Back to School: Student Guitars of the '50s and '60s

During the guitar boom of the '50s and '60s, many American makers introduced student-level models to accommodate the waves of first-time players picking up the instrument. Some brands like Silvertone specialized in the lower-end market, while builders like Gibson and Fender launched what were essentially entry-level versions of their most popular solidbodies.

While most of us recognize that the opportunity to own a holy grail vintage guitar like a '50s Les Paul or pre-CBS Strat isn't going to present itself any time soon, these student level models present the chance to own a little slice of the guitar golden age at a more reasonable price. Here are a few student-level models that pop up on Reverb all the time. While even these aren't immune to the spikes in the vintage market, there are still plenty of fantastic deals to be found.

Gibson Melody Maker

A stripped-down version of the single-cutaway Les Paul design, the humble Gibson Melody Maker made its first appearance in the Gibson Guitar and Bass catalog in 1960. It retailed at $99.50 USD for either the full-scale or 22.75-inch scale length version, and featured a mahogany body and neck and a wraparound bridge. While maintaining the same model name, the Melody Maker's body shape evolved from a Les Paul-like single cutaway in 1959 and 1960, to a double cutaway design in 1961 (which changed slight in 1965), followed by an SG-like body in 1966.

The Melody Maker's a unique single-coil pickup employed the same mechanism used to manufacture the famed humbuckers of the era. Gibson used a pickup bobbin from the humbucker mold as well as the same bar magnet and some of the same metal components to fabricate the Melody Maker’s pickup, allowing the company to minimize their production cost and keep the price low.

This low price made the bare-bones Melody Maker accessible to such guitar giants as Joan Jett and Billy Gibbons in their early years. Because of its Golden Era Gibson pedigree and similarity to models like the Les Paul Junior, Melody Makers have seen a recent increase in value on the collectors’ market. Less desirable double-cutaway versions can still be found for around $600 or $700, but the Les Paul-esque '59 or '60 single-cutaway models can fetch closer to $2,000 in really excellent condition. Typically, the multiple pickup models fetch more than single pickup editions.

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Silvertone 1448 "Amp-in-Case"

The rapidly expanding guitar market of the '50s prompted many department stores to commission production runs from guitar manufacturers to be sold under licensed brands. Most famously, the Silvertone brand of Sears & Roebuck retailed instruments built by Danelectro, Harmony, and Supro, among others. These instruments, while not necessarily manufactured to the same quality standards as their more expensive name-brand counterparts, gave life to the guitar-playing dreams of many aspiring musicians.

One famous example of these economically priced student guitars is the Silvertone 1448. While the guitar is a quintessential beginner’s instrument, many collectors are equally concerned with the case it came with. The 1448 (as well as its later variants, the 1449, 1452, and 1457) came with a low-wattage tube amp built into the lid of its case, complete with a volume control and input cable. This early electric guitar starter kit was designed and manufactured specifically for the Silvertone brand by Danelectro, and had many distinctly “Dano” traits like its semi-hollow poplar body, rosewood saddle and "lipstick tube" pickup.

With a 21-inch scale length, the string tension is fairly slack by most player’s standards. This made it perfect for youngsters who were just starting with guitar, and several famous guitarists such as Dave Grohl and Brad Paisley played 1448s at early ages.

This model and other entry-level Silvertone guitars are receiving renewed interest recently, partly due to the offbeat charm and use by players like Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. However, on the vintage market this unique guitar package has not appreciated in value significantly. The original retail price of the 1448 in 1962, when it was introduced, was $67.95 USD. The relative price today adjusted for inflation, is roughly $525 USD. A 1448 package can be had for around this price in good condition.

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Harmony H44

A large portion Harmony's prolific output through its 121-year history could be considered student level. For collectors though, quirkier models like the H44 have maintained the strongest resale value. This guitar retailed for $67.50 in the mid-'50s and was built with a neck-through design, a unique concept for a solid body in the '50s. Its electronics include a Dearmond-Rowe “Hershey Bar” pickup and a tone bypass switch, which give it a crisp, bell-like tone.

While the model enjoyed modest early success with Chicago session musicians around the time of its release, it never gained much traction with popular musicians. Recently, though, it has found a niche in the collector’s market for its unique place in the history of the neck-through solid body guitar. While pristine examples can go for as much as $1900, a good-condition H44 is attainable at a bit over $1000. The two pickup version, the H88 can fetch even more.

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Fender Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic

In 1955, Fender was enjoying the spectacular success of their newest model, the Stratocaster. Revolutionary in its design, playability and manufacturing, the Strat was the guitar everyone wanted but was priced out of the means of many guitarists. Recognizing a hole in the new solidbody guitar market, Leo Fender began drafting plans for a smaller,, more affordable rock n’ roll guitar worthy of the Fender brand.

In the 1956 model year, the company unveiled the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic. At $119.50 and $149.50 USD respectively, these stripped-down double cutaway guitars had the same quality components and signature sound of their big brothers at around half the price. They featured Stratocaster-style pickups (with distinctive “no-hole” covers that adorned later models like the Mustang) and a 3-saddle bridge, yielding articulate and thoroughly Fender-type tones.

A 1959 Musicmaster in Desert Sand.

Another hallmark of these early student models was their short scale. Designed for the many adolescents looking to pick up electric guitar at the time, the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic both had 22.5-inch scale length necks, allowing easier fretting for young players with small hands. Their diminutive size didn’t deter big names from picking them up. Irish blues-rocker Rory Gallagher took advantage of the Duo-Sonic’s short scale and frequently cranked the tuning up to open F for his signature folk and slide tunes, and Jimi Hendrix is reported to have used one in his early performing days.

Because they were less popular than their full-scale brethren, these student guitars remained relatively undetected on the vintage market until recently. Now, pre-CBS incarnations of the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic can fetch between $1000 and $1800. The desirable 1956-1959 Musicmasters and Duo-Sonics can still be had in very good condition for around $1400 by a patient guitar hunter. Both models were updated with longer scale-lengths and Mustang-like body shapes in late 1964 as the Musicmaster II and Duo-Soinc II. Like other post-CBS Fenders, these models are of less interest to collectors than the first generation student guitars.

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