Chicago’s Valco Guitars, Inc. was at one time America’s most prolific builder of guitar amplifiers. Prior to Fender’s mid-60s CBS takeover, Valco was moving literally dozens of amplifiers for each Fender sold. A scant few years later, Valco was merged with Kay (another Chicago giant) and declared bankrupt shortly afterwards, a victim of mismanagement and changing trends in the guitar industry. Valco’s innovative, often outlandish, and occasionally unwieldy guitar designs have recently experienced a renaissance thanks to a renewed visibility in the hands of players such as Dan Auerbach and Jack White. Valco amplifiers, once neglected as inexpensive “off-brand” junk, have also been experiencing a surge in popularity; after Jimmy Page revealed that the debut Led Zeppelin record was recorded entirely with a Supro, countless tone hounds and studio musicians went scrambling to find low-wattage Valco amps.
Valco’s flirtations with alternative guitar construction methods and materials begin with their origins as the National String Instrument Corporation. Founded in California in the 1920s by the Dopyera Brothers, National had a tumultuous history ” prior to WWII (the departure of the Dopyeras to form Dobro, and the eventual merging of National and Dobro and their subsequent relocation to Chicago in the 1930s have been documented in Bob Brozman’s excellent book “National Resonator Instruments”). After the war effort halted the manufacture of the metal-bodied resonator instruments with which National’s reputation rests, the company was reorganized as Valco Guitars, Inc. (after the names of the owners, Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera). National had been the first manufacturer to offer a commercially available electric guitar in the 1930s, but it was the post-war modernization of rural areas that allowed the new electric instruments to quickly eclipse their resonator guitars, previously the loudest guitars available. In addition to the full line of products sold under the National and Supro brands, Valco quickly established itself as a supplier of amplifiers, guitars, and lap steels to a bewilderingly long list of department stores, music schools, and mail-order companies, and competing guitar manufacturers. For example, Gretsch amplifiers of the 50s and 60s were almost exclusively Valco products, as well as many 60s Harmony amplifiers, and the top-of-the-line Airline brand amps sold through Montgomery Ward (the budget line were built by Danelectro). To make matters additionally confusing, some department store chains outsourced to a number of competing manufacturers, making it possible to see “Airline” brand instruments and amps made by Harmony, Kay, Danelectro, and Valco alongside each other on the same Montgomery Ward catalog page.
While Valco’s earliest electrics were amplified archtops, they were quick to introduce unusual features such as archtop bodies without f-holes, an unconventional proprietary bolt-on neck arrangement with a provision for easy neck angle adjustment, or a height-adjustable bridge containing a pickup inside its base. This “Silver-Sound” or “String-Tone” pickup (as it was alternately referred to in National and Supro catalogs) is often misidentified as a piezo pickup, and while sharing the thin sound and low-output characteristics of a piezo, this was a true magnetic pickup using a pair of adjacent coils, and would be used throughout Valco’s existence on a bewildering assortment of eye-catching guitars. However, when guitarists, and particularly slide players, speak of “the Valco tone” with a misty-eyed expression and saliva accumulating in the corners of their mouths, they are inevitably referring to the sound produced by Valco’s conventional magnetic pickups which remained virtually unchanged for almost two decades. Outwardly resembling humbuckers, these large high-output single-coils provide a unique, throaty, and unforgettable tone. A large portion of Link Wray’s classic 60s Swan Records material was recorded with a 1950s Supro Dual-Tone, a prime specimen of Valco’s 50s solidbodies. The non-adjustable Valco necks of the day were reinforced with a huge magnesium bar, and the bodies were curiously unresonant chunks of heavy basswood wrapped in plastic similar to drum covering material. By the late 50s these bodies were being extensively routed to alleviate weight and facilitate Valco’s increasingly complex wiring schemes. The pickups were surface-mounted on plastic mounting rings, the bridges were of the two-piece wooden archtop variety, and the strings anchored in heavy tailpieces – seemingly a combination for a thoroughly acoustically dead instrument owing more to lap steel design than its electrified archtop ancestors. The end result, against all design logic, was an instrument capable of producing sounds best described as downright frightening.
In the early 60s Valco ventured a step further into unorthodox guitar design. By the early 60s, both the National and Supro product lines featured a number of striking and unconventional instruments assembled from two pieces of molded fiberglass, decoratively trimmed with a rubber gasket, and reinforced internally with wood blocks. Valco boasted that their “Res-O-Glas” guitars were impervious to the ravages of time, but the manufacturing process proved to costly and otherwise problematic. Before Valco dissolved and made one final attempt at liquidating unused parts in a frantic sale of haphazardly assembled instruments using a mishmash of Valco and Kay necks and bodies and hardware, the fiberglass bodied instruments of the 60s are among the most unique looking mass-produced American electric guitars. The National Val-Pro, Glenwood, and Newport lines of “map” shaped guitars and the somewhat more conventional looking corresponding instruments made under the Supro brand name exhibited the thrifty Valco manufacturing mentality: the product line employed the fewest number of variation where necks and bodies were concerned, the various models differed chiefly in the number of pickups, type of hardware, and color. In a similar exhibition of manufacturing frugality, Valco would squeeze many different amplifier models out of one chassis matched with different speaker configurations.
The top-of-the-line three-pickup Valco instruments featured the complex “Val-Trol” wiring scheme. The upper bout of the guitars featured a row of six controls (volumes for each of the two conventional pickups and the Silver-Sound/String-Tone bridge unit, a conventional tone control for the neck pickup, a tone control which decreases bass instead of treble for the bridge pickup allowing for a huge variety of sounds, and a control that blends the neck pickup together with the Silver-Sound/String-Tone to create something akin to an “out of phase” Stratocaster sound). This was augmented by a master volume control on the lower bout, and a three-way pickup selector switch. Many Valco models outfitted with two or three conventional pickups also sported a row of upper bout control knobs, but they generally operated in the orthodox volume/tone manner.
Long considered to be “retro junk chic” guitars by collectors, Valco guitars and amps are slowly but surely getting the recognition they deserve for their distinctive and compelling tones. Unfortunately the accompanying pricetags may come as a shock to those of us who remember these instruments hanging unsold for a couple of hundred bucks some twenty years ago. In upcoming columns we’ll be taking a closer look at some of Valco’s remarkable guitars, before moving on to other overlooked, underappreciated, and idiosyncratic instruments from the Golden Age of electric guitar design.
To find out more about Suproman, click HERE