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Supro Guitars and Amplifiers Part I

Supro Part 1
 
Supro Part 1

Some of the earliest electric guitars, amps-in-cases, pickups under the bridge, fiberglass guitars, built-in electronic vibratos. Sound curious enough for you? The subject of Supro guitars and amplifiers represents a profitable avenue for exploration by collectors and enthusiasts interested in the many curious and significant byways off the guitar superhighway, which can be enjoyed without having an oil sheik’s bankroll. While National resonator guitars have received superb attention by Bob Brozman, little has been written about this mysterious corner of the Valco universe. Well, with a little help from our friends (in particular, catalogs and invaluable information supplied by Mike Newton, Jim Dulfer, and Michael Lee Allen), let’s set the record straight.

Supro was basically the “budget” brand of the National Dobro, and later, the Valco company, best known for National and Dobro brand instruments, and to a lesser degree, the Supros. National Dobro/Valco was, of course, one of the major players in American guitar history in the middle of the 20th Century.

Before we wade in, please note that National Dobro and subsequently Valco, more than most other manufacturers, were notorious for putting together guitars with parts left around. This, combined with the fact that they routinely used components (especially bodies) provided by other manufacturers, means that you are likely to find instruments with details inconsistent with catalog descriptions, and they may just be Kosher.

Roaring Twenties
The roots of the Supro story go back to the ’20s and the sometimes tempestuous relationship between Czech immigrant/instrument repairman/inventor John Dopyera and dapper Vaudeville musician George Beauchamp (pronounced “Beech-um”). Both were searching for the guitar’s holy grail of the era, more volume. Disagreement, and some animosity, has always surrounded the account of just who was responsible for what, but Dopyera ended up building an ampliphonic or self-amplifying guitar (or “resonator” to most guitar buffs) for Beauchamp. John applied for a patent on his tricone design on April 9, 1927, obtaining it on December 31, 1929.

The National String Instrument Corporation for manufacturing these louder guitars was founded probably in 1927, in Los Angeles, by John Dopyera, George Beauchamp, Ted Kleinmeyer and Paul Barth, when production and advertising began. The company was officially certified as a California corporation in 1928. For a detailed accounting of those early years, I recommend Brozman’s book, The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments (Centerstream Publishing, Fullerton, California, 1993). This is a horribly confusing relationship, so stick with me; we’ll try to put it right.

In mid-’29, John Dopyera left the National company to start the Dobro Manufacturing Company along with his brothers Rudy and Ed, and Vic Smith. National String Instrument Corp. continued operating under Beauchamp, Barth et al. In 1930, the Dobro company name was changed to the Dobro Corporation, Ltd., with additional capital provided by Louis and Robert Dopyera. Dobro was, during this period, a competitor of National’s, although in this somewhat incestuous world, both got their resonator cones, plate covers and other parts, like tailpieces, from Adolph Rickenbacker.

Indeed, for some unknown reason, George Beauchamp and Paul Barth left National in 1931 and started Ro-Pat-In, with Rickenbacker, for the purpose of making electric guitars based on a Beauchamp design (developed while he was at National) for which he would eventually receive a patent. Ro-Pat-In began making cast-aluminum Electro electric Hawaiian “frying pan” guitars in 1932, followed shortly that year by an electric Spanish guitar. In ’34, Electros became Rickenbacker Electro guitars, and founded the Rickenbacker dynasty, but that’s another story…

In 1932, John Dopyera left Dobro and came back into the National fold, regaining control of the company. We can only speculate that the absence of Beauchamp has something to do with his decision. National and Dobro merged in 1935, becoming the National Dobro Company. However, until the end of the ’30s, when National Dobro finally completed its relocation to Chicago, Dobro instruments continued to be made in L.A. by what had been the separate Dobro Corporation, even though it was a part of National Dobro. Got it? Hmmm…

Against the background of this Byzantine web of comings and goings emerged the electric roots of what would become the Supro brand.

Enter electricity
As has already become apparent, the resonator instruments which made both the National and Dobro names in the late ’20s and ’30s were not the only effort underway to increase the volume of the guitar. The ampliphonics found immediate acceptance among Hawaiian players, notably Sol Hoopii, the very first to record with them when he used a prototype in his first session for Columbia on October 18, 1926. This was used on “Farewell Blues.” But they still didn’t satisfy the desire of orchestra guitarists to get out of the rhythm section. In addition to metal resonator cones, electricity was waiting in the wings, and National, Dobro and National Dobro would play a significant role, both directly and indirectly, in that ultimately triumphant development.

As early as 1924 or so, Lloyd Loar had experimented with amplifying acoustic instruments, though it would not be until the ’30s that his efforts would pan out (without great commercial success). He was undoubtedly ahead of his time. The only amplifier technology available to Loar was primitive radio amplification, hardly adequate for cutting through the horn section. As the ’20s progressed, Hollywood invented “talkies,” and huge valve amplifiers were developed to fill theaters (the music trade press at the time repeatedly published essays assuring musician readers that talkies would have absolutely no effect on the jobs of theater organists!). Part of this technological development included the invention of more and more tubes and the improvement of older designs, which increased the possibilities for instrumental amplification.

The first “production” electrics were made by Stromberg-Voisinet in Chicago in 1928 under the direction of Henry Kay “Hank” Kuhrmeyer, soon to be president of the company which would shortly be renamed the Kay Musical Instrument Company. S-V developed the first commercially viable (more or less) pickup and amplifier. The pickup – we’ve yet to see one so an accurate description is impossible at this point in time – was probably a quasi-transducer which probably adapted phono cartridge or telephone receiver technology. It was placed on S-V’s two-pointed Venetian-shaped acoustic guitars and was greeted with great ballyhoo in the music trade press. The amp was produced before the development of preamp tubes, and was undoubtedly very primitive (there is no mention of even volume controls), and probably not particularly loud (though, of course, listeners had nothing to compare). Apparently, the reality didn’t live up to the hype, because Kuhrmeyer later suggested than only a few hundred of these guitars were actually made, and mention of them evaporates after 1928, likely done in by a combination of lack of performance and the upcoming Great Depression, which descended in 1929.

Out of the frying pan
National Dobro’s involvement with electrics began, indirectly, with experiments conducted by George Beauchamp, who designed his first “electro” guitar in 1931, while actually still with the National company (not yet merged with Dobro). This was a wood-bodied “frying pan” with a pickup probably designed in conjunction with Paul Barth and Harry Watson, another National employee.

National did not seem interested in the project, and, as we’ve seen, Beauchamp and Barth left National that year to begin Ro-Pat-In with Rickenbacker, where they used their ideas on the development of the new Electro electric Hawaiian aluminum “frying pans” and Spanish guitars. Again, some disagreement exists regarding the relative roles of Beauchamp and Rickenbacker in the development of these guitars, but, again that’s a different story. Beauchamp applied for a patent on his “frying pan” on June 8, 1933, and again on June 2, 1934, eventually receiving the patent on August 10, 1937.

While National blithely ignored Beauchamp’s electric experiments, their competition – Dobro – was next to enter the electric arena as early as 1933, with the introduction of the Dobro All-Electric. Basically, the All-Electric was a mahogany-bodied Model 37, most usually outfitted with a 12-fret square neck. It had a large lightning-bolt-engraved coverplate, two screen holes, three little holes under the fingerboard, a slothead, and rosewood ‘board with dot inlays. Instead of the usual resonator, this had a large metal plate where the cone assembly would normally be and a Stimson pickup mounted just in front of the bridge, curiously enough with the poles slanted from the bass side near the bridge toward the middle on the treble side.

The Dobro All-Electric featured a pickup purchased from the fellow who’d invented it in ’32, Arthur J. Stimson of Seattle, Washington (it was not invented by Dobro’s Vic Smith, as has been reported elsewhere). This was, as far as we know, the first modern electric guitar pickup, with the magnet under the pickup, rather than over the strings, as on Electro/Rickenbacker instruments (or the presumed “transducer” on the ’28 Stromberg-Voisinet). Stimson’s pickup had a large horseshoe pickup in the body with two coils, one for bass and one for treble strings, each with its own bar polepiece. A 1/4″ jack outlet sat on the top down near the standard stamped National trapeze tailpiece, next to a single volume control.

Stimson’s basic pickup design was used on most of National Dobro’s subsequent electrics, however, by around 1935 or so, when Supro arrived on the scene, the pickup had been modified to have a single coil wrapped around the two bar poles. Nevertheless, virtually all of National Dobro/Valco pickups were evolutionary descendents of this Stimson pickup.

You can get a rough idea of what the All-Electric looked like in Gruhn/Carter’s Electric Guitars (Miller Freeman Books, 1995), although this example has been refinished and replated, with a new fingerboard, tuners and added tailpiece, and is an atypical 14-fret Spanish model, possibly assembled at the end of the ’30s from leftover parts. Toward the end of National Dobro’s presence in Los Angeles, a great many guitars were assembled and shipped from remaining stock, often as exports.

Dobro also sold a Dobro amplifier to accompany the Dobro All-Electric. The first Dobro amp had a large cabinet made by Bulwin of Los Angeles. The grillcover was a smaller version of the typical guitar resonator cover, provided by Rickenbacker. This had five tubes and an 8″ Lansing field coil speaker. The Lansing was probably a matter of convenience because the company was located down the street from Dobro. The rectifier tube was an 80 and the output tubes were two 42s. These apparently had two inputs, volume and an on/off switch. The chassis on these amps were supposed to have been made by Dobro itself, but more than likely they were sent out to some local L.A. radio manufacturers and assembled at Dobro.

In any case, by late 1933 or early ’34, Dobro expanded its amp line to include what is probably the first twin-speaker amplifier! This had a football-shaped speaker grille with lyre and Dobro insets, and two 8″ Lansing field coil speakers. Nothing else is known about this amp, but it may have had the same chassis as the single-speaker version. It can be seen on page 104 of Guitars, Guitars, Guitars (All American Music Publishers, 1988).

The Dobro All-Electric was apparently not especially successful and relatively few were produced.

Dobro – we’re still in Dobro territory here, not National – quickly followed suit in 1934 with the Dobro Electric Resophonic guitar. This was basically a wood-bodied Dobro resonator guitar with a Stimson pickup just in front of the handrest. Unlike the All-Electric, this had the poles perpendicular to the strings. This also did not especially go over, and dropped from sight before the year was up.

Aluminum
Following the lead of Electro, which was having some success with their cast aluminum alloy bodies, Dobro – still a separate company – introduced its first cast aluminum Dobro Hawaiian electric lap steel guitar, probably in late 1934. Along with the aluminum lap, Dobro also debuted the Standard Guitar, and the Mandolin. Accompanying these was the Dobro Amplifier. All four listed for $67.50. These are all shown in the ’35 Tonk Brothers catalog.

The 1934-’35, Dobro Hawaiian was similar to the guitar pictured on page 14 of Gruhn and Carter’s book, Electric Guitars, which also illustrates the first National and Supro. Since these early Dobros will soon bifurcate into the National and Supro lines, a brief look is warranted.

The 1934-’35 Dobro Hawaiian had the relief sections around a round central bridge/pickup “cover” with a Dobro “lyre” logo between the pickup and the neck. The more-or-less rounded lower bout (cutout at the butt) culminated in two little pointed shoulders, which then tape into the neck, giving it an almost “Spanish” look if you squint and ignore the cast designs. The tapered head had two cutouts in the middle and a triple-stepped top extended on the bass side. The principal difference between this earliest Dobro and the one shown in Gruhn/Carter is the tailpiece, which was a curved, cast-in affair, unlike the rectangular tail on the later version. Also, the side relief panels are painted black, with the whole thing clear-coated to seal it. On this first Dobro electric lap there is no volume control. The jack is on the but, in the bottom cutout, next to the strap button.

By the way, the Dobro Hawaiian lap steel shown in Gruhn/Carter, with volume and tone and the rectangular string attachment, is a slightly later version probably from early to late ’35. Volume controls were added to these electrics early on, but tone controls and adjustable height pickups weren’t introduced until early in ’35, although tone controls don’t appear on Supro guitars until ’38.

Electric Spanish
The Dobro Standard Guitar is not shown, but this is described as a “…conventional arch top body” with Dobro electric amplification. Like the first National Spanish, this had f-holes and was made by Regal. The Dobro Mandolin is also described as having a “conventional” body, probably a pear-shaped mando, again, by Regal. These were probably introduced slightly later than the Hawaiian.

The 1934-’35 Dobro amplifier was a square cabinet covered in imitation leather with a leather suitcase handle, the eight corners protected by metal bumper guards. The grill was curiously covered with a down-sized version of a Dobro resonator plate cover, probably made by Rickenbacker. It had back-mounted controls, five tubes (5Z3 rectifier, 56 and 79 preamps, and two 2A3 power outputs) and a 12″ Utah speaker. This amp was built for Dobro, with the cabinet coming from Bulwin of Los Angeles and the chassis coming from Webster of Racine, Wisconsin.

Merger
In 1935, the Dobro Corporation and National Stringed Instrument merged to become the National Dobro Corporation. The Dobro operation moved into the larger facilities of National, however, the two organizations never really reintegrated. Both National and Dobro maintained separate production lines, sales organizations and distributors throughout the rest of their L.A. tenure. Before long, as we shall see, National Dobro would relocate to Chicago while keeping its facilities in L.A. for a few more years. Dobro production would continue in L.A. through ’37 or so, with some leftover parts being assembled perhaps as late as ’39, after which the Dobro name went into hiatus until revived by the Dopyeras in ’59, but that, too, is another story in the Big Guitar City!

Upon the reunion, National’s reluctance to enter the electric arena was overcome by the obvious success of Dobro’s electrics, and in early 1935, National Dobro introduced National-brand versions of the aluminum Hawaiian and Spanish electric guitars.

The National aluminum Hawaiian lap steel was a slightly fancier version of the Dobro, with a National logo shield shape employed as the bridge assembly/pickup cover. This had gold-colored paint on the relief sections and a tapered, rounded head with a single cutout in the center. This now had a volume control on the top of the lower bout, with the 1/4″ jack also on the top. The Dobro, National and soon-to-appear Supro aluminum lap steels were reportedly all designed by Rudy Dopyera.

The National Spanish was very similar to the Dobro version.

Supro debuts
The Dobros and Nationals were joined by the first Supro guitar versions in late 1935, even though their announcement didn’t appear until a few months later in the March, 1936, The Music Trades. These first Supro guitars included an aluminum Hawaiian lap steel, both electric Spanish archtop 6-string and tenor guitars, and an electric mandolin. They mark the official beginning of the Supro story.

The Supro aluminum Hawaiian lap steel was similar to Beauchamp/Electro’s “frying pan,” with a round body and guitar-like neck, very similar to the Rick, but with the top carved away to allow a little more access. Given the close nature of the L.A. guitar world, it’s entirely possible that all these aluminum guitars were cast at the same place. The head was three-and-three with a single cutout in the middle. The Supro had dot inlays on the fingerboard, with an alternating two/one pattern and four dots at the octave. A rectangular Supro logo plate sat between the pickup cover and the fingerboard. The pickup – the single-coil version of the Stimson design – was mounted under a raised cover (part of the casting) with a slit to reveal the bar polepieces. It had one volume knob on the treble side and was housed in small form-fit hardshell case. This was closest to Beauchamp’s patented electro guitar design, making the Supro brand a direct descendent of George Beauchamp. An important point to remember is that these cast aluminum guitars were made in Los Angeles.

Examples of these first Supros can be seen in two catalogs from 1936, by Canadian distributor Peate and the Bronson Music & Sales Corporation, the latter probably originating slightly later than the Peate book. Both show laps identical to the Supro frying pan. Peate offered the Spanish guitar and mandolin. In the Bronson catalog, the Supro frying pan is known as the Bronson Singing Electric “For The Artist.” Bronson also sold electric Spanish and tenor guitars and an electric mandolin, other early Supro electrics.

Despite what the Peate copy says, these instruments are not Dobros, but rather Supros. The guitars and mandolin shown in the Peate catalog are identified as being “The New Dobro Electric Guitars,” part of National Dobro electric guitars. However, the No. 1 Hawaiian shown is clearly the Supro frying pan (recall that the Hawaiian in ’35 was the fancier Dobro), and the No. 2 Spanish Guitar and No. 3 Mandolin are clearly labeled “Supro.”

A Regal Supro
The Supro Spanish Guitar was a non-cutaway archtop built by Regal with electronic components supplied by National Dobro. Except for the fairly modern block-style Supro logo, this was pretty much a typical downscale pressed-top Regal archtop guitar, with a mildly rounded headstock, neck joining the body at the 14th fret, 20-fret rosewood fingerboard, five single-dot inlays, wooden adjustable compensated bridge and a simple trapeze tailpiece. The most distinctive feature was that the guitar had no f-holes. You’ll recall that the ’35 Dobro Electric Spanish was a “conventional” archtop, most likely with f-holes (a comparable National archtop also had f-holes in the beginning, but switched to the non-f-hole design in late ’36 or ’37, following the Supro pattern). The pickguard was typical Regal made of black Ebonoid plastic. In catalog illustrations this appears to have white trim around the edge, but this was apparently company “retouching” to make the pickguard stand out better in the pictures; real examples have plain black ‘guards. The oval, covered pickup sat on a wider oval surround which also held the single volume control. This pickup was nestled down near the bridge. The tuners were Harmony Tune-Rites, with polygonal pot metal buttons. The necks on National Dobro guitars which were entirely made by other manufacturers were glued in. Slightly later, when they began making their own necks and applying them to other bodies, National Dobro Spanish guitars had bolt-on necks.

No illustrations of the Supro tenor guitar exist, however, these were presumably just four-string versions of the Spanish.

The Supro electric mandolin was basically a flat, pear-shaped, oval-holed mando made again by Regal. The pickup assembly was added down near the bridge. The Supro electric mandolin had a National stamped-metal trapeze tailpiece. Like the Spanish guitar, these mandolins featured Harmony Tune-Rite tuners and a 1/4″ jack.

That the first Supro Spanish and tenor guitars and mandolin would be made by Regal should come as no surprise. You’ll recall that many wood-bodied Dobros had been built by Regal in Chicago. In 1937, Regal got the exclusive right to manufacture Dobro resonator guitars.

Amplification
Accompanying the Supro frying pan in the ’36 Peate catalog was the Supro amplifier. This had a small, rectangular cabinet with a round grillplate with the screws attaching the speaker showing around the edges. The grille cover was still similar to a resonator cover, with large diamond cutouts, backed with cloth, and finished with black wrinkle paint. A leather handle sat on top, and metal bumper guards graced the lower corners. No information is available regarding specs.

The ’36 Bronson catalog probably dates from mid-’36 or later. The Bronson Singing Electric is virtually identical to the Supro advertised by Peate, but finished in “beautiful Satin Silver.”

The ’36 Bronson amp was somewhere between the ’35 amp pictured in the Tonk catalog, with the metal resonator plate grillcover, and the size and shape of the version offered by Peate, plus a removable back with latches. The Bronson amp was made in Chicago by Chicago Electric, with a cabinet built by Geib.

Chicago
It was shortly after the debut of the first Supros that National Dobro entered a period of major transition. By 1935, at least, the company had decided to abandon the sunny beaches of L.A. for the freezing winters of Chicago, then the principal home of America’s instrument makers, and not coincidentally, America’s giant mass merchandisers Montgomery Ward and Sears. Both Wards and Sears had been offering National and Dobro resonator guitars since the late ’20s. Being in Chicago had the obvious advantages of proximity to the resources surrounding the business and being next door to the world’s two largest retailers of the day. The move to the Midwest began early 1936 and took almost a year and a half. Throughout most of ’36, the majority of production continued in L.A.

The first National Dobro cast aluminum Hawaiians are probably relatively rare. They were probably only made for about a year, maybe less, from sometime in 1935 until sometime in 1936. By late ’36, the aluminum-bodied Supro laps (and the electric mandolin) had dropped from sight to be replaced by wood-bodied Hawaiians. The reason for discontinuing the aluminum steels appears to be related to the move. The aluminum castings and assembly were done in L.A. By late ’36, National Dobro had substantially relocated to Chicago (though an L.A. office was maintained until mid-’37), and it wasn’t economical to have them shipped all the way to Chicago. It was easier to make wooden bodies in Chicago, so after the move (by late 1936), National Dobro switched to wood-bodied Hawaiians.

Woodworking
Essentially, as seen in the 1937 Tonk Brothers catalog (which shows late-’36 models), there were two Supro guitars and one amp offered in late 1936 and early 1937. These included the old Supro Spanish Electric Guitar ($75, including amp), basically unchanged from before.

The late ’36 Supro Amplifier was a spiffed-up version of the amp seen in the ’36 Bronson catalog, with a leatherette-type covering, leather handle, and enclosed, removable back. It now had an 8″ speaker, which spoke through a round grill with four bolts visible from the front. It’s impossible for me to tell from the illustration available to me, but this may still have had the resonator plate grill. The amp had four tubes and a “…special high fidelity circuit” that was “…rich in tone quality, and superfluous [sic!] in power.”

Rather than superfluous power, I suspect the copywriter really meant something like superior!! However, then again, maybe they did get it right, because they featured a 6A6 preamp tube that was exceptionally weak and microphonic. These amps also had a chassis built in Chicago, by Chicago Electric, with a cabinet made in Chicago, by Geib. These had performance problems and in 1937, National Dobro went back to using Webster chassis with Geib cabinets.

Finally introduced in 1936 was National Dobro’s first wooden Hawaiian Electric Guitar. These Hawaiian laps were built by National Dobro in Chicago. This had a squarish pear shape, rather wide and frumpy, with two sharp points for shoulders and fairly wide cutaways. This was “…solid wood finish, in hi-lited mahogany,” which is basically a shaded mahogany sunburst. The top was bound. A square neck rose up to a squared-off flat three-and-three head, now with plate tuners with plastic buttons. The 26-fret fingerboard (23″ scale) had dot inlays plus little numbers written along the treble edge for each fret position! This first wood-body looks to have some sort of elevated pickguard, also made of wood. The old, improved Stimson pickup was housed under a large, two-part rectangular cast bridge assembly with a slotted cover revealing the pickup poles, and a slightly elevated back section with rear slots for attaching the strings. Two little wings were appended to either side of this rectangular housing, the treble side with a volume knob, the bass side with a screw-on microphone-type plug attachment (this would be favored over 1/4″ plugs on Supro laps for years to come). A square metal Supro logo plate was mounted between the end of the fingerboard and the pickup cover. Again, cost was $75, including the amp.

If you find one of these early Supro Hawaiians with the pickguard, it’s probably rare, because the line was revamped again in mid 1937, and the ‘guard disappeared.

New, improved
The “New Improved” mid-’37 Supro line is illustrated in the 1938 Sorkin catalog from New York, as well as in the 1939 Grossman Music Company catalog from Cleveland (pecking order and all that). While the illustrations are heavily retouched versions of the older artwork, certain changes are evident, including a change in pickups. The Supro line continued to include the Spanish guitar and the late-’36 Hawaiian, plus a newly-designed amplifier.

The new pickup design introduced in 1937 now featured a pair of cylindrical magnets attached to two blade polepieces. These poles had little extension poles sticking up for the third and fourth strings. On the laps, these had rectangular metal covers which show only these two pole extensions.

Also, it should be mentioned that in ’37, National-brand guitars were upgraded to individual metal-button Kluson tuners, while Supros had plastic-button Harmony tuners.

The ’37 Spanish Guitar ($40, $5 for a case) illustrated in both the Sorkin and Grossman catalogs was basically the same as before, but now with plastic button tuners. This still had no f-holes. The previous basic Regal trapeze tail is now shown replaced by a stamped National trapeze. Indeed, despite the fact that catalog illustrations remain retouched versions of the old Regal-made guitars, these probably had Kay bodies and bolted-on National Dobro necks. Gone is the 1/4″ jack in favor of the screw-on microphone attachment. Finally, the new cylindrical-magnet pickup is offered as the “Mated Pick-Up.” This is significant both intrinsically and in light of later Supro features. This pickup is “mated,” i.e., attached by three screws, to the bridge saddle. The pickup sat inside the guitar contained in a wooden box. This was the beginning of National Dobro/Valco’s association with what would later be called the Bridge-Tone under-bridge pickup featured in many of its electric guitars.

The ’37 Hawaiian Guitar in both the Sorkin and Grossman books was basically the same squarish, pear-shaped guitar as in ’36, sans pickguard. It had a polished Ebonoid fingerboard with new parallelogram position markers replacing the old dots. Also, the large, two-part rectangular pickup cover/tail assembly was replaced with a more conventional, modern design. The pickup cover was the new rectangular type with the two pole extensions exposed. Off to the side of its surround was a little square plate on the treble side containing the volume control. The strings attached to a small piece of slotted metal hidden under a rectangular cover or “handrest.” Gone were the control wings. The microphone attachment stuck out the bass side of the guitar. The cost was $35, plus $6 for a case.

Finally, the ’37 amplifier illustrated by both Sorkin and Grossman was the Supro Model D Amplifier, a little, dark-covered affair which – at 17″ by 91/2″ – basically looked like a little radio. It had a little metal “suitcase” handle, and the speaker was on the left side of the front. The circular grill hole was broken by two horizontal strips. This had five tubes, eight watts of power output, and an 8″ speaker. Inside were two compartments, one for the chassis and one for the speaker. The cost was $40. The Model D was made, again, by Webster and Bulwin in L.A.

Retro pickups
It’s curious to note that also tauted in the ’39 Grossman catalog was the National Res-O-Lectric Pick-up Unit, designed to be added to National and Dobro amplifying guitars. This was not sold as an accessory, but had to be factory-installed for $25. On single-cone guitars, the bridge assembly/cover was replaced with the pickup assembly, faced in gloss black Ebonoid. On tricone guitars the pickup would be built in to the silver cover. It’s not clear if these were also mid-’37 developments or if they appeared closer to the ’39 Grossman catalog publication date.

Avalon
The Supro line continued to grow in 1938, as can be seen in the CMI catalog. Still around was the Supro Spanish Guitar, now called the Supro Avalon Spanish Guitar, other than the name change (which is not featured on the guitar, as far I can ascertain), it is identical. Gone are the wood-bodied, frumpy-pear Supro Hawaiian Model and the Model D amplifier, although a Supro Special amplifier is mentioned (and not described) as being available for $40, the same price as the Model D. One and the same?

The ’38 Supro line contained two lap steel models, still made of wood, but substantially different from the model seen in the ’38 Sorkin/’39 Grossman catalogs. The Supro Avalon Hawaiian Guitar had a rectangular body with rounded corners and two concave “cutaway” shoulders. The head had a slight curve to it. The fingerboard was made of polished aluminum, and the guitar was finished in gloss black. An enameled handrest covered the single pickup and strings passed into a slotted rectangular metal tailpiece. On either side of the fingerboard, just above the handrest, were two square plates embossed with the Supro logo and containing one control knob each, for volume and tone. Without case this cost $40. Note that this was the first appearance of tone controls on Supro brand guitars.

Under the ’38 Avalon Hawaiian was a Supro Electric Hawaiian Guitar. This had a similar shape but was covered in “radiant crystal silver.” This was not pearloid, as is often assumed, but rather a silver paint (possibly a Duco leftover from the aluminum steels) with a crystalline additive similar to that used on Duolian finishes. The head was slightly rounded. The fingerboard was black. A handrest covered the pickup/tailpiece assembly. One volume control sat on a square plate on the treble side, reminiscent of the previously mentioned Supro Hawaiian Model in the ’38 Sorkin and ’39 Grossman books. This cost $30.

Amp-in-cases
The coolness in ’38, however, lay in two lap/amp combinations, the Supro 60 Electric Combination and the Portable Supro 70 Electric Combination. Both featured the little pearloid Supro Electric Hawaiian Guitar tucked into an amp-in-case! The Supro 60 featured a rectangular case with an 8-tube amp and 4″ speaker. This amp had to be plugged in, but was definitely boss. The combo cost $60. The Portable Supro 70 combination featured the same amp but operated with batteries (“…available at any radio supply house”). Most folks are conversant with Nat Daniel’s amp-in-cases from the early ’60s, but the idea was actually developed a good 25 years earlier. Actually, Daniel may have invented the first amp-in-case in 1936, with the amps he made for the first Epiphone Electar C steel guitars. These apparently had an amp built into the case, however, they were quickly replaced with a separate Model C amplifier. There’s no evidence that the Supro was a copy of the earlier Epiphone, but the idea was clearly around at the time.

Resonating
By 1939, Supros had grown again. The ’38 line was essentially intact with the addition of a number of new resonator acoustics. New was the No. 23 Supro Arcadia Guitar, a sunburst birch-bodied resonator made by Harmony. This had a simple nickel coverplate with two concentric circles of round holes, a slightly-rounded head with an oval Supro metal logo plate. The fingerboard had four dot inlays, the body two f-holes. Cost was $22.50.

Also new in ’39 was the Supro Collegian Guitar Family. This consisted of a number of metal-bodied resonators, the No. 25 Spanish, No. 26 Hawaiian, No. 27 Tenor, No. 28 Mandolin, and No. 29 Ukulele. These had metal bodies made of brass – no doubt leftover Style 97 and Style 0 National bodies – and painted a yellowish maple color, with a clear plastic pickguard. This latter guitar took over the bottom of the National resonator line, pushing out the Duolian, which was no longer offered. All but the uke cost $35, the uke $20.

These new acoustic Supros probably only lasted a couple years as Supros. In 1941, the Collegians were shifted to the National line and were still available in ’42.

Probably also new in ’39, though it could have been available as early as ’38, was the Supro No. 50 amplifier. This was a typical Supro rectangular cabinet, now with a round grillcloth broken by two horizontal strips of wood. A Supro logo plate sat on the upper left corner. It had a flat leather handle and five tubes putting out 12 watts through a 10″ speaker. There were two inputs, an on/off switch and volume control. Cost was $50.

By this time all guitars, including Supros, came with Kluson tuners.

Supros probably continued more-or-less unchanged into 1940. My next catalog is not until 1941, when big changes were afoot.

Calm before the storm
By 1941, much of the pre-war Supro line had disappeared, to be replaced with what would eventually turn out to be a good portion – and look – of the post-war Supro line. Gone were the Supro Avalon Spanish, the acoustic resonators and the nifty amp-in-cases. The Supro Avalon Hawaiian was gone, in name, though its spirit was directly inherited by another lap, the Clipper. Also gone were the mated pickups in favor of a more traditional design with exposed polepieces. These with some variations, would prevail for the next decade or more.

Still in the line in ’41 was the Supro Amplifier No. 50, now also called the Supreme. This had been given an updated look, with rounded corners on the cabinet and a slight narrowing taper toward the top. It still had the round grill with two horizontal bars. It was now covered in tweed, with a tweedy grillcloth, and a flat leather handle. The oval logo plate still graced the upper left corner. The back exposed the chassis, with twin inputs and volume control on the bottom. It still had five tubes, 12 watts and a 10″ speaker. In April of 1942 the Supreme amp cost $76.50. This amp would make it all the way to the proverbial end of the line.

New too was “the popular Supro” Baton Guitar, sold with a matching Baton amp as the Supro Baton Guitar Outfit No. 200. This was basically the same shape as the old Avalon, but a short-scale (21″) student version now finished in a grained walnut finish. The silkscreened fingerboard sported diamond inlays. The Supro logo plate was on the slightly flared head. This had the new exposed-staggered-pole pickup with a rectangular handrest bolted on over the pickup, all mounted in the middle of a large square plate. The strings attached to a pyramidal tailpiece. Controls now included bakelite volume and tone knobs on either side of the end of the fingerboard. The back was covered in no-slip suede. It came with a natty alligator soft case. Based on the use of the description “popular,” which Supro almost always used to describe previously available models, the transition from the Avalon to the Baton may indeed have begun in 1940.

The matching Baton amplifier had the same cabinet shape as the Supreme, but was smaller, with a brown simulated alligator covering, and a square grill with rounded corners. It had three tubes, four watts of power, and a 61/2″ speaker. Similarly, it’s possible that the Baton amp may have debuted by 1940. In April, 1942, the Baton Guitar Outfit cost $57.50.

Clipping right along
In ’41, the old Avalon Hawaiian was renamed in the No. 88 Supro Clipper Hawaiian Electric Guitar. This instrument would become a mainstay of the Supro line for many to come, and marked the debut of pearloid plastic coverings for Supro guitars. This was very similar in shape to the Baton. The body was still roughly rectangular, but now with a curved lower edge. The shoulders now had two symmetrical scalloped “cutaways.” The head had a curve with a slight peak; despite the Regal look, these were made by National Dobro. The fingerboard was genuine rosewood with dot inlays. This was covered in “sparkling brown plastic,” i.e. pearloid. The pickup was the new exposed-pole unit with the handrest, contained in a large square metal plate complete with tail slots for fixing the strings, otherwise similar to the plate on the Baton. One volume and one tone control knob sat on either side of the strings. The back was done up in non-slip grey suede. It could be had with a curly, plush-lined, grey shark Servitex case. In April of ’42, the Clipper cost $54.50.

Two new electric Spanish guitars made their debut by 1941, the Supro Capitan and Supro Rio.

The No. 140 Supro Capitan was a handsome f-holed archtop, which was Regal-made. It sported an arched spruce top with a maple body. The hardwood neck had an ebonized fingerboard with pearl position dot and jumbo frets. An oval Supro logo plate sat on the faceplate. A single rectangular metal-covered pickup (with holes exposing the poles) sat just to the bridge side of the middle position. This pickup had six separate coils! It had a “crystaline pick guard,” probably tortoise, and adjustable compensated bridge, National-stamped trapeze tailpiece, and one volume and one tone control situated just behind the guard. It came with a grey Servitex tweed case, and in ’42 cost $71.50.

Electric flattop
Finally, new by ’41 was the No. 130 Supro Rio Spanish Guitar. This was a slothead Regal roundhole flattop done up in a “radiant blonde hardwood body.” It had an 13″ body and logo plate on the head. In place of the typical acoustic bridge was the same square pickup/control panel found on the Clipper. The cord was permanently attached and sort of snuck out from under the control plate on the top. Cost was $33.

Valco Manufacturing
In 1941, CMI became the national distributor for National Dobro products. In ’42, Victor Smith, Al Frost and Louis Dopyera purchased controlling interest in the company. By this time, however, the world was at war and almost all instrument manufacturing ground to a halt as all segments of industry converted to production of materials to support the war effort. In October of 1943, with builders in wartime hiatus, the new owners changed the company name to Valco Manufacturing, incorporating the first initial of each partner’s given name (V-A-L-Co).

Some early Valco instruments continued to make it into the marketing pipeline – early on, at least. Probably as a sign of the increasing difficulty in getting product, the Spring/Summer 1942 Sears catalog sported a full complement of Supro guitars, essentially the ’41 line, all labeled with the newly-chosen Sears brand name, Silvertone. Shown in the ’42 Sears catalog were the Supro Capitan and Supro Rio, now renamed the Silvertone Crest (carved torch logo) and Silvertone Spanish (no logo), respectively. The Capitan had a standard trapeze tailpiece rather than the Dobro variety, with permanent cord coming out of the top of the lower bout!

Also offered by Sears in ’42 was the Supro Baton Guitar Outfit, with lap and amp, except for a carved Silvertone logo on the head, identical to the Supro outfit. One other Silvertone amplifier was clearly the Supro Supreme. Another five-tube amp with a 12″ speaker was also offered, which appeared to be a Valco product, but which model is unknown. This had a cabinet covered in a “grey checked material,” and featured a round grill cut by two horizontal bars, typical of Valco designs.

Good night Irene
In 1942, Valco unveiled a new Hawaiian lap steel, the Irene, which was offered as a Silvertone in the ’42 Sears catalog. Clearly inspired by the Supro’s first wood-bodied Hawaiian with the pear-shaped body from ’36-37, the Irene had a slightly narrower body and more squared-off corners, and was covered in white pearloid. It also featured a light-colored, painted-on pickguard with dark position markers. Basically, this had the same pickup and control plate as featured on the Clipper.

Finally, there was a mysterious lap – clearly Valco – which had no real National or Supro equivalents. This had tapered shoulders that swept down, wing-like, to the bottom, which had a little concave cutout. It was covered in ivory plastic on top, with black-lacquered sides. It had a rosewood ‘board with dot inlays. The pickup was the new exposed-pole single-coil with a bolt-on handrest, in front of narrow rectangular plate that held the saddle and attaching holes. Volume and tone knobs sat on little mini-plates on either of the strings. Another atypical downscale version of the National New Yorker was offered at the same time by Montgomery Ward.

These probably were not made very long, due to the intensity of the war effort. In 1942, production of resonator guitars ceased for good (except for their brief revival on the fiberglass models of the mid ’60s). The acoustic Hawaiian craze had peaked and was already being replaced by electric Hawaiian music, as reflected in the growing line of lap steels. By the end of World War II, resonators were obsolete, and music would be dominated by big-bodied dreadnought and jumbo acoustics, or electricity.

Valco production basically went into hiatus by around 1943. A few models would make it through the duration, but they would be redesigned, at least cosmetically, if not substantially. Most of the Supro instruments seen up until 1942 would not survive World War II.

And, while the world spends its time blowing itself up in a frenzy of incomprehensive territorial rearrangement, we’ll take a break and pick up the story again next month.

‘Til then, happy trails to you…

I’d like to acknowledge invaluable assistance in assembling this history provided by, in alphabetical order, Michael Lee Allen, Jim Dulfer, Paul Grubich, and Mike Newton.



Supro Guitars and Amplifiers
Here’s a fairly comprehensive listing of all Supro guitars and amplifiers. As always, treat the dates with a certain flexibility, but these (for a change) should be pretty close to accurate. In some cases – e.g., the Clipper/Supreme Hawaiian, where the fundamental model stayed the same – they are listed in consecutive order following the original entry to emphasize the continuity. Also, certain salient details are included in parentheses, especially where these can help distinguish model changes. I’ve made no attempt to be comprehensive on these details.

Supro Hawaiian Electric Lap Steel Guitars (6-string unless specified)
1935-36 Electric Hawaiian lap steel (aluminum frying pan, Stimson pickup)
1936-37 Hawaiian Electric Guitar (wood, pickguard)
1937-38 Hawaiian Electric Guitar (same wood body, no pickguard)
1938-40 Avalon Hawaiian Guitar (rectangular body, first tone controls)
c.1941-43 No. 88 Clipper Hawaiian Electric Guitar (brown pearloid, rounded belly)
1946-47 Hawaiian Guitar (brown pearloid)
1948-49 Supreme Hawaiian Guitar Model 1400 (staggered pole pu)
1949-54 Supreme Hawaiian Guitar Model 1400B (light colored plastic handrest)
1955-57 Supreme 1400E (bright accordion red prismatic plastic)
1957-59 Supreme 1400B
c.1941-43 Baton Guitar (Hawaiian, Avalon in grained walnut)
1938-40 Electric Hawaiian Guitar (in “radiant crystal silver”)
1942-43 Irene Hawaiian electric guitar

Supro Spanish Electric Guitars
1935-36 electric Spanish archtop guitar (Regal, f-holes, Stimson pu)
1935-36 electric tenor guitar (Regal archtop, Stimson pu)
1936 Spanish Electric Guitar (Regal archtop, no f-holes, Stimson pu)
1936-38 Spanish Electric Guitar (Regal archtop, cylindrical magnet pu)
1938-40 Avalon Spanish Electric Guitar (Regal archtop)
c.1941-43 Capitan Spanish archtop No. 140 (Regal archtop, exposed-pole bridge single-coil pickup)
c.1941-43 Rio Spanish guitar No. 130 (Regal flattop, Clipper control panel)

Supro Amplifiers
1936 Supro amplifier (round grillecloth, Webster/Bulwin)
1936-37 Bronson amplifier (resonator grille, latched back, Chicago Electric/Geib)
1936-37 Supro Amplifier (8″ speaker, resonator grill, Chicago Electric/Geib)
1937-38 Model D Amplifier (radio style, 8″ speaker, Webster/Bulwin)
1938 Special Amplifier (no description: the Model D?)
1938-40? 60 Electric Combination (pearloid Hawaiian with amp-in-case)
1938-40? Portable 70 Electric Combination (pearloid Hawaiian with battery-powered amp-in-case)
c.1939-40 No. 50 Amplifier (10″ speaker)
1941-43 Supreme amplifier
c.1941-43 Baton Amplifier (alligator, 6 1/2″ speaker)

Other Supro Instruments
1935-36 Electric Mandolin (Regal, Stimson pickup)
1939-40 No. 23 Arcadia Guitar (Regal, birch acoustic resonator)
1939-40 Collegian No. 25 Spanish Guitar (metal acoustic resonator)
1939-40 Collegian No. 26 Hawaiian Guitar (metal acoustic resonator)
1939-40 Collegian No. 27 Tenor Guitar (metal acoustic resonator)
1939-40 Collegian No. 28 Mandolin (metal acoustic resonator)
1939-40 Collegian No. 29 Ukulele (metal acoustic resonator)



Late 1934 Dobro Electric Spanish, a very early model, predecessor to the Supro version. Photo: Mike Newton.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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