However you say it, “echo” or “eek’-oh,” these Italian guitars from the early 1960s, along with Hagstrom from Sweden and Framus from Germany, represent the strongest European contenders for a share of the American guitar boom of that swingin’ decade. Indeed, there may have been a stronger connection between Hagstrom and EKO than just being from the Continent.
The story of EKO (and Hagstrom) guitars is inextricably tied to the story of accordions. The accordion began to become popular in the U.S. during the 1920s and ’30s and was taken up with gusto by middle-class children. After a wartime hiatus, the accordion came back even stronger in the 1950s, abetted by popular television variety shows such as the “Lawrence Welk Champagne Hour.” Accordion studios sprang up throughout the country’s urban areas, and there was a brisk demand for instruments. Chicago, already a major hub of instrument production, provided a major nexus for accordion activity. Hagstrom and Hohner (Germany) were significant accordion manufacturers, but the real center of accordion making was (and is) in and around Castelfidardo on the northcentral eastern Italian coast. One of the larger companies was owned by Oliviero Pigini in nearby Recanati. One of Pigini’s biggest American customers was the LoDuca Brothers in Milwaukee, owned by two Italian performers and teachers, Guy and Tom LoDuca, who distributed Pigini-made LoDuca accordions throughout the Midwest.
Alas, the accordion boom of the mid 1950s ran out of steam, and sales began to sag. Fortunately for the accordion makers (and us), the fabled post-war Baby Boom was just beginning to hit adolescence, and along with it came a taste for guitars – electrics for playing like Duane Eddy or the Ventures, acoustics for joining the emerging folk revival. Labor was still relatively inexpensive in Europe, and accordion makers turned to guitars to pump up profits. Hagstrom switched first with its sparkle-plastic-covered De Luxe guitar in 1958. According to founder Karl Erik Hagstrom, its Italian distributor, Binson, ordered a large number of De Luxes. Binson manufactured electronic echo devices. Shortly thereafter, Pigini was named the representative for Binson echo effects, and shortly after that, introduced its own line of plastic-covered EKO guitars.
That accordion makers should cover their solid guitars with plastic was both natural and logical, since they’d been laminating their accordion chambers with thin sheets of flexible celluloid in sparkle “tinsel” and “mother-of-toilet seat” for many decades prior to producing guitars.
Whether or not Hagstrom guitars actually inspired the appearance of EKO guitars, Pigini found a willing and able American distributor in the LoDuca Brothers, who worked closely with the Italian supplier to develop models. In 1961, the LoDucas got a contract to supply Sears with EKO acoustics, and they were off to the races, with a distribution network and established music studios already in place.
The first EKO solidbody electrics began to be imported into the U.S. in 1962 and actually featured lacquer-finished maple bodies, however, by ’63 they were available in a variety of textured and sparkle plastics. Finish options included a hazel top with mahogany back; white “motherpearl” top and black back; silver sparkle top/black back; blue sparkle top/black back; gold sparkle top/motherpearl back; red sparkle top/motherpearl back; and striped brown top with striped mahogany back. There were two basic shapes, the famous tulip-shaped “triple-cutaway” 700, with a scoop taken out of the lower bout, and the more conventional 500, both equipped with from one to four pickups, with or without vibratos. All except the single-pickup models had sliding pickup selectors. All came with the “exclusive 8 way adjustable roller bearing bridge,” high-fidelity magnetic pickups, and a 25″ scale. Fingerboards were bound and had the famous airplane propeller inlays. As their advertising boasted, “Cutaway Styling Combined with Graceful Flowing-Curved Head – Provides the Ultra-Modern Shape Most Preferred by Today’s Professional.”
The 1963 Model 500/3V features a laminated wood body, with the front covered in a natty striped brown-grain faux-wood plastic and the back in golden mahogany grained plastic, joined with gold plastic braiding on the sides. The top is set off by a laminated tiger-striped brown pickguard. The bound fingerboard is rosewood. Like most early EKOs, the neck is heavily lacquered in black. The three single-coil pickups are probably Alnico V and are controlled by the slider button switches above the strings, offering the player the choice of all pickups; neck; neck and bridge; bridge; middle; and (my favorite) off. When you push one down, the others are all returned to the off position. As you might guess from an accordion maker, early EKO guitars favored push-button type controls. The knobs are for volume and tone.
EKO pickups, as on this guitar, actually pack a nice punch, although they tend not to be very balanced, so the volume increases slightly the more you activate. It’s a little weird, but once you get used to it, it’s fun. Most EKO guitars are poorly set up, but can be adjusted to play very nicely. They tend to be pretty lightweight, so you can twang out “Walk, Don’t Run” all night long. If they have a weakness, it tends to be in the switching, which frequently ends up having trouble making contact as they age. Also, EKO may not have used the best aged timbers because an awful lot show definite shrinkage.
By ’64, with a huge boost provided by the advent of the Beatles, the EKO network had expanded, with East Coast distribution handled by Harris-Fandel, in Boston, and the West Coast served by the legendary Radio-Tel company in California, parent of Rickenbacker.
EKO’s sparkle and textured electrics were still around in the ’65 line, but were replaced by Dura-Glos finishes in ’66. EKO guitars were pretty much in the beginner-grade class. The only band of note to play them was the Grass Roots, who strummed matching violin-guitars and basses – EKO’s most popular models.
Oliviero Pigini liked fast cars, and was killed in a crash circa 1967, marking the end of the glory days. European labor had begun to get more expensive, and the American market had gone soft by ’68. EKOs continued to be produced until 1985, but while some were of excellent quality, none ever equaled the cool of these early-’60s plastic-covered wonders.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.