Here’s a great story written by a couple truly knowledgeable writers, guitar guys, guitarists, etc., etc., etc…the list could fill a page about these two.
Special thanks to Jim Washburn, Steve Soest, and Guitar World Magazine, via Bob Mytkowicz for this Fab Dano Tale.
Jim and Steve’s story ran in Guitar World Magazine some years ago and Jackaboutguitars has received permission from both the authors, as well as Guitar World Magazine, to run this GREAT story about DANELECTRO.
Jackaboutguitars has also been given permission to excerpt a fabulous tribute by Howard E. Daniel, to his father, Nathan “Nat” Daniel, Founder of THE DANELECTRO CORPORATION. For a great read be sure to check out the complete tribute by Howard E. Daniel on his blog at: Pen4Rent.com
THE DANELECTRO STORY…GUITAR WEIRDNESS AT A PRICE by JIM WASHBURN and STEVE SOEST
HOW INNOVATIVE ELECTRONICS AND QUALITY-AT-A BUDGET PRODUCED A LINE OF AXES COLLECTORS GO GA-GA OVER TODAY.
A gangly, young Jimi Hendrix strikes a rock star pose on his front lawn with his first electric guitar. ln a London studio John Entwistle records a bass solo on the Who’s “My Generation” that explodes in a twanging bluster. Tommy Tedesco drones through a soundtrack session on electric sitar. ln a solo spotlight, Jimmy Page takes an arena full of fans on a twenty-minute modal excursion with “Black Mountain Side.” In a West Coast bar David Lindley plays chunk chords on a department store guitar and somewhere behind all that hair, he’s smiling.
Linking these vignettes is an instrument made with beaverboard and lipstick
covers, called Danelectro. Before its demise in 1969, the Danelectro Corporation manufactured an impressive number of electric instruments that are distinguished in their design innovations, their quality at a budget price and their unparalleled weirdness.
Danelectro’s founder, Nathan “Nat” Daniel was born in New York City in 1912. An electronics and audio fidelity buff since childhood, Daniel designed a new push-pull amp circuit in the thirties which eliminated the problematical transformer that had limited amp response to 5,000 cycles. Daniel recalls, “My new amp’s output was tested as flat up to 20,000 cycles, which was as high as available test equipment would go.” He soon made a deal with Thor’s Bargain Basement on New York’s Radio Row, which supplied him with the parts to construct his amplifiers, and paid him two dollars for labor and royalty on each one they sold.
“The Epiphone company was looking to get into electric guitars, and needed amplifiers. They found me through Thor’s and ordered a few dozen. So with two hundred dollars I rented a loft in Manhattan, bought a desk, built a workbench and started the Daniel Electrical Laboratories.”
Daniel made all of Epiphone’s amps until after Pearl Harbor, when the war made it impossible to get materials. He worked in Fort Marmouth with the Signal Corps during the war, and afterward started in business again in nearby Red Bank. He built amps for Epiphone for one more year, and then in 1946 decided to market his products himself under the Danelectro name.
“l came up with a full line of amplifiers, and drove samples around to every distributor in the East. I was going to be rich, right? I came back with not one order. Zero. So I put ads in the trades, selling directly to stores, and a few months later the distributors were contacting me.”
In 1947 and 1948 he picked up Montgomery Ward’s and Sears’ accounts, and Danelectro was soon the largest amp producer in the business. In 1947 Daniel made the first tremolo amplifier, securing patents on two different systems.
1950 saw his introduction of the first reverb device for guitar. Danelectro continued to originate new amp concepts over the years, including a hybrid tube/solid-state amp in 1968, and a master-slave amp system in 1956 that advertised “practically limitless power…30 to 300 watts, or even more.” In 1956!
The event that has collectors haunting garage sales today, though, was Nat Daniel’s decision in 1954 to make electric guitars. Like Leo Fender, Daniel doesn’t play guitar. “l just analyzed what an electric guitar needed to be from an engineering point of view, then built it,” he says.
“The thing that hampered companies like Epiphone was their desire to make an electric guitar sound like an acoustic instead of accepting the electric as a new instrument that is only similar to the acoustic guitar. The Fenders and Les
Pauls had come out, but the field was still wide open.”
Daniel was fortunate to have John D’Angelico, the late master luthier, as a friend. Vinnie Bell, later to become Danelectro associate, recalls, “John was
a very benevolent man. Here was the finest guitar maker in the world. You could ask him the dumbest questions, and he’d always take time to answer them.” He helped Daniel in determining string length, fret spacing, and intonation for his guitars.
The first Danelectro guitars were built around a 3/4-inch square aluminum alloy tube that ran the length of the neck, and well into the body. ” That metal tube really was the guitar,” Daniel says. “We just added enough wood to shape the neck comfortably, and hollow wings for the body shape.”
There were problems in binding the wood to the tube, so Danelectro only made the aluminum necks for a year before replacing them with poplar necks reinforced with two non-adjustable steel bars. “An adjustable truss rod is unnecessary if you’re just willing to use enough steel,” Daniel maintains. The necks had an aluminum nut, twenty-one large frets (some five years before Gibson discovered them) and a thick Brazilian rosewood fingerboard cut in a nearly flat 17-inch radius. Kluson gears were standard until Danelectro began making their own in the mid-sixties.
The most obvious feature on any Danelectro is the pickup. The same chrome tube pickups were used on every model, be it guitar, bass, twelve-string or lap steel. Long referred to by musicians as “those lipstick tube things,” few suspected that the units were indeed cased in lipstick covers purchased from a cosmetics packing firm on Long lsland. The pickup’s coils were wound about an alnico five-bar magnet on machines operated rather imprecisely by workers cued by a photographic timer. They were then wrapped in electrical tape and stuffed into two pre-drilled lipstick covers. The resulting “split shell” pickup was so designed by Daniel to shield the unit while avoiding the shorted turn effect, in which the shielding acts as a separate transformer loop, inducing a current that interferes with the high frequency response of the coil. It also looks pretty cool.
The single-cutaway standard body made until 1958 (1961 on their Sears models) had a front and back of 1/8-inch tempered masonite with pine center block and frame. A pulp composite most frequently used for pegboard and the
backs of cheap motel furniture, masonite hardly lends itself to legend as readily as birds-eye maple. “Well, it was consistent, it was stable, it worked and it was awfully damn cheap,” laughs Daniel. The savings were reflected in the retail price: the model that Randy California used with Spirit sold for $37.95, new.
The guitars were offered in a variety of custom car finishes until 1958, when bronze and black became standard. A four-digit number can usually be found stamped in the control cavity and on the neck’s mounting surface. The first two digits indicate the week of manufacture, the third digit is anybody’s guess and the last gives the year. Thus 2647 would read: twenty-sixth week of-bonus mystery digit – 1957.
ln1956 Danelectro made the first six string electric bass, a 29-1/2-inch scale instrument tuned an octave lower than a guitar. “l was sure we had something there,” Daniel recalls. “It would appeal to guitarists, and to bass players; we were saying, look, here’s two extra strings for free.” It was finally conceded that the four-string would be around for a while, and models were made available in 1958.
In 1958 Danelectro issued one of the most twisted guitars ever made, the Longhorn. With squat body and exaggerated cutaway horns, it looked like an Aeolian lyre imported from the Twilight Zone. Daniel drew the design while doodling one day and found that it was well balanced and made all the frets accessible. Three models were offered, a six-string bass, a four-string and the Guitarlin, a 31-fret guitar. All models came with a cream-to-bronze “appliance burst” finish.
The company began using a double cutaway body for their standard line in 1958. Shortly thereafter, in 1959, Danelectro moved to larger facilities in nearby Neptune City, New Jersey. In 1960 the formerly rear-mounted controls were attached to a masonite pickguard, and use of the center block between the neck and bridge block was discontinued.
In the late fifties Danelectro began to shield the instruments from electric interference. At only a few cents cost, the controls were boxed in a copper paper used for building insulation. Daniel remembers, “A lot of industry people weren’t too bright back then. Shielding was such an obvious step to take. Our booth at the National Association of Music Manufacturers show that year had our guitar and a Brand X plugged in next to a large neon sign. The Brand X hummed like crazy. Actually, that neon sign had guitars humming all over the hall.” It was an in-house joke at Danelectro that their “T.S.” (totally shielded) logo also stood for another childish metaphor.
In 1958 Vincent Bell – then and now a very busy New York studio guitarist – met Daniel at the NAMM show. He had a number of guitar design ideas that he wanted to discuss with manufacturers but, “l couldn’t even find one willing to
talk to me until I met Nat. He was very encouraging and invited me to come by the plant and work on my ideas. I’d usually be in the studio all week, so he’d open the plant on weekends, and the two of us would work on new models. It was a dream world working with him. That man is a genius.”
They introduced the Bellzouki, a twelve-string electric with an octave G string, in 1961. To get the high G they had to make strings out of .008 inch piano wire, making them the first to offer extra light gauged strings. The single-pickup Bellzouki was also the first guitar to have the teardrop body later popularized by Vox.
Another project yielded the case-amp models marketed by Sears in 1962. Currently favored by David Lindley but designed for students, the guitars came with a case that had a built-in amplifier and were shipped with an instruction book and record, a ten-foot cord and a pick. The one-pickup model sold for $67.95, and the two-pickup, which had a better amp with tremolo, sold for $99.95.
Several designs never made it to the public. In the late fifties Danelectro made a hexaphonic guitar, in which each string had its own pickup running to a unit housing six separate amplifiers and speakers. “The Jersey Bounce” recorded by Bell in the fifties, featured a wah-wah pedal he’d made himself. The “water guitar” effect on “Midnight Cowboy” was also of his own device, and is still seeing session use on soda pop commercials.
A capacitance pickup for classical guitar was designed for Mario Maccaferri, the noted guitar maker whose career spanned crafting Django Reinhardt’s guitars and the ill-fated introduction of the plastic guitar. A portion of the classical’s nylon strings was etched with a solvent, then coated with graphite, thus enabling a charged metal plate under the strings to respond to them. The resulting signal was run through a tube pre-amp in the body and out to the amp. However “unclassical” this may sound, Daniel was with Maccaferri when Segovia came to try out the guitar. He says that Segovia was quite pleased with the sound “until he and Mario began to argue about whether a guitarist should sit or stand when performing. The argument boiled over into three languages, with Mario finally yelling that Segovia looked like a monkey scratching his belly when he played. So much for that guitar.”
In 1963 Danelectro began using a neck-tilt adjustment system which is nearly identical to the one Fender used – except that Danelectro did it a decade earlier and didn’t bother to patent it. Daniel says, “It was such a simple thing, I don’t see why anyone should patent it, unless they have a lot of extra attorneys on the payroll.”
Danelectro peaked in the early sixties; the company employed some five hundred people and had sales of nearly six million dollars in 1964. No production figures could be located but Daniel explains, “Every day a forty-foot trailer was dropped off and every night it was pulled away full, with the overflow leaving by truck.”
Daniel sold his company to MCA in l966 for an amount which was “less than Fender got for his” but he stayed on as head of the company. He and Bell designed a new line of guitars and amps that MCA marketed under the Coral brand, the name of one of their record company holdings. Even though it wasn’t anticipated that the world’s supply of masonite would dry up, the new bodies were made of wood. The hollow body models were made of plys of English maple at the same Japanese factory that produces Kawai pianos. The poplar solid-bodies were made in Neptune. Things somehow weren’t the same.
The guitar industry entered a three-year slump in 1966, which hit Danelectro particularly hard when Sears stopped carrying the company’s instruments two years later. MCA became embroiled in antitrust actions which led them to close
Danelectro in 1969.
The company did manage one last gasp of unconventional brilliance. Late 1967 saw the advent of the electric sitar, something Vinnie and Nat had worked out in 1964. The instrument’s unique sound came from the wide, curved surface of the bridge, which didn’t allow a clear take-off point for the strings, resulting in a twanging nasal tone similar to that of the Eastern sitar.
It was offered in two models: the single-pickup Danelectro sitar and the Coral model with an additional thirteen chromatically tuned drone strings, and three pickups. Though both models are highly sought after today, neither sold well at the time of their introduction.
After MCA closed down the factory, a good deal of the remaining stock was acquired by Dan Armstrong, who assembled it and marketed the results through Ampeg.
Nat Daniel retired from the musical instrument business and moved to Hawaii. When contacted, he expressed amusement at the renewed interest in his instruments. He is now engaged in the development and marketing of the “Super Outrigger,” a radical concept in ship construction he has designed and patented, which may be to the marine world what Danelectros were to music.
We asked Daniel in which of his achievements he took the most pride. Rather than list any of his numerous innovations, he declared: “What pleased me most was making a quality guitar a beginner could both afford and play. I’d like to think that encouraged a lot of players to stick with the instrument.”
Authors Washburn and Soest are compiling information and anecdotes for a book on Danelectro. Please send any information you wish to submit to Steve Soest, Main Street Music, 621 W. Lincoln, Anaheim, California 92805.
(Editor’s Note: As this is a reprint of an older article, Steve Soest can now be reached by e-mail at: [email protected] and not through the Main Street Music address listed.)
As many people know, Steve Soest is the man behind the “getting it right” huge reverse engineering project for the new Danelectro Company reissue guitars.
Here’s a little bit about that from a previous post on Jackaboutguitars (see: https://www.jackaboutguitars.com/soest-guitar-celebrating-40-years for the complete story)
JAG: And you played such a key role in the new Danelectro Company. I remember just how much you loved Danelectros way back when. It seems the Danelectro thing was always what you were supposed to do.
SOEST: Never imagined it, or even planned for it. Just lucky I guess. Being in the right place at the right time and being able to say “yes” right away without thinking about it is very important. The Danelectro project has been a very positive and important part of my life. I always recognized them as a fabulous, inexpensive instrument, and it was important to me that we carried that philosophy into the new company. The 1998 56-U-2 was a lot of bang for your buck! ($299.00 list) A lot of love went into that recipe!
THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM THE TRIBUTE TO DANELECTRO FOUNDER NATHAN I. DANIEL WRITTEN BY HIS SON HOWARD FROM HIS BLOG PEN4RENT http://www.pen4rent.com/pen4rent/tribute.aspx.
“A lot of people know about Danelectro – especially the now-retro-looking electric guitars, which have become collector’s items and have even given rise to that sincerest form of flattery, a company of the same name as the 1940s, 50s and 60s Danelectro, which manufactures reproductions of the original instruments, and another company that also issues reproductions, albeit without the name.
Fewer people, however, know much about Nathan I. Daniel, my dad – and the genius behind Danelectro. Nor is my father’s contribution to the history of electric musical instruments widely known. He was devoid of interest in fame or publicity, and after Danelectro closed down in 1969, he simply got on with his life. As a result, most of what has been written about Danelectro has focused on the appearance of the guitars, right down to the shape of their heads and the style of knobs, pick guards and tuning pegs.
I hope that for the people who admire, collect and play original Danelectro guitars and amplifiers (or the Silvertone and Airline products my dad also created), this tribute will give a new appreciation for these old instruments, because the essence of the Danelectro story is Nat Daniel’s lifetime of innovation.
However, Nat Daniel did not patent most of his innovations, which also included:
• the first six-string electric bass (1956)
• the first 12-string electric guitar (1961 – the “Bellzouki,” developed in collaboration with Vinnie Bell and inspired by Greek bouzouki music from the film classic “Never on Sunday”)
• a 31-fret “Guitarlin” (1958) with a deeply cut-away “longhorn” body that enabled a guitarist to play an extra 10 frets into the mandolin range
• an amplifier and speaker built into a guitar carrying case (this was done for Sears, which sold the Silvertone “amp-in-case” and guitar for under $50 as a set for novice players)
• a “convertible” guitar that could be bought, inexpensively, for beginning students, as an acoustic, and later, with the purchase of a pickup kit, turned into a semi-hollow-body electric
• total shielding of guitar and amplifier circuits to protect against hum from neon signs, motors or other sources of electrical interference (he introduced this at a National Association of Music Merchants – NAMM – show, with Vinnie Bell demonstrating Danelectro guitars and amps while sitting right next to a glowing neon sign; the Danelectro products sounded crystal clear, while a specially assembled “Brand X” guitar, lacking the shielding, hummed noisily every time Vinnie plugged it in)
• guitar necks that never warped because they were reinforced with twin steel I-beams
• the use of inexpensive, yet strong and stable composite materials in both amplifier cabinets (Homasote, particle board) and guitar bodies (Masonite, Formica)
• a guitar neck-tilt adjustment system “nearly identical [as Washburn and Soest wrote in Guitar World] to the one Fender used – except that Danelectro did it a decade earlier and didn’t bother to patent it”
• a “master-slave” amp system with 300-plus watts of distortion-free power (back in 1956)
• a “hexaphonic” guitar, with each string having its own separate pickup, amplifier and speaker (1958 – but never manufactured)
• a capacitance pickup for classical guitar with a tube pre-amplifier built into the body; etching the nylon strings and coating them with graphite made it possible to pick up the signal (1959 – but never manufactured )
• a hybrid vacuum tube/solid-state amplifier (1968).”
Each excerpt in red above is copyrighted © by Howard E. Daniel and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s express written permission. Howard Daniel may be reached at [email protected]
These are just a few short excerpts with a bunch of great information from this really cool tribute to his Dad, Nathan Daniel, by Howard E. Daniel at Pen4Rent.
Don’t forget to checkout the whole tribute. It’s way COOL and well worth your time!
Also midway up/down the page in the right hand column, check out the book:
Neptune Bound: The Ultimate Danelectro Guitar Guide by Doug Tulloch