wizard of odd

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.

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The Airline Professional Vibrato was Valco's top-of-the line Res-O-Glas model.

Tonewoods can certainly live up to their reputation, but the Airline Professional Vibrato made a strong case for fiberglass.

Over the holidays, our family got together and talked about normal things—like shopping, movies, and guitars! My father-in-law plays acoustic guitar, and since we live so close to the Martin guitar factory, he has quite an impressive collection. We got to talking about tonewoods and how each of his Martins has a different feel and “vibration” of sorts. One can really dig deep into various guitar tonewoods and how they impact sound. (I once visited a factory in Japan that played classical music in the curing room because they believed that the music would have a certain tonal impact.) But whenever I’m presented with someone who is obsessed with wood quality, I think about the pine, Formica, and fiberglass electrics made by Danelectro and Valco as examples of guitar building that totally ignored the traditional process. So, this month I’m going to tell you the story of a guitar model that’s a great example of how certain guitar makers threw tonewood theories right out the window.

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This rare English Tonemaster was made circa 1957.

The Valco-produced English Tonemaster is a rare, lap-steel-inspired gem from the 1950s—when genres and guitar design were fluid.

The 1950s were a peculiar time for the electric guitar. Innovators, designers, and tinkerers were pushing the boundaries of the instrument, while musicians were experimenting with various playing techniques and sounds. There was an evolution of sorts (or de-evolution, depending on your slant) from solidbody “sit-down” guitars, like pedal and lap steels, to “stand-up” or “upright” solidbody electrics. If you look at an early Fender catalog—let’s say from 1953—you’ll see the Telecaster (and Esquire), the Precision Bass, and then a whole bunch of steel guitars. There was a shift underway, and many manufacturers began to blur the lines of what a guitar should look, sound, and play like.

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