Golden Pickups LLC Airline,Supro,Valco,Vintage Classics Guitars built like a boat? Valco took chances.

Guitars built like a boat? Valco took chances.

Guitars built like a boat? Valco took chances. post thumbnail image

Valco isn’t the most popular vintage guitar makers, but it may be one of most unique. In the 1950s and 1960s, Valco competed with Gibson and Fender, who were quickly becoming electric stars. In order to standout, Valco gave the market something different.

Valco attacked the market

Valco took chances, and attacked the market in several ways. Number 1, their design was way different than what Fender and Gibson produced. Number 2, their construction was unlike any other maker. And, number 3, they targeted customers with different brands, depending on where those customers were.

Many companies at this time began to copy the Stratocaster and Les Paul styles made famous by Fender and Gibson respectively. There were many Japanese companies who came up with some wild variations on these popular guitar styles, and the market became overwhelmed with inexpensive knockoffs.

One American company, named Valco, took design to another level. Valco was started in 1940 by three former owners and business partners of the National Dobro Company. There names were Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera. The first initials of each of their first names was used to create the name of the company,

Valco produced four mildly popular guitar brands: Supro, Airline, Oahu and National. Supro and Airline models may be the most iconic looking and unusual brands of their time. These two brands are the focus of this post.

My first Supro

I never knew about Valco, or the two subsidiaries of Supro and Airline, until I purchased my first Supro a few months ago. I picked up a white 1966 Supro Martinique Res-O-Glass guitar. Honestly, what drew me to the guitar was its looks. I couldn’t believe how great it looked. To me, the guitar looked like it walked right off a 1960s stage. Its design epitomizes 1960s fashion and music culture.

Once I had the Martinique in my hands, I knew right away that this guitar was different. It felt amazingly lightweight and was easy to handle and play. The sound is also something worth mentioning. The tone was uniquely 60s. The nearly sixty-year old pickups actually have a more vintage tone than I was expecting.

Unique construction

One major factor to its unique sound is its construction. The Martinique, and all Supro guitars, has a fiberglass body. In fact, the body is hollow. I took the guitar apart, because I was curious about its construction. The body is made of two parts sandwiched together and joined by a rubber strip. The construction is very similar in nature to a fiberglass boat. Inside you’ll find all of the electronics etc.

Running along the center of the inside of the body is a wooden spar that goes from one end to the other, and is the same piece of wood that the neck gets bolted on to. The neck is bolted on with just two bolt screws. There is also an adjusting screw to help correct pitch in the neck if needed.

The two-bolt neck design is not great, which is Valco was the only company to use it. Two bolt necks are efficient from a weight perspective, but the neck has a tendency to “wobble” over time and will need to be re-tightened. This is not a big deal. I think if the company lasted longer than 1967, customers would have started providing feedback about this, and we would have seen later models with three or four-bolt designs.

Over the last month, I picked up my next Valco-produced guitar, labeled under the Airline brand. This is a 1966 Airline Res-O-Glass. When buying the Airline, I did not realize that Airline and Supro were owned by the same parent company. Both the Supro and Airline guitars are made using the same exact construction, and have the same electronic and pickups.

The pros and cons

Best features of Supro and Airline guitars:
– Hollow fiberglass body, gives the guitar resonance and a warmer/fuller tone.
– The electronics are easy to access, due to the simple removable back.
– The pickups are big looking (like a humbucker), but are actually larger single-coil pickups.
– The body design is classic 60s, with its simple lines and usage of chrome.

Not-so-great features of Supro and Airline guitars:
– The two-bolt necks are prone to neck “wobble”, and will need to be tightened over time or shimmed.
– The chrome often gets pitted over the years.
– Pickup heights are not adjustable. The Airline’s bridge pickup is low compared to the neck pickup, and you cannot adjust it.
– Pickups are not changeable without breaking them free from the pickup surrounds.

Not quite an American Icon… Just yet.

Valco was never going to be as big as Gibson or Fender, but they did stand out during the 1960s with their design and construction. For the most part, their out-of-the box approach to guitar making worked and gave them a unique look and sound. Valco didn’t last long enough to become an American icon, but the continue to leave an impression.

Back in the days of Valco, it wasn’t easy to be a guitar manufacturer. Supply chains were limited and distribution was more challenging. Quality controls were manual and not done with automation or software. It’s kind of amazing for a company like Valco to survive as long as it did.

Today, there are thousands of guitar makers, luthiers and brands. For most part, many guitars are re-creations of what was already done. The slight variations and subtle uniqueness of each model, is what makes the guitar market fun, but also slow to change. Valco tried to break that mold back in the 1960s, and they literally broke that mold. Here’s to Valco!