Wandre, are very high quality. A relatively large portion of my business comes from the sale of oddball guitars. I really search for them and try to have a large selection at all times. Musicians who want them are trying to find a voice of their own, perhaps something to use on a record that will sound different.”
A recent Burns of London Bison Bass based on the mid-‘60s models; mid-‘60s Klira Twen Star model 162 violin bass; ‘60s Danelectro-made Silvertone electric bass.
Not all guitar dealers think low-end electrics are worth owning. Phil Keller, manager of the guitar department at Alto Music in Middletown, NY commented, “We’re going right down the food chain with these weird guitars from the ‘60s. We used to throw guitars like this in the garbage. You found them hanging in pawnshops all the time and nobody wanted them back then. People are collecting Teiscos because they can’t afford high-dollar electrics.”
Should you decide to explore the possibility of acquiring an oddball electric guitar or two (or more), check out a very informative article titled “Guitar Collecting on a Budget” (by Steven Brown of vintaxe.com) on the website: ToyNfo.com, the Vintage Toy Encyclopedia. It’s an informative starting point for anyone interested in bizarre guitars. A few dealers specializing in weird electrics are: Diamond Strings of Rochester, NY; Southside Guitars of Brooklyn, NY; and Mike Robinson of Eastwood Guitars, who sells selected pieces from his vast collection. Other dealers can be located online. There is a good deal of information about unusual electric guitars available on the internet, including these websites: voxshowroom. com; fetishguitars.com; cheesyguitars.com; myrareguitars.com; burnsguitarmuseum.com, lordbizarre.com; sovietguitars.com, and vintaxe.com. There are many others as well.
The author wishes to thanks Doug Tulloch, Ron Rothman, Mike Robinson, Ben Taylor, and Phil Keller for their participation. Belated thanks to the late Nat Daniel, a man I wish I’d had the pleasure of knowing.
The photographer wishes to thank Russell Pompeo of Moonlight Music, 467 S. Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA, for carte blanche permission to shoot photos in his store. All photographs for this article, except the pawnshop façade, were taken at Moonlight Music.