Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Supro Folk Star, The National Pocket Bass & Valco

Chicago Musical Instruments was at one time the biggest musical instrument manufacturer/wholesaler in the United States. In the 1960’s they had acquired multiple companies and consolidated them.

These included Kay, Harmony and National Dobro also known as Valco. Chicago Musical Instruments or CMI even acquired Gibson Guitars.

When I was a 13 year old kid there were a couple of guitars that fascinated me. I never got to play either. I was only able to press my nose up against the glass at Dodd’s Music in Covington Kentucky and stare at them. And although I own much better guitars than either of these, the fascination was still there all those years ago.

One guitar was called The Supro Folk Star Guitar and the other was the National Pocket Bass.

The Folk Star was a great idea on paper, but in my opinion the guitar actually didn’t sound very well. It’s body was made from red fiberglass. It came with a resonator. Only the neck was wood.

Although the Dobro sound comes from its resonator, the wooden body sure helps the sound resonate. On the Supro, the fiberglass body just muffled the Folk Stars sound.

At the time I was thinking of folk artists of the day, such as Peter, Paul and Mary or Joan Baez. The folk stars that were probably in the mind of the designer were the old blues and slide players. Despite the sound, the guitar was advertised as an acoustic guitar that sounded just like an electric. I have gotten to play one and can say, this was false advertising.

The Pocket Bass was a short scale bass that I thought just looked plain cool. As a guitarist I was not used to the longer necks on Fenders. The body was Res-O-Glass and the headstock was covered in celluloid. I didn’t have the appreciation for wood in those days that I now have.

There is not a lot of information on the specific history of these two instruments. So I will concentrate on the history of the underlying companies, Dobro, National/Supro and their merger to become Valco.

The Dopeyera brothers
In the 1940’s National Guitars and the Dobro Guitar Company merged to form Valco. The company name was a combination of the first letter of the principal owner’s names or Victor Smith, Al Frost and Louis Dopeyera.

V.A.L. Co. National had come up with the idea for manufacturing electric guitars with fiberglass bodies, which they called Res-O-Glass. When Valco came into being, the fiberglass electrics were given the brand name Supro.

This brand had been in existence since 1935 when the Dopeyera Brothers and George Beauchamp combined their companies (Dobro and National).

George Beauchamp

By 1952 the company had left California for Chicago and was manufacturing electric guitars to compete with Fender and Gibson.

National was the top brand using wood or chrome-plated metal for its bodies. Supro used cellulose pearl-like body coverings also known as Mother-of-Toilet-Seat.

The late 1960’s saw a decline in the guitar business. Like any fad it only lasted a short while. Valco filed bankruptcy and merged with Kay in 1968.

Some Kays built during this period had Supro logos. Chicago Musical Instruments were also jobbers, which meant they manufactured instruments for different companies and used the company’s brand name on the instruments.
We see this with Silvertone, Pencraft, Trutone, Oahu and Airline.

This practice continues today, except the instruments are made at different Asian factories in China, Korea, Japan and Indonesia and branded under company names such as Squier or Epiphone.

So you may find Valco/Supro guitars under different brand names. The guitars built today under the New National logo have no relation to the old company.

New Supro Amp Line Up
Bruce Zinky, formerly a designer for Fender, was able to obtain the Supro logo and builds amplifiers under this label that are superior to the older instruments.

Eastwood Guitars
Eastwood builds some guitars under their own brand name that are very similar to the old National/Valco/Supro Res-O-Glass guitars. And the Eastwood versions are far superior.



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