The Offbeat World Of Valco – Part 2


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Greetings fellow six-string geeks, this month we will start taking a closer (but by no means exhaustive) look at some of the iconic instruments built by the kings of post-war, second-tier American guitar manufacturers, the mighty Valco Guitars Inc. of Chicago. Last month’s article introduced some of Valco’s innovations in guitar design. In this article we will examine Valco’s guitar evolution from their earliest amplified archtops to unorthodox solidbodies in the 1950s, culminating in their iconic space-age fiberglass bodied “Res-o-Glas” line in the 1960s. Valco’s roots as the National String Instrument Corporation, noted for their resophonic guitars, established them as forward-thinking innovators who pushed the limitations of the guitar’s tonal and volume capabilities even before the age of amplification. It is therefore not altogether surprising that they would mine some unique and sometimes outright outlandish concepts of guitar design.

While primitive by today’s standards, National’s first electric guitar, the Electric Spanish (renamed the New Yorker three years later), must have appeared positively futuristic by 1935 standards, when it made its premiere. Nothing more than a modestly appointed, laminated maple archtop outfitted with a rudimentary bridge pickup located near the bridge, it was nonetheless the first commercially available electric guitar. As was the case for all subsequent Valco electric hollowbodies, the body itself was sourced out from another Chicago manufacturer; in this case, Regal. The following year, a lower-priced Supro-branded version was introduced (renamed Avalon in 1938). This would set the pattern for Valco’s multi-tiered guitar lines; National-branded instruments usually had a corresponding instrument in the lower-priced Supro line, usually differing only in cosmetic appointments and headstock shape. Subsequently Valco would contract Kay, Harmony, and Gibson to build their archtop electric bodies, eventually introducing a proprietary bolt-on neck design and using their own necks and electronics. By 1937 the Electric Spanish guitar’s body was being manufactured by Kay and Valco were supplying their own bolt-on necks. A seldom-seen 4-string tenor guitar version was also offered. By 1939 National had introduced a fancier, short-lived two-pickup model, the Sonora. Discontinued by 1941, it was one of the earliest multi-pickup electrics available.

By the end of 1941 Valco’s early models were discontinued and replaced by an expanding line of amplified archtops. After a brief experiment with the 1942 Chicago model, a full-depth archtop without f-holes, a design to which Valco would briefly return in the 50s with its Harmony-bodied Coronado models, Valco introduced the Princess and Aristocrat models in the National line, and the budget Capitan model in the Supro line. The Aristocrat was an imposing 17” wide archtop which would remain at the top of National’s line until it was discontinued in 1954. By the mid 40s it featured another Valco innovation; a pickup integrated into the guitar’s bridge, designed to emulate the sound of an acoustic guitar, a feature of arguable merit which Valco would employ on many of their instruments well into the 1960s. The late 40s Aristocrats, which had Super 400 bodies, were among the few Valco archtops with Gibson-made bodies. The late 50s National Bel-Aire, with its ES-175 body, is another notable example. Valco’s oddest offering for the early 1940s was the Supro Rio model. Produced between 1941 and 1943, it was essentially a cheap 13” wide Regal flattop fitted with Valco’s distinctive “string-through” lap steel pickup, mounted directly to the guitar’s top and effectively killing all of the instrument’s acoustic resonance.

It can be said that disregard for the electric guitar’s acoustic properties would come to define Valco’s approach to solidbody design. Borrowing a page from their tremendously popular lap steel line, Valco introduced their first solidbody guitar in 1952. Making its debut simultaneously under the National brand name (as the Cosmopolitan) as well as in the Supro product line (as the Ozark), Valco’s first solidbody guitar boasted a tiny body only slightly wider than 11”, made from basswood with a resonant frequency well outside the guitar’s range, mated to a hefty steel-reinforced neck matching the massive proportions of the late 30s “paddle head” National resonator guitars. Outfitted with a floating wooden bridge and trapeze tailpiece, the Cosmopolitan/Ozark had virtually no acoustic volume to speak of. While the early National versions were offered in sunburst and natural finishes, the Supro Ozark’s price was reduced by bypassing the finishing stage entirely. Like most subsequent Supro solidbody models, it was wrapped in a plastic drum covering material applied directly over roughly finished, perfunctorily primered wood which had been sprayed with a rapidly drying adhesive. However, despite all guitar design logic, the resulting amplified tone of these guitars is positively monstrous. By this time the standard Valco adjustable-pole pickup had been perfected, and its properties are aptly demonstrated by these acoustically unresonant guitars. By the mid 1950s the National solidbody line would include the distinctive Town & Country model, which featured volume and tone controls for each of its three pickup selector positions mounted on the bass bout, above the strings. This would become a distinctive feature of Valco guitar design and while the control placement appears uncomfortable and precariously close to the range of the player’s picking hand sweep, the floating bridge & tailpiece design of these guitars places the strings high enough above the surface of the body to prevent inadvertent collisions with the controls. After years of playing knob-festooned Valco guitars, I have yet to accidentally turn myself down this way.

The Supro Ozark model gave way to one of Valco’s most recognizable 1950s designs. As is typical of Valco, the same body would be employed for a number of models, differing only in placement or number of pickups, finish, and neck trim. The most popular and long-lived of Valco’s mid-50s solidbodies was the Supro Dual-Tone model. Making its debut in 1954 as a replacement for the Ozark, the Dual-Tone began its life as a 11.25” wide two-pickup model wrapped in white drum material. A year later it would expand to 12” wide, gaining another inch by 1958 and finally expanding to 13.5” in 1960. By 1962 it would become part of Supro’s fiberglass bodied “Res-o-Glas” line, which we will examine in our next installment. The corresponding National model, which revived the Stylist name, outwardly appears identical to the Dual-Tone excepting its black drum material wrap, but closer inspection reveals that it retained Valco’s older and bulkier bolt-on neck system, while the Dual-Tone incorporated the more austere (and presumably cheaper to manufacture) design employing a single neck bolt, and a second bolt butting into the neck’s hefty magnesium core in order to adjust the neck angle. While this single-bolt design may not inspire confidence, it is yet another fine example of counterintuitive Valco ingenuity. It is surprisingly stable and relies on the shape of the neck pocket to prevent lateral movement of the neck. Supro would use the same neck and body for their single-pickup Belmont model, typically seen in deep red or burgundy drum wrap material but also briefly produced in striking pink pearloid, as well as the short-lived Rhythm-Tone (featuring one conventional pickup in the neck position and a “String Tone” pickup integrated into the floating bridge), the three-pickup Triple-Tone, and the budget Sahara model. The Belmont was to survive longest as a wood-bodied guitar, overlapping the changeover to fiberglass bodies for much of the rest of the product line.

While Supro offered a variety of guitars using the simpler single-cutaway wood body, the bulk of National’s late 50s solidbody line revolved around a larger (roughly 13.75” wide) “one-and-a-half” cutaway body, the shape of which would live on in the Res-o-Glas line. The late 50s National line offered the Bigsby-equipped Glenwood Deluxe and the Val-Trol Custom, fitted with a fancy Gibson tailpiece. Both models featured two conventional pickups supplemented by the integrated bridge pickup (referred to as the “Silver Sound” unit in National literature). The Val-Trol Baron featured the same electronics but did not come with the fancy Gibson tailpiece and the eye-catching multi-segmented inlays of the pricier Glenwood and Custom models. The Town & Country model name was reused for a sunburst model featuring three conventional pickups, and a short-scale Val-Trol Jr. model was also available. While the cryptic term “Val-Trol” appears on the pickguards of various Valco models, it is not a model name but rather the name given to the bass bout mounted control layout employed on many multi-pickup Valco guitars. The Supro line’s corresponding model was the Rhythm Master, a less expensive sunburst-finished version of the black National Val-Trol Baron.

By the late 1950s Valco was also supplying the Montgomery Ward chain of stores with solidbody guitars for their Airline “house brand” line, which also featured instruments built by Kay and Harmony. These Airline-branded Valcos also used the “one-and-a-half cutaway” body, available in one, two, or three pickup versions. By the early 60s these guitars were being heavily routed out through the back in order to facilitate assembly and installation of the pickup harnesses, with the honeycomb of body cavities covered by a large plastic screw-on back plate covering most of the instrument’s rear. This dovetails nicely with our next installment, which will cover map-shaped Nationals, jetsons Airlines, Valco’s transition to fiberglass, and other weirdness. Stay tuned for more obscure guitar trivia in Part 3 of our Valco exploration!

 

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