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.
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.
In 1961, the Valco Company began to revamp their factory in Chicago and invested in a new fiberglass technology for building guitars. The company highlighted how fiberglass guitars would be more durable and resistant to changes in climate. Additionally, it would be much cheaper compared to using wood. By 1962, a large portion of the factory was dedicated to building 6-strings using fiberglass, and there were about 10 different models dubbed Res-O-Glas guitars.
Sure, those knobs and the pickup selector will get in the way of your strums, but they don’t make this hip-looking Airline any less cool.
Valco made different Res-O-Glas guitar models using the brands National, Supro, and Airline. The Airline-branded guitars were sold through Montgomery Ward department store catalogs, and the most expensive model was the Airline Professional Vibrato. This 3-pickup guitar was an interesting departure from the traditional Airline offerings. It featured an angular, oddly shaped body identical to the red Airline guitar that would later be made popular by Jack White. The Professional only came in white, featured a genuine Bigsby vibrato, and sold for a whopping price tag of $249!
Whenever I’m presented with someone who is obsessed with wood quality, I think about the pine, Formica, and fiberglass electric guitars made by Danelectro and Valco as examples of guitar building that totally ignored the traditional process.
The guitar featured fine Kluson tuners, a bound neck with celluloid inlays, nickel-silver frets, and the always exquisite-sounding single-coil Valco pickups (that look like humbuckers) that were made in-house and have a great, aggressive tone, even with fiberglass. The controls for this model include a row of knobs above each pickup for bass and treble. The idea was that you could have each pickup preset to your tastes. There was also a master volume control and a 3-way blade pickup selector switch.
The guitar featured fine Kluson tuners, a bound neck with celluloid inlays, and nickel-silver frets.
This excellent guitar initially appeared in the 1965 catalog, but was gone by 1967, which makes it an extremely rare and desirable instrument. It’s a shame more people haven’t had the chance to play this model, because it offers such a unique experience. The guitar is super light but still well-balanced. The tonal sin of many Valco guitars is that the electronics were often over-done and blanketed in all sorts of capacitors, and this Airline Professional is no exception. The upper row of knobs is also right in the way of your strumming motion, so that’s a bit of a problem. But even with these quirks, the guitar sounds amazing. And all Res-O-Glas instruments are alive and full of vibration!
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.
So, let’s examine a guitar from the mid-’50s that had a bit of a personality crisis, born out of the American Valco Company, which also suffered from fits of mania … but in the best ways. I’ve spoken about the company a lot in this column, but to summarize: Chicago-based Valco made instruments under several different brand names, including Supro, Airline, National, and Oahu. They were a quirky organization with a lot of interesting ideas and build styles. One of Valco’s lesser-known brands was English Electronics, which was sold out of a music store/studio in Lansing, Michigan.
Here's a look at the distinctive strings-through bridge pickup.
The English Electronics Tonemaster is a perfect example of this transitional era in instrument production. Half lap steel and half electric guitar, this model was meant to appeal to all sorts of players and was totally unique. There was a similar and more common model in the Supro-branded lineup, the Supro Sixty, which made its appearance in the 1955 catalog and was among the first standard Supro electrics to feature a lap-steel pickup. Both the Supro Sixty and the English Electronics Tonemaster came equipped with similar single volume and tone knobs as well as that same pickup, whose design allowed for the strings to pass through the middle. In the Supro catalog, the pickup was described this way: “The dynamic ‘locked-power’ unit design provides the sensitive extra responsive punch that Western ‘take-off’ players are always looking for—each string has its own individual adjustment to assure perfect string output balance.”
The English Tonemaster logo on the headstock is straight out of 1950s industrial design.
That lap-steel pickup in the bridge position made for a real treble-laden adventure. I love the “take-off” tone descriptor used in the catalog, because when one of these is dialed in, the guitar surely does have a sharp attack. The Supro Sixty was renamed the 1560S Ozark around 1958, but it kept the unique lap-steel unit at the bridge. The Supro Sixty/Ozark was cool and had a good five-year run. But the lesser-known, way cooler, and way rarer, cousin the Tonemaster was the king-daddy!
Half lap steel and half electric guitar, this model was meant to appeal to all sorts of players and was totally unique for its time.
I’ve never seen an English Electronics catalog and I don’t know anything about the owner, Norman English, but I do know that one reason this guitar was unique in the Valco lineup was that it sported not one, but two, pickups: that lap-steel pickup at the bridge and a proprietary Valco unit at the neck. That neck pickup, which is often confused for a humbucker, is actually an in-house designed, patented single-coil with some amazing tones to offer. With these two units, the sound of the Tonemaster was wide-ranging, going from nasally and thin at the bridge to thick and loud at the neck. The Tonemaster also included a pickup switch, but the one on mine was more like a blender without a detent for each position. I’m not sure if my switch was broken or if it worked as intended. Thankfully, Valco used a serial number plate, often found on the back of the headstock, and that number put this guitar in the 1957 range.
The bridge pickup cover is on in this shot. The neck pickup is a single-coil, despite appearances.
Stuff like this makes me ponder the era when electric guitars and lap steels were transitioning to different styles of music and playability, and there weren’t many definitive lines between country & Western, rock ’n’ roll, swing, and rockabilly. Things were blurred and woven into one another, as they are in this guitar!