The vintage Diamond models offer kitsch—and a strange charm.
I’ve had so many guitars pass in and out of my house that I often forget some of the cool little gems that I’ve owned. And I mention gems because, during a recent pawnshop crawl, I happened upon one of the cool, old Aria Diamond guitars with the rhinestone “gem” inlay. Finding these Diamond guitars back in the day was like hitting the guitar lottery! You just felt lucky with a diamond-head guitar.
Most players probably associate the Aria and Arai name with high-quality electrics from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Some of the later Aria Pro guitars are the stuff of legend and were made with the finest wood by the finest builders in the city of Matsumoto. But of course, I flock towards the kitschy diamond. Give me the cheap stuff!
I actually met the owner of Aria, Shiro Arai, back in 2015 when I visited the Aria factory. There was a small retail store/museum out in front, and as I entered, there was Arai plucking on a classical guitar. We began talking and sat there for a few hours in a lounge area. Guitar playing was a passion for him, and unlike many other guitar-factory founders, he could actually read music and was an accomplished player. He also had several vintage classical guitars displayed there, and man … did he have a cool collection. He also smiled a lot, which is a quality I look for in people these days. He was living a joyful existence, surrounded by the things he loved.
Aria guitars were always decent instruments out of the box, and that was mainly because, as a player himself, Arai felt it was important to have good quality control and good setups from the factory.
Arai started his company back in 1956 as a general import/export business, but soon he was focusing almost exclusively on guitars. He even became the Japanese importer of major guitar brands such as Framus, Guild, Rickenbacker, and Epiphone. Aria guitars were always decent instruments out of the box, and that was mainly because, as a player himself, Arai felt it was important to have good quality control and good setups from the factory. As a youth in the ’80s, I used to see tons of Aria guitars, and they seemed rather popular.
Using Aria as his company brand name, Arai utilized the famous Matsumoku factory for just about all his electric guitars. The earliest Aria electrics appeared around 1966, and several models featured the ultra-cool diamond logo, complete with a faux gem! From the get-go, Aria guitars were almost all copies or models that drew design inspiration from Gibson, Fender, Mosrite, Höfner, and Rickenbacker. But hidden at the low end of the price range was the strange 1532T. With an offset design, a sweeping lower bout, and exaggerated double cutaways, the guitar was unlike any other Aria guitar. This weirdo lasted into the 1970s, when almost every Japanese electric maker was focused on copies.
The 1532T has 21 frets and a Gibson scale. Aside from the body design, most of the components are standard Matsumoku fare. The two pickups are fine-sounding units—powerful single-coils that sound phenomenal. It’s operated with one volume and one tone knob, and its pickup switch is a 3-way toggle. The adjustable bridge works well, but sometimes has some sort of hard-plastic string guides. What really shines on these 1532T guitars is the tremolo, which was used on this model and the Mosrite copies (dubbed as the 1702T). Among the 1960s Japanese electric guitar makers, tremolo units were not that great as a whole. But this unit on the 1532T is fantastic, with great touch sensitivity and return (maybe it was those plastic bridge saddles?).
I think I’ve only owned a few other Diamond guitars, but that recent pawnshop visit reminded me how fun it is to find cool, old stuff. You gotta get out there, people! Maybe you’ll hit the lottery? You never know.
On The Late Show, Louis Cato Steps to the Front
The self-described “utility knife” played drums with John Scofield and Marcus Miller and spent time in the studio with Q-Tip before landing on Stephen Colbert’s show as a multi-instrumentalist member of the house band. Now, he’s taken over as the show’s guitar-wielding bandleader and is making his mark.
It’s a classic old-school-show-biz move: Bring out the band, introduce them one by one, and build up the song to its explosive beginning. It’s fun, dramatic, audiences love it, and that’s how every The Late Show with Stephen Colbert taping starts.
By this time, us audience members have been sitting in Manhattan’s chilly Ed Sullivan Theater for about 90 minutes. We’ve gotten our seats, had a bathroom break after getting settled, and had some fun with warm-up comic Paul Mecurio. The first musician summoned by announcer Jen Spyra is drummer Joe Saylor. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, he jogs out, gets behind the kit, and kicks off an up-tempo second-line groove. Next comes upright bassist Endea Owens and percussionist Nêgah Santos. The band’s trumpeter, Jon Lampley, is introduced, and he’s brought along his bandmates in the Huntertones as guests, so saxophonist Dan White and trombonist Chris Ott come out as well.
Louis Cato feat. Stay Human "Look Within"
The multitalented Louis Cato leads the Stay Human band through a special rooftop performance of his song “Look Within,” from his album, Starting Now.
The audience is now on its feet, the band’s pocket is thick, and the energy is building. When bandleader Louis Cato charges onstage, he reaches his mic on the bandstand and shouts, “I feel good today!” with explosive enthusiasm and a big grin, and the band launches into Jon Batiste’s “I’m from Kenner.” Cato sings the catchy and gleeful refrain: “I feel good, I feel free, I feel fine just being me / I feel good today.” And the audience is feeling the love. Almost everyone is bouncing and clapping along.
A couple minutes in, when it seems like the song has reached its super-positive-vibe, high-energy climax, Cato shouts into his mic, “How do you feel today, Stephen?” And with that, Colbert comes running out from the middle of the set. Cato leaps from the bandstand toward the host as the crowd explodes. The two grab hold of each other and attempt to spin around, but the bandleader, holding his black-sparkle Tuttle T-style, loses his grip and goes sliding across the shiny stage. There’s a second where both are comically stunned—Kevin McCallister Home Alone-expressions on both of their faces—but Cato quickly jumps to his feet, both he and his guitar unharmed, and runs back to the bandstand, where he keeps the song moving along with his bandmates, who haven’t missed a beat.
All this excitement isn’t even for the TV audience! Colbert is coming out for the un-televised pre-show Q&A. In a few minutes, they’ll do a new taped intro that looks more like what we see every night. But they’ve gotten the crowd energized, and we need to keep it up. They need our energy to do their jobs.
The Late Show Band welcomes a lot of guests up on the bandstand. Here, Cato and Joe Walsh boogie down.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
As Cato sees it, that’s what his role as bandleader is all about: keeping the audience engaged and amplifying the drama and action of the show. “That translates to the energy that the viewers get at home,” he explains. “For all of us here, we’re able to feed off that energy and do the best possible show that we all can.”
Colbert agrees with that job description and adds that the bandleader himself has the same contagious effect on his players. “Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist,” he says, “whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.” He adds, “I’m so happy to call him my friend.”
Beyond his infectious energy and charisma, there are a lot of ways Cato keeps the Late Show Band invigorated from night to night. For one, he keeps the music fresh by tackling a new cover song every day. That doesn’t mean running down rote note-for-note charts. Cato and the band take a reconstructionist approach that fans of his work—whether from his collaborations with artists such as the Huntertones, Scary Pockets, or Vulfpeck, or from his regular Instagram cover-song posts—will recognize.
“Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.”—Stephen Colbert
On this evening, the band runs through a host of multi-genre reinterpretations during the two-episode taping, including a slow-burning and soulful “Smokestack Lightning,” a New Orleans-style “Down by the Riverside,” and a fingerpicked, acoustic-led take of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” that gets Colbert lip syncing along off camera. On a horn-driven arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” there’s a re-worked bridge that creates a generous feature spot for the guest horn players.
Every arrangement brings a new and unique perspective to a classic track, to ensure the band is “not just a wedding band doing a cover of a song on the radio.” Cato adds, “We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
St. Vincent jams with Louis and crew.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
A Lifelong Path
Listening to the story of Cato’s musical life, it seems that this job—with its demand for a blend of careful strategizing and on-the-fly creative thinking, as well as effortless instrumental skills and charismatic showmanship—is what he’s been training for since the beginning.
On the morning of the taping I attended, I meet Cato in his dressing room. Painted with sky-blue walls and a cloud mural on the ceiling, it’s a comfortable place to hang. The bandleader is wearing slim-fit floral pants, a hoodie over a black T-shirt, and a long necklace. He sits across from me on his couch, next to a guitar stand that holds a few instruments—including his Tuttle, a Jesse Stern-built baritone acoustic, and his Univox LP-style—and a ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue with a Universal Audio Dream ’65 pedal plugged into it.
“There’s not a time in my brain when I was not making music in some way or form,” Cato says. His mother, a pianist in the Church of God in Christ, bought her son a Diamond drum kit that he recalls having paper heads when he was just 2 years old, and she started teaching the toddler to accompany her. “I marvel at my mom,” he laughs. “Like, who buys their 2-year-old a drum kit?” After playing those drums every day for a year, he started accompanying her at services.
The family moved around a lot. Cato’s father was in the Air Force, and Louis was born on a base in Lisbon, Portugal, before moving to Dayton, Ohio. Not long after he started playing in church there, they moved again to Washington, D.C., and when Louis was 5 they settled in Albemarle, North Carolina. A few years later, Louis started playing guitar on a “little burgundy sunburst acoustic. Eventually, I busted a string and busted another string and just kept playing with four strings. I delved more into bass from playing bass lines on the acoustic guitar. So, for my 9th birthday, my dad bought me a 4-string bass.”
“I’d show up to Tip’s and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks.”
While it was strictly pragmatic reasons that initially drew him to the bass, he says his biggest inspiration was the bass player he knew best: his mother’s left hand. Her playing, rooted in the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) style, “involves heavy left-hand bass. I wasn’t as psyched to play bass in church since the way my mom plays is very defined. But eventually I kind of had to learn how she plays. It was always just her and me playing. And I had to learn to move with that and follow that. She’s a great bass player.”
Along the way, Cato picked up more instruments. By the time he headed to Berklee, he was playing drums, guitar, and bass as well as tuba, trombone, and euphonium. “I was going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a large pond of super-talented people who had heard oodles of music I had never dreamed of,” he recalls. So, he decided to focus his studies on the instrument he’d played the longest.
Louis Cato's Gear
A glimpse at Cato’s pedals and amp, which mostly live outside of the camera’s eye, behind his stage monitor.
- Univox LP-style
- Tuttle Custom Hollow T
- 1961 Gibson SG reissue
- Martin OM-28
- ’65 Fender Princeton Reverb reissue
- Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal
- Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner
- Dunlop Cry Baby
- 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre
- J. Rockett Archer
- Truetone Jekyll & Hyde
- Xotic RC Booster
- MXR Carbon Copy
Strings and Picks
- D’Addario EJ16 (.012-.053)
- D’Addario EXL110 (.010-.046)
- Dunlop Max Grip .88 mm
Cato completed just two semesters—fall ’03 and spring ’04—before deciding to concentrate on playing the gigs that were paying his bills. “My rationale was, much to my parents’ chagrin, here’s an opportunity where I can keep learning on the job and be working my way out of the debt I went into in this year.”
Gigging with wedding and church bands gave the multi-instrumentalist an opportunity to keep all his instrumental and vocal skills alive. “My oldest daughter was born soon after that,” he recalls, “so I felt really, really aware of how lucky I was, how lucky any of us are, to make a living and support a family as a musician.” Cato spent five years in Boston, playing various instruments in gigging bands, and he frequented local institution Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club, just two blocks down the street from Berklee, “for self-education and inspiration. When that felt like I hit a ceiling, I looked at where I could go to continue my inspiration and working on the kind of projects I wanted to be working on, and that led me here.”
By that time, Cato’s friend Meghan Stabile, had moved to New York and created the promotion and production company Revive Music, which was dedicated to the kinds of jazz and hip-hop collaborations he wanted to pursue. Cato moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his band Six Figures— “There were six of us; we did not make six figures!”—and would head back to Boston each weekend for the gigs that were paying his bills. Eager to soak up the New York scene, he’d return to New York on Sunday nights and go directly to jam sessions.
All that time back and forth on the Northeast Corridor paid off. A self-described musical “utility knife,” Cato’s multi-instrumentalism, as well as his talents as a songwriter, arranger, producer, and engineer, made him a major asset as a collaborator, and the New York scene took notice. Soon, he established essential connections that would affect his career, forming “an instantaneous brotherhood that continues to this day” with producer Kamaal Fareed, aka Q-Tip. “Through that, I ended up really delving into a lot of relationships and credits.”
The two artists worked on high-level collaborations that not only bolstered Cato’s reputation but served as a major piece of his education. “I’d show up to Tip’s,” he explains, “and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks. Sometimes things would come from it, and sometimes nothing would come from it. But being in the creative process on that level in a trusted space was invaluable for me. I learned so much.”
Outside of Q-Tip’s studio, Cato was learning from plenty of masters, mostly from behind the kit. “It’s really special when you find yourself learning things you connect to,” he says about his work alongside artists such as bassist Marcus Miller, keyboardist George Duke, and guitarist John Scofield. “And I learned so much about myself from connecting to some of these people.”
Back in 2015, Cato received a phone call from pianist Jon Batiste. The two had never met, but Batiste rang him up about a mysterious project—a theme song for a TV show that he couldn’t disclose. “I had a wisdom tooth appointment back in Boston, and I got a random call,” Cato remembers. “I think his exact words were, ‘I’d love to have your ears on it.’ And I followed my gut, rescheduled my trip, stayed in New York an extra day with an abscessed wisdom tooth.”
The two got together to co-write and produce “Humanism,” which would become the theme song for the Stephen Colbert-hosted Late Show. Batiste played piano, Cato played the guitar, bass, and drum parts and “put on my editing hat.” They brought in Joe Saylor—who would become the show’s drummer—to play tambourine, as well as saxophonist Eddie Barbash. “After the session,” Cato remembers, “I went back, got my wisdom tooth out, and went back on the road with John Scofield.”
Three of the four go-to guitars Cato uses on The Late Show: a black Tuttle T-style, a cherry-red Gibson SG, and a Martin OM-28.
At first, Cato played the multi-instrumental role of his dreams, attempting to surround himself with every instrument he could play. “That lasted about three days before reality set in,” he laughs. “Slowly, one by one, things started disappearing—a floor tom going away here, a Pro Tools setup going offstage there. Eventually, as the band formed out, I moved around to what was needed. I was the utility guy—played a lot of kazoo, a lot of cowbell.”
While on the road drumming with Sco’, Cato got the invite from Batiste to join the show’s band, Stay Human. “It was a huge life shift for me,” Cato explains. “I was making really good money on the road with really good musicians, which was really fulfilling. And I took a chance. I loved the idea of being a part of something creatively from its inception.”
Eventually, Cato settled into a more consistent electric bass role, until Batiste brought in upright player Endea Owens, and he moved to guitar, where he’s mostly stayed. When Batiste left the show last year, Cato took over as bandleader—officially starting this season, back in September—and decided he’d lead from his role as guitarist. “Of all the places I occupied,” he says, “guitar was the easiest and most natural to me to lead the band, in the energy. From behind the drums, it’s a different thing, and we’ve done it when Joe was out. But it just was a really natural progression.”
Same Show, New Job
In just a few months, Cato’s new role as bandleader has had an impact on the show. The renamed Late Show Band’s engine seems to be burning on a new kind of fuel. And it feels as though that energy is coming directly from Cato.
When we talk, the guitarist is deeply engaged, in a kind of hyper-focused way that is not intense but more casually un-distractable. He brings that same focus to the show. While Colbert delivers monologues, Cato is zoomed in on the host, listening to every word, often riffing around on his guitar to contribute musical commentary. During interviews, he’s taking cues and following the tone of the conversation, looking for ways to adapt.
The bandleader gig requires loads of big-picture improvisation, but also lots of prep. Cato explains that each week he makes a set list, but the band will react and make changes in the moment. “My job ends up being a lot of judgement calls that affect the flow of the show,” he says. “We have a group of compositions we wrote for the show that can complement different moments. If there’s a major energy shift in an interview that takes a turn or something happens in the day, like a tragedy, we’ll call one of the songs we wrote for the show for a moment such as that. Recently, we had a guest on that started improvising a song. So, I have on our in-ear mic and call out the key and start playing, and we all jump in, and now we’re doing this instead.”
Cato poses with his black-sparkle chambered T-style, made by Tuttle. “When I’m checking off core priorities in sound,” he says, “if I’m going for rhythmic things, I go to the Tele.”
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
Watching the Late Show Band in person, I see this play out as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen explains the steps the U.S. can take to avoid a recession. It’s a heavy and heady conversation, and, frankly, it’s anything but fun. Cato knows he’ll need to pick the audience back up. As he watches from the bandstand, he gives tempo cues to the band, who nod along, so they can effectively shift the energy and get the audience re-focused for the next guest, actor/director Sarah Polley.
As a guitar player, Cato says he sticks to playing things that feel most natural to him so he can concentrate on his bandleading duties. He adds that he considers himself more a rhythm guitarist than a lead guitarist. (It’s worth noting that his delineation is more conceptual than musical: Cato is an inspired and dynamic melodic lead player, but his deeply rooted phrasing and feel is at the forefront of everything he plays, so the rhythm-first thing applies to it all.) “This is not a space as a guitar player where I’m jumping out of the box trying any and everything and exploring,” he explains. “You get to some of those places. But for me, it always has to start from something I can do while leading the band and reading the energy and making judgement calls.”
“We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
That rooted, pragmatic ethos applies to the gear he chooses as well. “I never was a big gear person,” he admits. Luckily, he has Late Show Band tech and informed gearhead Matt Mead to help him keep his pedalboard well-stocked. “There’s so many things I’m learning about the job and trying to keep straight in my head that this ends up getting the short end of the stick, and it wouldn’t work if there was not a Matt Mead to make up the rest of that stick and make it sound good.”
“The show throws a lot of curveballs,” Mead points out. “He steers the boat as far as the tones he’s looking for and if there’s a particular sound he’s looking for. Sometimes, I’ll recommend stuff and say, ‘Hey I notice you’re doing this, maybe we should try this.’”
Cato’s collaboratively curated pedalboard is pretty simple at its core: It starts with a Boss FV-500H volume pedal, a Boss TU-3, a Dunlop Cry Baby, and 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre. Cato shows me how he uses the latter for more traditional, Hendrix-style playing, but he points out that the band plays a lot of montunoes, and he tends to use the octave pedal for those. For drive, he uses a J. Rockett Archer and a Truetone Jekyll & Hyde, which are followed by an Xotic RC Booster and an MXR Carbon Copy, all into a Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb reissue, and powered by a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power Plus.
In live performances outside of The Late Show, Cato uses various guitars, but says that the studio’s cold temperature doesn’t do many favors for instruments such as his Gibson Luther Dickinson ES-335 or some of his acoustics, so he’s careful when selecting which guitars come on stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The three guitars that most commonly appear on the show are his black Tuttle Custom Hollow T, a cherry red Gibson SG 1961 Reissue, and a Martin OM-28.
Another guitar that sometimes appears on the Late Show is his LP-style Univox, which I ask Cato about in his dressing room. “If I need to be altogether comfortable,” he explains, “I pull out the Univox, because it’s my earliest guitar. I’ve had this since high school.”
Cory Wong "Lunchtime" - The Late Show's Commercial Breakdown
When musical guests visit The Late Show, they get the full-band treatment from Cato and company. Here, Cory Wong sits in for a rhythm guitar showdown of the highest level.
Back when he first got the guitar, Cato remembers, it was in rough shape, desperately in need of wiring and pickup repairs and a new set of tuners. It stayed that way until he was in Boston. When he picked up a wedding band gig playing trombone and guitar, he was lucky enough to have a roommate who could get the Univox performance-ready by replacing the original tuners with locking units, cleaning out the electronics, and swapping the pickups for a pair of Seymour Duncans.
“I didn’t even know there was a such thing as a professional musician.”
But Cato says that even before those repairs, he’s always “loved it because it’s all I had. I remember I was playing a little Vox amp, and this guitar had a feeling out of that amp. This guitar just became home base and felt super natural to my fingers. If I need to just not be thinking at all, this is home.”
Did he ever dream he’d be on television every night, holding this Univox and chumming with a late-night host? “Never! Not once!” he says. “It was just a product of my nurture growing up in a small town. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a professional musician.” And yet, Cato pursued music as fully and single-mindedly as he could. “I just knew that I liked it and felt connected to it.”
The Rich History of Höfner
While most are only familiar with Paul McCartney’s Violin Bass, the German manufacturer has long been held in high regard for their various instruments.
I’m probably late to the game for most of you, but I finally got around to watching Get Back, Peter Jackson’s excellent Beatles documentary. Throughout the doc, I was keeping an eye out for interesting guitars (like George Harrison’s Fender Telecaster made almost entirely of rosewood) but was dwelling quite a bit on Paul McCartney’s Höfner 500/1 Violin Bass. The German-based Höfner Company made a lefty Violin Bass for McCartney back in 1961, while the Beatles were playing regularly in and around Hamburg. I found it so interesting that McCartney continued to favor the guitar, even though the band could afford and play just about any instrument available during that time. In fact, in those early Hamburg days, Harrison played a Höfner President and then a Club 40, which John Lennon also played. Even Stuart Sutcliffe had a Höfner 500/5.
In the USA, Höfner never seemed to make a great impression on the guitar market. I guess most people only know about the Violin Bass, but Höfner has a long tradition of esteemed instrument production. Höfner has been around since the late 1880s, primarily making violins, then eventually acoustic guitars and electric guitars, starting in the 1930s. In the early 1960s, Höfner electric guitar production was ramping up, perfectly coinciding with the guitar boom and the rise of the Beatles.
There are plenty of good catalogs from the era (mainly because of the British importer, Selmer London), and the Höfner guitar lineup was quite impressive. The large and rather regal looking hollowbodies were plentiful, and there were some super cool solidbodies, like the Futurama models, which are rather rare today. But the most common and budget-friendly guitars in the catalogs were the Coloramas. This line started around 1958 and continued through 1965—while undergoing several version changes.
In the early 1960s, Höfner electric guitar production was ramping up, perfectly coinciding with the guitar boom and the rise of the Beatles.
I owned a few Coloramas that were from the quirkiest era. They piqued my interest because they were finished with colored vinyl with white piping stretched around a laminate solid-wood body. The vinyl finish quickens guitar production, as it removes the painting, drying, and buffing process. And what does it do to the tone? Who cares! My examples dated back to the 1962 to ’63 era, and both had a very smooth tremolo unit that was integrated into the body. The unit was paired with a simple nickel-plated steel bridge that only allowed for vertical adjustment.
The electronics on the Colorama consist of Höfner “Diamond Logo” single-coils and Höfner’s “Flick Action” console, which had two volume knobs, a bass switch for the neck pickup, a treble switch for the bridge pickup, and a rhythm/solo switch which further enhanced its tone. This was standard fare for many of the electric Höfner guitars. The slim “Slendaneck” profile featured a fully adjustable truss rod inside. The bodies have symmetrical double cutaways and feel just fine when strapped up—not too heavy or light. These guitars came with relatively good frets and tuners for their class. All in all, these were a real bargain for guitar players around the world.
As the ’60s moved along and the guitar boom began to wane, Japanese guitar manufacturers simply flooded the market with even more affordable electrics, and Höfner lost its foothold on the U.S. market. They continued to produce amazing guitars, and some of these can be real finds today. Most of their guitars were built really well, and they’ve always had a good reputation. But, if it wasn’t for the Beatles and McCartney’s Violin Bass, we may never have heard of this historic company.
Workin’ for MCA: The Coral Hornet Story
Shortly before Danelectro went bankrupt, this solidbody designed by session guitarist Vincent Bell added some upscale flair to the Coral line.
Danelectro guitars and amps have long held the interest of so many players because of their quirky designs. The prolific New Jersey-based company, started by Nathan Daniel in 1947, used unique materials—from Masonite for bodies to surplus lipstick tubes for pickups—to create their instruments while staying on budget. With prices just about any player could afford, Danelectro guitars—and those sold under other retail-catalog brand names across the U.S., such as Sears’ Silvertone—had a strong impact on the arc of American music.
Even during the initial influx of Japanese import guitars, Danelectro still retained its foothold in the American market. But the era of corporate takeovers really affected the market of the late 1960s. CBS purchased Fender, Norlin bought Gibson, and, in 1966, Danelectro was sold to the Music Corporation of America (MCA). In 1967, MCA started the new Coral line of guitars, which offered some unique axes like an electric 12-string Bellzouki, an electric Sitar (complete with drone strings), and Longhorn hollow bodies. It was all so ’60s, and all so short-lived, because Danelectro was bankrupt by 1969. The entire Coral line has become collectible because just about every model was sold in low numbers, but perhaps the rarest of the bunch was the solidbody electric Hornet.
Session guitarist Vincent Bell had a hand in designing many of the Coral guitars, and the Hornet models were among his creations. (There was also a 12-string offered in 1968, called the Scorpion.) The Hornets came in two- or three-pickup versions, offered with vibrato or hardtail bridge designs. Individual volume controls for each pickup, plus a master volume, provide blending options, and an array of tone variations are available via four mini switches. These overly complicated tone switches are buried in all sorts of capacitors and were all the rage in the late 1960s. But all of them are detrimental to the overall guitar sound.
Danelectro’s trademark lipstick pickups were still in use at this time, and they retain that soft vintage tone, with a little sizzle when pickups are combined. I love the sound of these pickups combined with an amp on the edge of breaking up, or some fuzz stacked on top. Danelectro pickups have often been relegated to niche sound territory—like Jimmy Page with a slide—but no other guitar sounds like a Danelectro, and that’s a good thing! Plus, a lot of players might also like the bigger frets and flat radius featured on almost every Danelectro guitar.
The Coral Hornet has a totally unique sculpted solid-poplar body, which tapers towards the edges. It is the strangest feeling guitar ever, because the outer edges of the body really thin out. Honestly, I’ve never seen another guitar with this design. It does make for a nice feel when you’re playing while standing, since the thin contours kind of melt into your body. But sitting down is a different experience, and those thin edges can make it feel like your leg is getting sliced off.
The Hornets came in black, red, and sunburst finishes, and the latter are the most common, relatively speaking. The chromed-out control plates and pickup surrounds look upscale, while a swirling pearloid pickguard and clear plastic overlay gives the guitars a pseudo-psychedelic look.
Looking at the old Coral catalogs, it seems that Pete Townsend flirted with the Hornet models for a spell, and, more recently, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys played one. But overall, these rare Hornets with their sculpted bodies faded into the passage of time, gone like a bubble on a stream. Or a corporate buyout.
Guyatone’s Novel Pickup Design for the Ages
This vintage LG120T wasn’t in production long, but its movable neck pickup still might seem like a fresh idea.
So many novel guitar ideas have been forgotten to time. If you’re a guitar designer and you think you’ve come up with some epic concept, chances are that someone somewhere already tried it. This month, I was thinking about a rare vintage Guyatone that featured a design that still seems novel when builders toy with it today: the movable pickup.
This instrument probably wasn’t the first guitar to use something like a movable pickup. It’s worth noting that DeArmond’s famed Rhythm Chief pickups, which debuted in the 1940s for mounting on round-soundhole acoustic guitars and hollowbodies, offered a pole along which the pickup could be slid to different positions beneath the strings. But for some, the LG120T was probably a wild introduction to varied sonic possibilities. Introduced in the Japanese domestic market in May 1966, the LG120T was a bit like those old science kits you could buy as kids. Maybe you remember those old sets where you could connect wires and make lights flash?
“The LG120T was a bit like those old science kits you could buy as kids.”
The body is similar to that of the Kent guitars offered here in the States, but the electronics were unique for Guyatone. Check out those mini switches above the pickups. They offer options such as “cool” and “hot.” But what they really do is select phase, tone cut, and pickup options. Those two switches really provide a lot of sounds.
Then, of course, for even more tones, you have the movable neck pickup, which is attached to the pickguard via two screws, allowing it to rotate. Sliding the pickup around accentuates the bass or treble response. It’s a subtle change in tone, but it’s still cool and innovative for the time.
Look closely and you’ll see the “solo/rhythm” and “cool/hot” switches, plus those fretboard inlays are pretty hip. But the neck pickup is the real showstopper.
There were problems with the design, though. The pickguard on these guitars often cracked due to movement, and the neck pickup wiring is prone to disconnect after many rotations. That was the case with this month’s guitar when I acquired it, so it needed to be rewired at the neck.
Otherwise, the LG120T featured some typical Guyatone design cues of the time, such as a solid wood body and decent tuners. This model clocked in at the lower end of the price range and cost 16,000 yen back in the day. In comparison, the awesome LG180T Telstar was priced at 32,000 yen. The tremolo was somewhat unique on this model. It has a cool-looking arm with a rounded end. It’s a little detail, but I like it! This model also featured the roller bridge found on the much more expensive Guyatone Sharp 5. But man, those old roller bridges can be tough to set up!
There were two types of pickups featured on the LG120T, but they are basically the same. This guitar features the plastic covers with a slit across the front, and some models had a more open design where you could see the magnet slugs.
These LG120T guitars only lasted for a year or two. By 1967, Guyatone was really starting to struggle. Their guitars might have been popular, but they were being relegated primarily to the Japanese market. It’s sort of a bummer, but that’s business, I suppose. It’s no surprise that these days they’re really hard to find—especially in working condition. Every now and then, you can still see a new take on the movable pickup design, even though it’s never caught on en masse.