The Offbeat World Of Valco – Part 3


We’re back with the third and last installment of our archeological expedition through Valco history. Last month we observed how Valco’s guitars had progressed from their earliest 1930s amplified archtops to decidedly contemporary, unique, and unapologetically electric solidbodies in the 50s. By 1962 the entire product line would be revamped once more, becoming more outlandish and eye-catching visually while reaching yet further into the realm of the bizarre where design and construction was concerned.

The witchdoctors of weirdness at Valco had conceived of yet another way to streamline and facilitate the manufacturing process. Molded fiberglass bodies, reinforced internally with wood blocks, were assembled from two halves which were joined by a rubber gasket. The initial layer of fiberglass was mixed with paint, sidestepping the finishing process entirely. Valco named their “new wonder material” Res-O-Glas, suggesting that making guitars in the same manner as boat hulls had profound sonic benefits. The Res-O-Glas bodies were touted as being “climatically immune” and Valco catalogs boasted that “construction of polyester resins and threads of pure glass provides a superior instrument with a velvet-smooth finish – tough, streamline, waterproof, and lastingly beautiful” in spite of the fact that the paint-impregnated fiberglass was highly prone to spiderwebbing cracks at any stress point. The two body halves were attached to one another with screws anchored in small wood blocks glued to the inside of fiberglass shell, while the neck bolted to a larger wooden “core” that ran the length of the body for structural rigidity. Top-mounted pickups allowed for any pickup combination without necessitating any routing, in keeping with Valco’s “modular” approach to design and construction. At this time Valco began to outfit their guitars with a “zero fret” coinciding with the use of the same feature by Gretsch, for whom (among many others) Valco had been building amplifiers for over a decade. Harmony and Kay were no longer employed to supply archtop bodies, and all outsourcing (save for hardware) would cease until Valco’s pre-bankruptcy merger with Kay was to produce some hastily slapped together Kay/Valco hybrids.

The most visually striking of the Res-O-Glas guitars were the top-of-the-line National models. These guitars have acquired the “map” nickname, owing to a tenuous resemblance to the outline of the United States. The National “map” line began with the Glenwood and the short-lived Val-Pro lines, the latter of which was replaced the following year with the smaller bodied Newport line. As per usual Valco operating procedures, all three model lines were offered with one, two, or three pickups, bearing different model number designations and finishes. The seldom-seen Val-Pro “map” guitars are distinguished by the conventional treble bout positioning of their pickup controls, while the Newport models were equipped with Valco’s distinctive bass bout control layout, and the Glenwoods had controls split between both bouts for a truly knob-festooned appearance. Unlike Valco’s Supro and Airline product lines, both of which phased out wood bodied guitars, National maintained a line of wooden “map” shaped solidbodies bearing the Westwood name. Over the years these unusual looking instruments have found their way into the hands of an eclectic group of players including David Lindley, Bob Dylan, and the Cure’s Robert Smith.

Three-pickup guitars which were outfitted with two conventional “Vista-Tone” pickups and a third “Silver-Sound” pickup integrated into the base of the guitar’s bridge (the Glenwood 98 and 99, Newport 88, and its predecessor the Val-Pro 88) employed the full “Val-Trol” control system. The “Val-Trol” controls encompassed six individual pickup control knobs (located on the bass bout on all “Val-Trol” equipped guitars save for the Val-Pro), a master volume control (on the treble bout close to the jack), and a three-way pickup selector switch. Each pickup was equipped with its own volume control, while the second knob associated with each pickup had a unique functionality. The neck pickup was equipped with a conventional tone control, which decreases highs as it is rolled back. The bridge pickup’s tone control functions in an unusual manner, in “full” position it cuts low frequencies, full bass (and output volume) is achieved with the knob rolled all the way back. The result is a range of tones from thin and bright to extremely thick, but with the articulation of a bridge position pickup. The Silver-Sound bridge unit’s volume control was augmented by a second knob which blended in the neck pickup in order to thicken up the Silver-Sound’s naturally tinny and brittle tone. Full neck pickup blend occurs with the knob rolled all the way back, yielding some Stratocaster-esque quacking sounds. Considering the complexity of the “Val-Trol” control system, it is somewhat surprising that no provision was made for combining pickups aside for the “blend” option available for the Silver-Sound pickup. To hear a National Glenwood in an uncharacteristic jazz setting, recorded pristinely and played by the masterful Floyd Smith, I would highly recommend tracking down “Relaxin’ With Floyd” on Black & Blue Records, on which Floyd is accompanied by Wild Bill Davis and Chris Columbus.

National’s line was rounded out with the more conventionally shaped single-pickup Studio 66 model, which started out as a full-scale single-cutaway guitar with a unique pickup not seen on any other Valco model, and was replaced by a short-scale student guitar bearing the same name and constructed around the same 13.5” body as the Supros described below.

Supro’s Res-O-Glas offerings were considerably more conservative in terms of body shape, evolving from the “one and a half” cutaway bodies used on the Rhythm-Master and Silverwood models of the 50s. Supro headstocks expanded to a more paddle-shaped “Gumby” profile outfitted with a plastic overlay. While Supro’s offerings were, at least on a cosmetic level, noticeably downscale when compared to their eye-catching National counterparts, Supro’s flagship model was comparable to the luxurious three-pickup Glenwood 98. While lacking the outrageous body shape and fancy multi-segmented inlays of the Nationals, the Martinique was the only Res-O-Glas Supro to employ the “Val-Trol” control layout and equipped with a Bigsby B-5 tailpiece. Priced at a hefty $295 in the 1964 catalog, the Martinique was in an entirely different category than the popular Dual-Tone ($159) which had transitioned to Res-O-Glas bodies along with the rest of the surviving Supro models. Outwardly the Dual-Tone appears similar to the Martinique, but lacks the Bigsby and “String-Tone” pickup (as the Supro equivalent of National’s Silver-Sound was named) of the Martinique. Unlike the nearly ES-335 sized Martinique, which shared its oversized 15.5” wide body with Coronado II and Tremo-Lectric, the Dual-Tone used the same 13.5” wide body around which the single-pickup Belmont, Holiday, and Sahara models were made, and consequently does not have the same incredibly even response as the Martinique, displaying instead the characteristic “honk” associated with Res-O-Glas Valco guitars. Supro gave Res-O-Glas one last shot with the Jazzmaster-shaped Arlington series, but by then the Kay merger was upon them and the death bells would soon be tolling for the mighty Valco company.

Res-O-Glas made a late entry into Montgomery Ward’s Airline catalog, in which Valco products rubbed shoulders with guitars made by Harmony and Kay, and Valco amps were offered side-by-side with offerings from New Jersey’s Danelectro (which will undoubtedly be the subject of future columns, of this you may rest assured, loyal readers). It is more than likely that Valco had spent the first half of the 60s liquidating unused wood bodies via the budget Airline brand, while saving all their innovation for its National and Supro brands. Evolving from the asymmetrical wood-bodied single-pickup 7243 and twin-pickup 7244, the infamous “Jetsons” Airlines made their first appearance in the 1965 Montgomery Ward catalog. At first the wood-bodied Airlines were augmented by the white Res-O-Glas “Professional Vibrato Triple-Pickup” model, but were replaced by the single-pickup and twin-pickup fiberglass-bodied successors, both in gleaming red. The following year their “reverse Gumby” headstocks were replaced with the six-in-line “Jimmy Durante’s Nose” headstock profiles seen on Supro’s Arlington guitars.

While Valco sold lap steels and amplifiers under dozens of brand names via regional department store chains and music schools, surprisingly few Res-O-Glas bodied guitars bearing anything other than National, Supro, and Airline brands have surfaced, aside from the sole fiberglass-bodied electric of the “Tonemaster” brand sold via the English Electronics chain of stores in Michigan. While based around the same 13.5” body as the bulk of Supro’s Res-O-Glas line, its features correspond to the wood bodied Supro Rhythm-Tone which was discontinued promptly after its sole 1959 catalog appearance, making it unusual in the sense that it is not simply a re-branded Supro, as is the case for the infrequently seen Atlas branded Martiniques or Oahu branded Dual-Tones which surface once in a blue moon.

Ultimately Valco’s foray into fiberglass bodied guitar construction proved to be less of a success than planned. While likely originally intended to as a cost-cutting measure, the Res-O-Glas bodies proved to be time consuming and messy to produce, and perhaps too outlandish to find themselves in the hands of a an endorser visible enough to significantly boost sales. Despite my shameless adulation of his microtonal slide guitar warbling, J.B. Hutto simply does (and did) not qualify as a “visible endorser” by any stretch of the imagination, as much as I may be profoundly saddened by the fact. In the past decade, Res-O-Glas Valcos have become far more recognizable on account of contemporary devotees such as Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Joey Burns of Calexico, and Jack White of the White Stripes, and as to be expected the demand for these unique looking and sounding instruments has increased exponentially. Aside from the unique visual aesthetic offered by the Res-O-Glas Valcos, a great part of the appeal lies in the throaty tone produced by their powerful pickups combined with the unusual resonances of their hollow fiberglass bodies. While there most certainly is a recognizable “Valco sound” it must also be noted that a great deal of variances exist among outwardly identical guitars, as Valco employees were in the habit of grabbing whatever was at hand if it was required to complete an order. The result is an extremely wide range of tolerances where pots, caps, even pickup wire are concerned. While the prices creep up, there are still plenty of great deals out there (as my increasingly crowded closets would reveal), particularly on models not associated with any successful contemporary artists…so keep looking!

 

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