Q: Could you tell us something about novelty guitars?
A: What would you like to know?
Q: Oh, just something about those cowboy guitars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, or those wind-up plastic Mickey Mouse guitars, or those Silvertone amp-in-the-case-electric guitars, or maybe those Traveling Wilbury things from the 1980s, or better yet, air guitars, or ...
A: WHOA! Please, let's stop before I go into cerebral meltdown.
Through this century every decade has had its fun with marketing some sort of novelty with the guitar, or some derivative of the guitar. The early part of this century had Nick Lucas, who was, perhaps, more radical then Jimi Hendrix would be some fifty years later. Nick's version of "TipToe Through The Tulips," along with his Pete Townsend and T-Bone Walker approach to theatrics, inspired a whole nation to take up the ukulele. And on and on and on we could go. Perhaps for one column, we should focus on one aspect of this phenomenon.
So, let's take a look at those Silvertone Danelectro amp-in-the-case guitars. Sherman, set the waybac machine to 1960. The race for space is in full throttle, JFK is about to lead us into a new age, and the electric guitar is rapidly coming into its own as the focal point in popular music.
Instrumental groups are bringing surf guitar to the airwaves. The Ventures, Safaris, The Chantays, et al, are moving the vanilla vocal groups over. And little did we know, but the British were about to invade. At this time, the image associated with the main guitar manufacturers, Gibson and Fender, were as such: if Gibson was Carnegie Hall, Fender was Hayloft Hoedown. Gretsch and Rickenbacker were still relatively small operations trying to find their respective niches. Wow, were they about to be in for a big surprise. The Beatles single-handedly put these companies on the map.
But, you may ask, where is all this leading? And I might say, well, I don't know myself. I do know that somewhere in this mix, there was a man by the name of Nathan Daniel. Here was a guy, living in New Jersey, with not only an imagination, but also a knack for inventiveness, pop culture sensibility, and a crazy sense of humor. Add it all up, throw in the proverbial right place at the right time, and what you get is a lasting mark on the times.
Nathan Daniel was the founder, inventor, visionary, guiding light and court jester for the Danelectro Company. The "Dan" coming from his last name Daniel, and "electro" referring to his primary endeavor, the electric guitar. What he set out to do was put a guitar and amp in every neighborhood, if not every household. Kind of like the Ray Kroc (Macdonalds) of electric guitars. Some people have questioned if Nathan Daniel was a madman or genius. Well, since there is probably a fine line separating the two, we won't go down that path today.
We do know that he came up with this brilliant idea of making an electric guitar that had the amplifier built right into the case. With the cord already attached to the guitar, man, you were ready to rock. His idea was to make this totally functional rig that any household could afford, and then have a super power like Sears and Roebuck sell it for him. He took the unconventional approach of using non-conformist materials that could be cheaply obtained to mass-produce this guitar: Masonite for the bodies; vinyl sides; left-over metal lipstick tubes for the pickup covers; an all-too-simple bridge; give it a sparkly finish for pizzazz and to help cover up the cheapness of the materials, bolt it all together, and presto!, you've got it. Now, let Sears put its trade name Silvertone on it, and you are well on your way.
If you grew up in this era, you can't help but remember getting those Sears Christmas catalogs. Everybody wanted a guitar. As the decade progressed and the Beatles hit big, guitar manufacturers couldn't keep up with the demand. Ol' Nathan Daniel had hit paydirt. It sure made it easy for mom and dad when it came time to buy their kid that guitar and amp outfit for Christmas, or any other time, for that matter. It was all in one package, and hey, it was cool!
I'll never forget the first time I saw one. It was in a friend's basement. A red sparkle, double pickup version. It was so neat. And, to top it off, they really did work. The guitars, to this day, sound great. O.K., so maybe the amp was a little lacking, but it did the job of getting one started. And they were very affordable. Cheap things that really worked. The whole novelty thing of the amp built in the case definitely got your attention. You could laugh at it, make fun of it, but nevertheless, you were bound to like it.
Enter the next decade, say 1975, and everybody has grown up a little, refined their tastes in guitars, and the places like Sears and Roebuck have fallen behind, and Nathan Daniel has made his mark and sung his swan song. Then, just have Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page tour the world playing a Dano Silvertone, and all of a sudden, it's cool to be retro. You don't have to mortgage your house to have a great vintage guitar. These Danelectro Silvertone guitars are everywhere, and for next to nothing. Jimmy Page made quite a twofold statement with his Dano. He told the world, "Yeah, maybe I do play the most expensive guitar (the sunburst late 50's Les Paul), but I can do it just as well on this $100 Silvertone. And Nathan Daniel's novel expression is breathed new life.
And to this day, nearly a quarter of a century since Page reintroduced it to the world, the Silvertone Danelectro, complete with the amp in the case, still thrives. So, is Nathan Daniel, with his kitchen countertop Masonite and lipstick tube guitar a madman, or genius? Well ... Until next time,