3 Times Electric Guitar Makers Tried to Ditch Wood

Throughout the history of guitar manufacturing, several companies have boldly challenged the centuries–old notion that fretted instruments — especially guitars — must be constructed entirely of wood.

With advancements in solidbody electric guitar design and man–made materials in the 1950s (which proved their usefulness during World War II), it wasn’t long before somebody asked the “What If?" question. What if we could replace wooden bodies and necks with materials that are stronger, cheaper, more predictable, and easier to produce?

In a future article, we’ll cover the ongoing experimentation with aluminum and metal, but for today, we’ll look at fiberglass, Lucite, and graphite/carbon fiber. Here are three recognizable guitar experiments from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that pushed not only the limits of alternative materials, but guitar design as well.

Valco Fiberglass Guitars

In 1962, JFK was President, America was battling Russia in the Space Race, a futuristic cartoon family called The Jetsons dominated primetime television, and fiberglass was going mainstream. You could now find the “space–age wonder material" in boats, sports cars, fishing rods, surfboards, and even furniture.

That same year, the Chicago–based Valco guitar and amp company made sure you could add electric guitars to the growing list of modern day uses for fiberglass.

1962-64 National Glenwood 95 Map Guitar

Made under various names — National, Supro, Atlas, Tonemaster, and Airline (which were sold through Montgomery Ward stores and via mail–order) — Valco’s Res–O–Glas lineup of space–age guitars were bold, colorful, and reflected the new frontier of the 1960s.

Since fiberglass could be molded into practically any shape, the designers gave the Airline an aggressive intergalactic look with angular, beveled double cutaways — it appeared to be moving even when still. The most bizarre body shape went to National’s series of “MAP" guitars with contours, cutaways, and swirls that resembled the outline of the United States. I guess they took their National name literally.

Add to that Plexiglas strum guards, straight line control knobs, “Gumby"–shaped headstocks, and an array of vivid, shiny colors, and there was nothing about these Res–O–Glas guitars that said “conventional."

From a construction standpoint, the guitar bodies consisted of two molded fiberglass body halves (a top and a back) joined by a rubber gasket. The body halves were glued together and attached with screws. The hollowbody was reinforced with a maple block that ran the length of the guitar so the bolt–on neck, pickups, and other hardware (including Bigsbys on higher–end models) could be attached.

1965 Airline Resoglass 3/4 Scale

Despite their unusual looks, Valco guitars played well and had a range of tones all their own. Their Vista–Power single–coil pickups were quite powerful, and their patented Silver–Sound bridge pickup — which attempted to deliver acoustic tones — was very innovative for 1962.

But why fiberglass? Besides being different and jumping on the then–popular fiberglass bandwagon, Valco thought they could cheapen and streamline the manufacturing process (there was no need for painting and sealing since the color could be mixed into the fiberglass).

But, in the end, fiberglass proved to be a more time–consuming and messier material than anticipated.

Although blues guitarist J. B. Hutto played a red Airline model on stage, in the studio, and had it pictured on album covers, no other major artist took these department store “plastic–looking" guitars seriously.

Add to that the cost (top–of–the–line Valco models were as much as Stratocasters and SG Customs) and the fact that Valco went bankrupt in 1968, and their fiberglass guitar experiment was pretty much forgotten about for several decades.

Thanks primarily to Jack White and Dan Auerbach, vintage Res–O–Glas guitars were finally embraced in the 2000s by major artists, and their oddball looks became cool and hip.

That unexpected surge in popularity led to the reissue of modified “J.B. Hutto–style" Airline guitars by Eastwood (but with mahogany bodies) and Guitar Kits USA offering “Res–O–Glas" trademarked guitars in various classic Valco body styles.

Ampeg’s Dan Armstrong Acrylic Guitars

New Jersey–based amp maker Ampeg knew it needed to be a player in the electric guitar and bass world. So in 1968, Ampeg smartly reached out to one of the most respected guitar players and luthiers in New York City: Dan Armstrong.

1970 Ampeg Dan Armstrong

Besides being an in–demand session player and even touring with Van Morrison in 1967, Armstrong was also known for his impressive guitar repair and modification skills. His client list included John Sebastian, Wes Montgomery, Jack Bruce, and Jimi Hendrix just to name a few.

After Ampeg and Armstrong inked a deal, the 34–year–old Armstrong enthusiastically put all of his creativity and ideas into his dream project. His goal was to design something very different from what the Fenders and Gibsons of the world were offering.

Armstrong also wanted his new guitar to look classy, have longer sustain, be made of the highest quality materials and parts, and feel good in a player’s hands.

Being a New Yorker, Armstrong was probably aware of the growing popularity of clear acrylics being used in jewelry, furniture, and even dance floors.

Although Fender had produced a solid acrylic Stratocaster (which weighed a whopping 18 pounds) for the early ‘60s guitar show circuit, Armstrong felt the time was right to offer this special material in a production guitar — if he could keep the cost and weight down.

Unlike Fender’s solid acrylic Stratocaster, Armstrong’s guitars featured acrylic bodies but with wooden bolt–on necks. It seemed to be a practical marriage of old school wood and new, space age Lucite.

Ampeg’s product brochures boasted of “a new body that was as workable as wood, but much more dense; virtually eliminating all unwanted vibrations and frequencies and sustaining notes extremely well."

Ampeg also pitched the advantages of having no paint to chip off and how scratches polished up like new. A bonus feature was the guitar’s “amazing new look."

Prototype Acrylic Guitar from an Ampeg Brochure

From a design standpoint, Armstrong liked Danelectro Longhorn basses, and designed his new bass and six–string guitars with double cutaways for easy access to upper frets. Although the bodies were thin and contoured, it still weighed about nine pounds.

Necks were maple with rosewood fretboards and faux–woodgrained Formica was used for the pickguard and the overlay on the uniquely shaped headstock. Armstrong also wanted players to have rock, country, and jazz tone options and worked with electronics guru Bill Lawrence to create six interchangeable pickups for his new guitars.

Ranging in names from “Deep Bass" to “Rock Treble," the guitar’s acrylic top was routed so that the pickups could slide in and out. Pretty innovative stuff for 1969 (or even today).

When unveiled at the 1969 NAMM Show in Chicago, Ampeg had a smash hit on its hands. Simply put, Armstrong’s guitars were suddenly the coolest on the planet. In addition to their groovy see–through looks and shape, they sounded cool, too. Plus, at around $300 (about $2,000 in today’s dollars), they weren’t exactly cheap, but were still affordable for many musicians.

1970 Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexi Bass

Since artist acceptance and visibility is critical to the success of any new guitar launch, Ampeg smartly took advantage of their amp relationship with the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards and Bill Wyman played “see–through" Armstrong guitars on the Stones’ historic North American Arena Tour in November and December of 1969.

Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, and Leslie West were other high–profile artists seen playing Ampeg’s new Dan Armstrong guitars and basses.

Unfortunately, the Dan Armstrong/Ampeg relationship ended on a sour note in 1971. It appears to be a classic case of different agendas. The free–spirited Armstrong wanted to make groundbreaking, high–quality guitars while Ampeg wanted to make more money selling cheaper, easier–to–produce guitars.

Lucite also ended up being a time–consuming material to work with, and its denseness dulled machinery and blades much faster than wood. Mixed with Ampeg’s financial woes at the time and an overall downturn in the musical instrument industry, it’s easy to understand why the partnership fizzled after just three years.

Although Lucite and other forms of translucent guitars never went mainstream, they’ve continued to be built thanks primarily for their cool ‘70s and ‘80s looks. After nearly 50 years, clear guitars still draw “oohs and ahs" from the crowd.

Ampeg has reissued their historic Dan Armstrong guitar and bass models several times, and B.C. Rich, Dillon, and other smaller manufacturers have offered acrylic “see–through" guitars of their own through the years.

Ned Steinberger’s Graphite Guitars

I was in my early 20s and remember vividly the shock wave made by Steinberger’s headless graphite guitars. I mean, it looked like a prop from that Star Trek episode where Spock was jamming on his Vulcan lyre with the space hippies.

These were unconventional guitars from an unconventional guitar designer.

In the 1970s, Ned Steinberger was a chair and furniture designer obsessed with ergonomics, comfort, and how form should always follow function.

Steinberger L Series GL-2

Not being a musician actually helped Steinberger to rethink the electric bass and six–string guitar with a fresh perspective. With no personal biases, he was in the perfect position to question everything about the design of the electric guitar.

Since Steinberger felt headstocks made guitars very unbalanced, he made the radical decision to eliminate the heavy head altogether and move the tuning mechanism into the end of the guitar’s body. Balance problem solved.

He also questioned why a guitar body had to be so large — critical for an acoustic guitar’s sound, less so for an electric — and why guitars were constructed from a material as temperamental and imperfect as wood.

Steinberger developed a proprietary blend of graphite and carbon fiber for the body and neck of his new creation. Unlike wood, this man–made concoction wouldn’t be affected by temperature, humidity, and other variables.

The Steinberger guitar was virtually indestructible, comfortable to play, and gave a more precise and even response. It claimed its bass guitar had no dead spots on the near–perfect graphite neck.

1985 Steinberger GP4S

Manufacturers laughed at Ned Steinberger and his idea of a plastic guitar without a headstock, but musicians didn’t. Like Leo Fender, Steinberger had worked closely with musicians in developing his new guitar. Once musicians got over its non–traditional looks, they loved its sound and feel.

Steinberger players soon became a “Who’s Who" of A–List guitarists ranging from Sting, Bill Wyman, and Eddie Van Halen. Allen Holdsworth even said that the Steinberger was the “only significant advancement in electric guitar design in 25 years."

In addition to musicians, Steinberger also received praise from the Industrial Designers Society of America. His guitars won an Award for Excellence in 1981 as well as the Design of the Decade. Time magazine also awarded his L2 bass one of the five best designs of 1981.

Although popular, Steinberger guitars proved expensive to produce and averaged around $2,000 in the 1980s ($4,200 in today’s dollars). Demand was always greater than supply, and before the ‘80s were over, Steinberger was purchased by Gibson.

Nearly 40 years later, Steinberger’s original design still looks futuristic (and is still polarizing to some guitar traditionalists). Headless guitars continue to be offered by several manufacturers, including NS Design, Ned Steinberger’s current company.

Unlike the fiberglass and Lucite experiments of the 1960s, carbon fiber continued to evolve and gain acceptance as a practical alternative to wood — especially in the acoustic guitar market. RainSong, Composite Acoustic, Emerald Guitar, Journey Instruments, and McPherson Guitars are a few of today’s companies offering state–of–the–art carbon fiber acoustic guitars.

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