Saturday, November 5, 2016

Valco Gutars and Amplifiers

John Dopyera holding a resonator violin and George Beauchamp
The National String Instrument Corporation based in California was founded in 1927 by luthier John Dopyera and steel guitar player George Beauchamp. The men had met a few years earlier when Beauchamp, a vaudeville performer was looking for a louder guitar.

The Dopyera Brothers
Dopyera had been building guitars, banjos, violins and other stringed instruments along with his brothers. It was in 1927 when Dopyera created the first tri-cone resonator guitar which had an aluminum body. Later models had wooden bodies, but still had the aluminum resonator.

Tri- Cone and Single Cone
In 1928 John Dopyera left the National String Instrument Corporation to start his own business, the Dobro Manufacturing Company.

This left his brother Louis Dopyera in charge. By now National was having financial difficulties.

The last thing that John Dopyera designed was a single cone or biscuit resonator. Dopyera never patented this before leaving the company.  Beauchamp went on to obtain the patent.

George Beauchamp -  The Frying Pan
Beauchamp went on to invent the “Frying Pan” steel guitar, which was probably the worlds first electric guitar. At that time he was working in partnership with Adolph Rickenbacker in a company called the Ro-Pat-In Corporation. Beauchamp was also responsible for designing the Bakelite electric steel and Spanish guitars produced by this same company.

1930 National Tri-cone Resonator

Though John Dopyera had left National, he still retained some of the rights of the company. He changed his own companies name to National Dobro.

By 1934, Louis Dopyera, in an effort to save the struggling company, took on two partners who were business men, Victor Smith and Al Frost.

The business were relocated to Chicago and renamed by using the first letters of the three partners names; VAL Company or Valco. The company produced not just resonator guitars, but also lap steels, artchtop guitars, mandolins and amplifiers, sometimes using parts from other companies.

1947 Valco/National Ad

In 1942 the company reorganized. The war effort was on and “essential manufacturing” meant only building war related materials. By 1947 the companies focus was once again on guitars and amplifiers and once again Valco utilized parts made by other manufacturers including Gibson, Kay, and Harmony.

1947 Valco-National amplifier 

Valco’s forte was on electronics such as pickups and amplifiers.

Valco made Oahu amp 1954

Many of these were re-branded with the name of another company.

1958 Town and Coutry

In 1952 Valco had produced its first solidbody electric guitar and by 1955 had offered their top-of-the-line Town and Country model under their National brand name.

Valco 1947 Supro Amp

In the 1950’s the company first offered the Supro brand.

Hang tag advertising Silver Sound 
Valco also introduced what the called The Silver Sound PIckup. This predated the popular piezo pickups of today. The Silver Sound was a coiled pickup in the base of the guitars bridge with two magnetic polepieces suspended from the saddle. It was an early attempt to capture the acoustic guitar sound from an electric guitar.

Airline Guitars - Montgomery Ward

Around 1958 Valco produced an unusual line of guitars under the Airline brand name that were meant to be sold through Montgomery Ward stores. Unlike conventional wooden bodied guitars, the bodies on most of the Airline guitars were made of fiberglass material which they called Res-O-Glass.

Inside an Airline Guitar
The back and front of the body was produced by placing the resin in a mold cast and baking it. After the instruments front and back sections were cooled, a wooden plank was inserted was in the middle of the body to anchor the pickups and serve as an attachment for the guitars wooded neck.

Holes for the electronics were drilled in the bodies top and were fitted. The body pieces were then glued together and binding was placed around the middle of the body on most instrument.

Airline wooden model

Some of the  Airline models that were made of wood. All were sold through the Montgomery Ward catalog.

Supro Folkstar

One of the oddest Valco guitars was a fiberglass or Res-O-Glass model put out under the Supro brand name and called The Folkstar.

If you think back to the early 1960’s; briefly before The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion, Folk Music was in vogue. Young folks wanted to be the next Peter, Paul, and Mary, or Joan Baez. Kids were buying acoustic guitars and trying to learn the chords to "Michael Row The Boat Ashore."

Valco decided to cash in on the fad in 1964 and came out with the Supro Folkstar Model S444, which combined features found on other Valco guitars. Unfortunately they were too late to the party.

Supro Folkstar
The body, as mentioned was molded out of two sections of fiberglass. The “Kord-King®” neck had the Valco style headstock. And like the National Guitars, this came with a resonator that the string went over and attached to a trapeze tailpiece. I recall seeing one at my favorite music store when I was a kid.

They advertised it as a guitar that did not need an amp.

It only came in red. There were two sound ports on the guitars upper bouts. How did it sound? It was very tinny and not too loud.

Montgomery Ward Folkstar

At Montgomery Wards request, Valco issued a model for their department store. It was the same guitar, but this time with a black fiberglass body and “M’s” encircling the resonator.

1955 Belaire
In 1953 National came out with a really nice instrument they called The Belaire, model N-150. The body and neck were made by Gibson. The body was the same one on a Gibson ES-175, while the neck was similar to an L-50, but with a National style headstock.

This guitar had 3 volume knobs on the upper bout and 1 tone knob, located on lower side of the body. It also had a 3 way selector switch on the cutaway.

1960 Belaire

Early models that had 2 pickups came with the third set of potentiometers for the “Silver-Sound” piezo pickup on the bridge.

 '59 Belaire
By 1958 the model came with 3 pickups, each with their own volume and tone knob, still mounted at opposite ends of the body.

By 1961, Valco was concentrating on their lower priced guitars and catalog sales and this wonderful model was discontinued.

'60's Pocket Bass
When I was a kid, I saw the Supro Pocket Bass in a catalog and immediately wanted one. It was cool then and is still cool. And it was a great bass for guitar players that doubled on bass because of its short 25 7/8” scale. If you took the back panel off the bass, there are a series of round sections encircling the inside of the body or "pockets". These served two purposes. They gave access to the controls and pickups, and they were supposed to give this bass more of an acoustic sound.

'66 Supro Pocket Bass
The design is great; Two symmetrical cutaways on the upper portion and a rounded bottom on the basses black Res-O-Glass body, a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard and bridge and the Kord-King® headstock that topped off its thin neck. It also had one pickup in the neck position and a Silver Sound® piezo pickup under the bridge. The bass had two knobs, one was for volume and the other was for pickup blend. The tuning pegs, made by Kluson were nothing special.

'61 Airline Town and Country guitar
The body for this instrument was actually made for Supro and Airline guitar; a version of the Town and Country guitar produced by Valco under their Airline brand name. The only difference is the pickup, neck and bridge. These basses were produced for around four years.

Airline Pocket Bass

Valco made an Airline model, that was the same bass, but the Res-O-Glass body had a slight sunburst finish. On later models, such as this 1966 version, the headstock was updated to the slanted style.

Valco Gretsch amplifier
In the 1960’s Valco was also concentrating on its line of amplifiers. By now they were building amplifiers for other companies, including Gretsch, Harmony, Penncraft (JC Penny) and Silvertone (Sears).

Valco amp with V logo

Valco made amplifiers for distribution under their own brand and also for other companies.

These companies include Oahu, Gretsch, Silivertone, Harmony, Goya, Kay, McKinney, and others.

Valco made Supro amplifier

They also made amplifiers under their own brand names; Supro and National.

Most of these amplifiers ranged from a 4 watt output up to around 30 watts. Some even came with twin 12” Jensen speakers.

1964  Supro Thunderbolt

One of their most popular was the Supro Thunderbolt. It put out around 15 watts and came with a 15” Jensen speaker. It was supposed to be a bass amp, but was better suited for guitars.

'65 Custom Kraft - '68 Truetone

Valco merged with Kay in 1967. The guitar boon had ended and sales ground to a halt. The Res-O-Glass bodies were abandon and guitar manufacturing was moved to Japan. By 1968 Valco had declared bankruptcy.

National Resophonic Style O

In 1989 a new company emerged called National Resophonic that was founded by Don Young. They built wonderful resonator guitars in the style of National Dobro/Valco, but had no relationship to the original company.

Eastwood Airline guitars

In 2001 Canadian Michael Robinson established Eastwood Guitars. The guitars and basses his company offers are replicas of vintage and classic designs mainly from the 1960’s. The guitars are made in three different factories in Korea and China and imported.

Shortly after starting the company, Robinson was able to acquire the rights to use the trade name Airline and has since offered new versions of these fine classic designs, with updated features.

Click on the links under the photographs for their source. Click on links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


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Anonymous said...

Just thought I'd add that the Supro Thunderbolt Bass Amp was rated at 35 watts, as were most of the Valco produced 15 inch Jensen speakered Valco Amps. Great site

marcus ohara said...

I did an article a few years back on the Supro Thunderbolt Bass Amp. When I was a young guy, my bass playing friend played through one. It distorted at high volumes because of the low bass frequencies. I think the Thunderbolt would be great for guitars.


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