Dan Armstrong Design

The Pinnacle of Modern Design
The Pinnacle of Modern Design

This installment will focus on the famous Dan Armstrong line of guitars and basses.

These instruments were introduced to the market in 1960 as the “Dan Armstrong See Through” Guitar and Bass. This line of instruments was distributed through the Ampeg Company, located in Linden, New Jersey. Production lasted only into 1971. As we have seen in past history, this was not the first company to produce a see-thru Lucite solidbody instrument. The famous Lucite Fifties Fender Stratocaster made a big splash at product shows for years, but never made the actual instrument line-up offered to the public. The Dan Armstrong Lucite, however, was in mass production and the entire line of guitars and basses was based on this unique feature. Some of the instruments made were a black colored Lucite material instead of the usual clear variant. Please let me know of any of these floating around, as I am getting a strong Jones to add one of them to my collection. Actually, any Lucite is a nice addition to any collection. It sure is an attention getter, and the prices on these are still very modest.

There were many professional users of this product in the Seventies. Some of the most noteworthy were Keith Richards using one of the guitars with the Stones, and Geezer Butler playing one of the basses with Black Sabbath. As you see before you, the Madison Avenue marketing strategy went a little awry with what appears to be some writer’s freedom when they translated their notes from the manufacturer onto this original product brochure. This is yet another savory piece of vintage new-product literature from the archives of the Bass Maniac. The text you see before you has been satirized for your enjoyment.

The cover shows us a great shot of one of the guitars in use, with a caption reading “Keith Richard of Rolling Stones”. Glad to see they got to know the British Bad Boy during this endorsement photo. Umm, Mr. Richard, Mr. Armstrong… Nice to make your acquaintance, Indeed…

Throughout this dealer literature, the author of this handout tells us about the history of the electric guitar, and injects a little artistic freedom as he places this product at the absolute pinnacle of modern technology…

“Electric Guitars first appeared in the mid 1930’s, and were only acoustic instruments with microphones attached, and the resulting problems of feedback and inconsistent response were immense. Twenty years ago, the solidbody electric began to show the way to a practical electric guitar. Ampeg and Dan Armstrong, with many years of combined experience in electric instrument and amplifier technology have developed what we believe to be the finest electric guitars; bass and six string, yet devised.”

He describes the pickups as “really new, designed expressly for this guitar, and is as superior to any other as it is different”. They go on to describe the thought process they travelled to come up with this superior design: “First, we need one single unit that would do the job of two. It ‘eats up’ more string than five ordinary pick-ups.” Wow, that’s one hungry pickup! It must have a much bigger appetite than a ’57 PAF. They go on in more detail about he guitar pickup design: “We wanted a pick-up that produced a tone quality that pleased everybody. That was much too difficult so we offer six quite different pick-ups, each with quite a different sound. Changing from one to another is a snap. Just snap out the rock pick-up, and snap in the jazz pick-up, or the country pick-up, or the any pick-up, numbered one through six.” I knew about three styles of pickups used, but had no idea there were three additional ones offered! I wonder if we can name the last three pickups. One could be the Polka pickup, another the Death Metal pickup, and the other possibly the Acoustic pickup, then the whole family could theoretically share this striking instrument for everything from Gospel group meetings to the edge of the Mosh Pit on Saturday night! What a concept.

The bass pickup description is interesting also: “The bass guitar pickup is really two pick-ups, one on top of the other. A ‘high’ pick-up and a ‘low’ pick-up, blended together by the tone control. This is the first new idea in bass pick-ups in twenty years of bass guitar design.” Wow, I must have missed that.

The author goes on to describe the body: “Physical principles indicated the need for a body made from a material that was as available and workable as wood, but much more dense. Plastic was the obvious answer. It needs no paint to chip off and scratches polish up like new.”

The “BRIDGE” description of assets is another beauty: “The bridge is unique in several respects. Though its saddle adjusts back and forth easily so that intonation may be delicately corrected, up and down adjustments, (not nearly as critical) are made by inserting or removing shims from under the saddle. The height stays where you put it. No screws to work loose. This bridge, which by the way is also the string holder (tail piece), also allows the most efficient string to instrument contact on any electric guitar known to us.” NOT. The bridge/tailpiece system on these instruments was probably the worst single element in their design. It actually consisted of a metal plate, drilled to be mounted on the instrument, with a slot cut into the middle to allow very little back and forth adjustment, and notched out at the rear to allow you the possibility of wedging the strings between it and the clear body depending on the diameter of the ball ends used. This shim system was a very shoddy attempt at height adjustment totally contradictory to the whole idea of this cool sustain meister. Just think what you would get (other than an even higher chiropractor bill) with a large mass Badass bass, or similar guitar bridge screwed down tight on one of these babies!

Actually, I am being critical more of the advertising slant used for this project, than the instrument itself. You can kind of compare the ad spin to the current Parker Guitar rhetoric, as they pose their “pinnacle axe” next to proven substantial icons in the history of performed and recorded music. I guess if you start product comparisons at the top, more sheep can be brought into the fired up flock for a while anyway. I guess it again supports my theory about perception. The Parker people are very smart in the alternative to all-wood construction materials and instrument shape. This totally new design shape, coupled with an advertised different tone characteristic, will get these instruments tried by anyone not happy with their present sound. The acoustic sound principles are similar to instrument makers using Fishman and (years ago) Barcus Berry transducers mounted between the bridge and body mass, among other locations.

Bill Lawrence, known for decades in the pickup design and manufacture worldwide community, has a fantastic magnetic, under-string, pickup currently on the market that can be mounted in any common style guitar (without modification) to achieve both a brilliant acoustic guitar sound and the usual high fidelity sound his pickups have been known for. There just isn’t that large advertising media blitz involved there.

The Steinberger design was alternatively significant, but it’s very hard to achieve widespread acceptance for an extended period of time, with anything competing on the same market as the old reliables Les Paul, Strat, Tele, etc…

I think they are a neat instrument concept, and hopefully the Parkers will fly (pun intended), and create another niche that can grow into other alternative offerings in the future by more manufacturers across the board. Can the standard old reliable instruments live on for another 50 years? Hmmm.

I do, in fact, like the Lucite Armstrongs, and do see them used again in limited numbers with great success. The sustaining abilities are nice, and you haven’t lived ’til you heard a slide on the Lucite guitar. If the bass were designed with a long scale neck, they may have done even more for me in particular. However, there is a marked increase in vintage short scale bass usage lately, so watch for these babies to raise some eyebrows soon.

If you get a chance, try one of the Armstrongs on for size, and see if it’s what the tone doctor ordered for your next vintage fix. Take care, beware, and happy guitar hunting.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’96 issue.