A Clear, Concise History of Dan Armstrong's See-Through Guitars

Fifty years ago, Keith Richards saw right through Ampeg's new Dan Armstrong guitars. He didn't have much choice, really, because the body of the guitar they gave him was made of solid clear plastic. If he held it up to his face, he could see the rest of the Stones waving to him. When he tried it on stage—aside from its playability, which he loved—he probably noticed the way the lights would dance all over it.

Ampeg Keith Richards ad, 1970.

In the heady late '60s, these new plastic-body guitars must have seemed like a possible version of the future. Maybe the days were numbered when only wood could be used for a good professional guitar?

In fact, a plastic electric guitar wasn't a new idea. In the '30s, Rickenbacker's George Beauchamp hit upon Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, a hard phenolic resin popularized for household objects. George used it for the firm's Model B Hawaiian steel and the Electro Spanish, launched in 1932 and today considered historically as the first non-steel solidbody electric guitar.

Later, Valco in Chicago introduced a line of electrics, in 1962, with molded fiberglass bodies, including the stylish National "map shape" models. That same year, Ampeg made a fiberglass-body electric upright bass, the Baby Bass.

Ampeg's Dan Armstrong models, however, were the first commercial solidbody electrics to have clear plastic bodies, and that certainly made them stand out. The Ampeg company dated back to the '40s, set up in New York City by Everett Hull to make amplifiers and upright-bass pickups. Everett came up with the company's name from the "amplified peg" of his amplification system that put a mic inside the pointed "peg" or spike of an upright bass.

Ampeg first tried to get into the electric guitar market in 1963, importing four Burns guitar models from Britain—the Jazz Split Sound, Nu-Sonic, Split Sonic, and TR-2—which were the same as the UK originals apart from an Ampeg logo on the pickguard. Few were sold, and the deal ended a year later.

Dan Armstrong's 48th Street shop.

Ampeg next introduced some distinctive-looking bass guitars in 1966, the fretted AEB-1 and the first commercial fretless electric bass, the AUB-1, both with transducer-style pickups under the bridge (later variants had regular magnetic pickups). There was also the ASB-1 "devil bass" with distinctive slim, pointy body horns.

By 1967, Ampeg was owned by Unimusic, who fancied another try with guitars to sell alongside the brand's popular amps. They came across Dan Armstrong, and in '68 asked him for some advice about the guitar business. Dan was a respected guitar repairer with a busy workshop, originally across the street from Manny's on New York's 48th Street "music row," but by now on Laguardia Place in Greenwich Village. His shop was well-known to many of the city's musicians and a lot of touring players. Dan also worked as a session guitarist and bassist in NYC: That's him playing bass on Ohio Express's "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy," for example.

At a NAMM show in Chicago, a friend of Dan's who worked for Ampeg gave him a quick tour of the company's current efforts, and Dan suggested he might design some new electric guitars for them. A deal was struck. With help from Matt Umanov (the guitar itself) and Bill Lawrence (the pickups), Dan set to work making prototypes for Ampeg to consider.

He decided to carve the bodies of the new instruments from blocks of transparent Lucite, just as if they were wood. Lucite was an acrylic plastic known technically as polymethyl methacrylate and sold under various trade names, including Plexiglas and Perspex as well as Lucite. "I just wanted to be as original as possible," he told Jeffrey Pike in Guitar magazine in 1973, "not to copy anybody's anything."

Dan's quest for originality certainly created a distinctive-looking instrument, but he also wanted to exploit what he saw as the advantages of the non-standard body material. In Beat Instrumental in '73, he explained how he'd searched for a rigid material, based on the idea that rigid steel guitars sustained well. He wanted something very hard, and concluded that wood varied too much.

"I came up with good old plastic," he said, "which I figured we ought to be able to mold. In fact, we had to machine the body to shape, and it cost a lot to cut and polish one of those bodies out of a solid block of acrylic plastic. It's not easy stuff to work with, but our end product was a really nice looking piece of plastic."

1969 Ampeg Dan Armstrong Guitar. Photos by Jesse's Gear Garage.

Ampeg's '69 catalogue for the new See-Through guitar and bass said that acrylic plastic was "so dense it virtually eliminates all unwanted vibrations and frequencies" and that the body was "practically maintenance free, with no paint to chip off." The company's instructions suggested that if the body did somehow become scratched, the best way to deal with this was to polish it with toothpaste—surely a first in guitar care techniques.

Ampeg's brochure went on to suggest that there were sonic benefits to be had, too, from the brave new world of transparent plastic bodies. "The ability to sustain notes extremely well is due to the considerable mass of the material," it said, carefully avoiding the word "heavy."

The guitar and bass models each had a bolt-on maple neck and rosewood fingerboard with small-dot inlays, and both were early instances of 24-fret fingerboards, making for two full octaves (24 3/4-inch scale on the guitar; 30 1/2-inch on the bass), and the deep cutaways provided access to the highest of those frets.

Another unusual feature of Ampeg's See-Through ARMG-1 guitar (not the bass) was the opportunity for the player to use one of six interchangeable pickups in its single-pickup slot. They were designed by Bill Lawrence and called Rock, Country, or Jazz, each in Treble or Bass versions. "We wanted a pickup that produced a tone that pleased everybody," Ampeg explained. "This was much too difficult, so we offer six quite different pickups, each with quite a different sound."

1969 Ampeg Dan Armstrong Bass. Photo by Ventura Vintage.

At first, two pickups were supplied with each new See-Through guitar, a Rock Treble and a Country Bass, and others could be bought as accessories from Ampeg dealers. To change pickups, the player had to loosen a small thumb-screw at the back, gently slide the existing pickup out of the sloping slot cut into the face of the body, slide another pickup in, guiding the body plugs into the pickup's holes, and tighten the rear screw. The See-Through ARMB-1 bass was more conventional in that its single pickup was a fixed unit (although with a bit of fiddling it could be relatively easily disconnected if it failed), but also, and rather less conventionally for the time, it was a stacked humbucker.

A little more period vibe came with the pickguard, which was a piece of woodgrain Formica plastic laminate. The material, more familiar from furniture and worktops of the era, was also used to face the neat three-a-side headstock, which housed the truss-rod adjuster under a small plate. The pickguard had the controls and jack fitted to its underside, Fender-style, for ease of production. There was the expected pair of volume and tone knobs, but Ampeg insisted on a switch as well, even though these were single-pickup instruments. Dan made the most of this demand and provided various tone and standby options from a three-way (and later a two-way on the bass).

Dan Armstrongs on Reverb

The See-Through guitar and bass each listed for $290 upon their launch in 1969, rising to $340 in 1970, when a fretless version of the bass, the ARMUB-1, was added. There were also a handful of guitars and basses made with black plastic bodies.

Keith Richards got his See-Through guitar late in 1969 during rehearsals with his band's new guitarist, Mick Taylor. The Stones needed new stage gear for the upcoming tour, and along with some welcome Ampeg amps came the guitar for Keith. The model he was given can be spotted in period photos and footage by its prototype white pickup, where the production versions are brown. Keith apparently took to his new six-string straight away, and it became an important guitar for him during the next few years.

Dan Armstrong plays one of his basses, late '60s. Photo via Ampeg.

Ampeg was, of course, delighted by such high-profile visibility of its new product, and the firm featured Keith in advertising. The image of Keith and See-Through must have helped to persuade others to give the transparent solidbody a try through the years, and they include Greg Ginn, Cyril Jordan, Alanis Morissette, Joe Perry, Tom Petty, Randy Rhoads, Rick Richards, Johnny Thunders, and Tom Verlaine. Bill Wyman, meanwhile, got one of the basses but didn't use it for long, complaining that it was too heavy for him. Other bassists drawn to the look of the See-Throughs and not so fussy about their "considerable mass" included Jack Bruce (fretless), Geezer Butler, and Rick Price.

Despite all the invention and innovation, the imaginative Ampeg Dan Armstrong See-Through models lasted little more than a year in production, dropped in 1971 and not helped by conservative players and a relatively expensive manufacturing process. Dan closed his Village shop that same year and moved to the UK, returning to America in 1975. Among other things, he made some more Dan Armstrong instruments, various amps, and a line of small Sound Modifiers effects boxes that plugged into the guitar jack.

Ampeg reissued the See-Throughs in 1999 for a few years, again in 2006, and once more for the 40th anniversary in 2009, with pickups by Dan's son, Kent Armstrong. Dan died in 2004. "When you're repairing things," he told Jeffrey Pike back in the '70s, "if you're a susser you say, 'Ah, this should have been made better to begin with,' and you figure out how to rebuild it instead of just repairing it."

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Bass Book, Fuzz & Feedback, and Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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