How a weird and short-lived axe brand gave rise to devoted obsessives.
An obsessive-compulsive disorder combined with discretionary income is never a good thing. This leads to collecting, which leads to hoarding, which leads to people marveling at your vast assembly of deranged bric-a-brac in lovingly photographed catalogs from fancy auction houses after you die. (See: Jackson, Michael.)
This is perhaps why people are concerned about me. And by people, I mean my wife, since she’s the one who wakes up in the middle of the night to find me on eBay. I scroll, and I click, and I browse, and I bid. And finally, she rolls over, awoken by furious typing, and asks: “What do you need another guitar for?”
This is a question often asked of me. Lately, the specific guitar in question is a Danelectro Dead On ’67, a reissue of a guitar from the ’60s called a Hornet. Made in Korea in limited numbers and reintroduced in 2009, it was issued in six funky satin finishes, from lime green to “agent orange” (seven if you count a seriously limited number of sunburst editions that were sold only through select retailers). It is thin, light, and only occasionally available. I found one at a store in West Los Angeles in early 2010 and bought it on the spot.
It plays like crap, but I absolutely love it. It’s red. And I need at least two more (in different colors, of course), and possibly the extremely rare baritone version, which I’ve never seen for sale. I’d pay anything for one, but the best part is this: These limited-edition guitars are highly sought after, but also highly cheap. Mine was $199.
Before you judge me, let me remind you that if TLC’s My Strange Addiction has taught us anything, it’s that I could instead be saving my scabs or eating couch cushions. And anyway, judging me for my guitar hoarding is unfair. If you’re a woman, it’s perfectly okay to collect shoes. You could have a hundred pairs and never even think to call them a collection. They’re just your shoes.
This logic does not work on my wife. “But seriously,” she says, “what do you need another guitar for?” Remove the word “guitar” and replace it with “baseball cards” or “action figures” or something else and it’s very likely a question that’s been directed to you at some point in your life. We all have hobbies. Mine is collecting guitars.
I hesitated when I wrote that last sentence, because until I typed it out, I had never considered myself a guitar collector. Mainly because I was always a guitar player. I’ve been a musician since my early teens, but it wasn’t until I was playing professionally in the ’90s that I came across Danelectros. I was doing some session work and took a break to walk around W. 48 Street in Manhattan, where a strip of famous musical instrument stores populate the block. In a window was a sparkling purple 12-string electric guitar. It was one of the first reissues to come from the revived Danelectro brand.
Now, in case you don’t know, 12-string electric guitars are uncommon things to come by, mainly because they’re really only useful for playing songs about wizards. They have a lush, organ-like sound (think the middle bits of “Stairway to Heaven”). I walked right in and bought it—again, it was ridiculously cheap—figuring a working guitarist could use a 12-string electric guitar in his arsenal. You know, just in case songs about Hobbits came back into vogue. In the roughly dozen years since, I have used it on exactly one recording.
I no longer play professionally (as my wife likes to remind me), but my 12-string still hangs on a wall with much nicer, more expensive guitars, and people always remark on it. I say my wizard joke, and they laugh, and then I feel kind of empty inside.
Now that the number of instruments I own requires a spreadsheet to keep inventory, and since the only playing I do is in front of a mirror through a tiny practice amp whose output won’t freak out my neighbors, I have a hard time claiming that I’m not a collector. So there it is, I’m a collector. Perhaps, as with an alcoholic, this is my moment of clarity.
But I am not the only one. “The appeal for guitars is widespread, as is the appeal for vintage guitars,” says author Doug Tulloch, the world’s foremost authority on Danelectro, and the author of Neptune Bound, a book chronicling the significant output and achievements of the underrated mid-twentieth-century guitar manufacturer. “A Danelectro was everybody’s of my generation’s first guitar. It was a guitar you could buy at Sears—a lot of parents did—and it created a lot of musicians.”
These days, Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes, frequently plays a vintage Danelectro. Joe Perry recently contacted Tulloch about acquiring some Danos to use on the new Aerosmith record. And Eric Clapton has a psychedelic Dano model based on an axe he played with Cream.
The story of the brand goes something like this: Nathan Daniel, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, didn’t play the guitar. But during the Depression, young Nat developed an interest in radio and began building amplifiers of his own design. A U.S. Army Signal Corps engineer during WWII, he discovered a simple, economical way to equip military vehicles with shielding to prevent electronic noise generated by their engines from interfering with critical radio messages.
After the war, Daniel founded Danelectro as an amplifier manufacturer. As the first true electric guitars appeared in the early ’50s, the company began producing instruments specially branded for Sears (under the name Silvertone) and Montgomery Ward (Airline). If Fender and Gibson were Coke and Pepsi, Danelectro was RC Cola. It was the budget brand, but not without its own flavor.
Daniel was much more concerned with cost-effective, sensible functionality than sound quality, and that approach added to the charm of the instruments—which, instead of the woods common to electric guitar bodies (ash, alder, mahogany), were constructed of Masonite and plywood to save money and speed production. Daniel made do. Surplus lipstick tubes housed the magnetic pickups that transfer a guitar’s string vibrations into an electrical signal suitable for amplification. He fashioned nuts that hold strings to the neck from aluminum, and threw the filings into the paint for extra sparkle.
Keeping manufacturing costs down allowed Daniel’s team to innovate. Designer Vinnie Bell, who joined Danelectro in 1958, took electric guitar design into some seriously strange places, introducing the first tic-tac bass (or baritone guitar) that year. The first 31-fret guitar debuted later that year, and in 1961 the company built the first 12-string electric and teardrop-shaped guitars. In 1962, Danelectro became the first company to shield electronics, a process that has since become an industry standard. (Daniel didn’t patent it, though; Leo Fender did). A six-string electric bass came in 1966, just as the company was sold to MCA. A year later, the famous Coral line, known for its electric sitars, was introduced. Then, in 1969, the New Jersey plant was shuttered, and 15 years of incredibly odd, creative instrument making came to a close.
Cut to three decades later. In the late ’90s, the Evets Corporation started selling copies of old Silvertone and Danelectro guitars. After the dot-com bubble burst, they stopped reissuing the axes, but in 2006, the company decided on a new marketing model: It would raid its own archives for unreleased designs and issue a limited number of guitars each year. This year’s hot model is officially called the “Mid 60s Guitar.” A protoype design of Bell’s that never made it into production, it’s been dubbed the “Wild Thing” by dealers, with a body shape that resembles the symbol for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince—only melting. It’s awesome, and will likely be completely sold out by the time you read this.
I, of course, plan on buying at least three (they’re making it in six-string, baritone, and bass versions). I probably won’t even play them more than a few times, and then I’ll throw them in the closet and eBay them in a dozen years when I need the money. Online, this is called G.A.S., or “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.” “It’s well within someone’s grasp to put together a collection of every model of the new stuff,” says Tulloch. “Most guitar players are never satisfied with just one guitar or one sound. They have to have 50 guitars.” Yeah, like shoes, ladies.
G.A.S. is the reason why when I see an auction for a Danelectro reissue of a baritone/six-string doubleneck guitar, I have to bid. I have no compelling reason for why I need this. It is just compulsion and affectation. This guitar is ridiculous. It’s the equivalent of having a double-headed spoon, with one end a teaspoon and the other a tablespoon.
Sorry, I don’t mean to get the spoon collectors excited. I mean, what do you guys need another spoon for, anyway?
Creativity is just connecting things