Monday, August 11, 2008

Silvertone Artist, 1958

This guitar was made by the Valco company of Chicago, for the Sears Roebuck department store house brand Silvertone. Valco also made the National line of guitars and amps, the ‘budget’ Supro line, and a range of brands incuding Oahu and other department store house brands like Airline for Montgomery Ward. It has some similarities to the Supro Rhythm Tone and Belmont models of the late 1950s, with a different headstock, scratchplate/pickguard and tailpiece. The serial number X86897 puts it in early 1958. Valco also made a two-pickup solid body guitar for Sears /Silvertone in 1958, much like the first version of the Supro Dual Tone. For some reason the two Valco guitars were given the same model name by Sears - The Artist, with the same distinctive ‘electric cowboy’ headstock logo. On the two pickup version it’s silver, on the single pickup one I have it’s gold. There aren’t many Valco-made Silvertones around, and they don’t seem to have lasted long enough to get into one of their famous mail order catalogues. The Artist is a basic guitar, but it feels really great to play. You hear a lot about ‘baseball bat’ necks online, but this is the real thing. I find it very comfortable to play, though my hands aren’t large - the neck is thick. but with a narrower than usual fretboard. Called the ‘Kord King’ neck in Supro catalogues, it has a ‘feather-light modern aircraft metal’ rod running down it but no tension adjustment. It has an ebony (rather than the usual rosewood) fretboard. It is worn in places and has a crack running down it, but the 19 narrow frets are in good shape. Valco moved to a 20 fret neck on most of their guitars in 1958/9. It has white block inlays rather than the dots used on the Belmont most of the lower end Supros, and It’s only really held on with one screw (with a second for neck tilt adjustment) but it feels very solid, with no wiggles. The scale is full Gibson length – 24.75”, though it looks shorter because of where the neck joins the body.. It’s been played enough to wear away most of the screenprinted Sivertone logo on the cracked and glued ‘deco’ scratchplate, but it’s original owner had the foresight to invest a few extra dollars on a hard case, which I also have, so it’s in good shape overall. The embossed cowboy motif leather strap is a nice touch – it’s an idea borrowed from Gretsch, who Valco built amps and at least one guitar for in this period. The finish is a thick black plastic coating that Valco called ‘Glossy Jet No-Mar’. It hasn't bubbled up flaked off anywhere. It matches the 1958 Supro line’s ‘Dashing new color theme of Black, White and Inca Gold’. The tuners are original, but with replaced buttons. I do have a spare rosewood Valco bridge I could use, but I like the brighter sound of the Tune-a-matic, plus it’s the right colour. The pickup is a single coil, but looks like a humbucker. Some people have assumed this is a deliberate deception, but Valco had their own patent, thanks very much, cited on Seth Lover’s later Humbucker patent documents. For a short time in the late 50s, Valco even took to printing their patent number (2683388) on the outer cover, I think to avoid confusion with the Gibson product. Most people seem to like these big single coil pickups, although there are some dissenters. A lot of people say they're 'great for slide', which is the main cliche used in describing Supro, National and Airline guitars. They are not super-loud, but they distort a little even at low volume through a clean amp, and I like that. They are often compared to P90s, but my limited experience says they have a weaker but more complex sound than a modern (GFS) P90 at least. It’s a little bassy for me in the normal channel, but sounds just right in the bright channel of my Davoli Studio 60 valve amp. Because the neck pocket is deeper than on later Valco solid-bodies, the pickup is set into the top rather than surface mounted. It’s my favourite guitar to play when I'm just sitting around - smooth low(ish) action and the perfect weight – only 6.5 pounds (just under 3 Kg). The range of amplified sounds from the neck pickup is not huge – but it’s great for fuzz, or with a treble booster! I would love a bridge pickup Belmont or a Rhythm Tone from the same period, but they are getting expensive now. I usually avoid stickers and things on my guitars, but this a special one – the blue dot is from Tyree Guyton of the Heidelgerg Project in Detroit, and it also reminds me of the National Enquirer’s old Lucky Blue Dot. On the back, Taking Care Of Business - speaks for itself. Charlotte got this for me at Graceland. I love the Enhanced Elvis Concept of not just TCB, but TCB In A Flash!


Simon Murphy said...

I edited this post as it's '58, not '57 - got the serial numbers mixed up.
Valco brands - so far the list is:
National, Supro, Airline, Oahu, Tosca, Silvertone, Lockola, Tonemaster (English Electronics), Dwight, Gretsch, Goya

Simon Murphy said...

Minuetta is another one - on a student model Tosca type 3/4 size model

Guitar Hunter said...

I've got some cool Silvertone's on the blog I just started and more to come. Check it out.