Fiberglass. In 1961, it was a space-age material; lightweight, easy to mold, and super strong, it could be used for just about anything.
Back then, neighborhood kids who liked guitars would hang out and listen to The Ventures’ Another Smash!!! while someone’s dad built a boat made of fiberglass. He’d lay the sheets of glass fiber in a mold and carefully brush on the resin to set it up. Little did they know that in Chicago, the folks at Valco were getting ready to do the same thing, but with guitars!
Valco Guitars, Inc. traces its roots to Southern California in the 1920s, when it was known as National and introduced the first resonator guitars, designed by John Dopyera and Jim Beauchamp. When Beauchamp came up with an electric guitar design, National wasn’t interested, so he left to start Ro-Pat-In (with Adolph Rickenbacker) and produced the first commercially viable electric guitars in 1931. Ro-Pat-In soon became Rickenbacker. Electric guitars caught on, and National reluctantly got onboard in about ’35, after its merger with its own spin-off, Dobro, which in 1933 had introduced its All-Electric guitar. The Dobro All-Electric morphed into National-Dobro’s line of electric guitars and amps, which it called Supro. In ’36, National-Dobro began to relocate to Chicago, then the center of American guitarmaking. As the ’30s wound down, National-Dobro began to phase out resonator guitars in favor of more traditional acoustics and electrics. In ’42, the company changed its name to Valco Manufacturing Company, using the first initials of its three principals, Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera. In ’62, the year of fiberglass, the name was changed again to Valco Guitars.
The idea of making guitars out of fiberglass was Valco’s own, and the notion yielded some of the most colorful and interesting American guitars of the ’60s. Because of the way it is fabricated, fiberglass resin can be colored before being applied for setting, eliminating the need for painting after the guitar is molded. Valco called its fiberglass (or “fiberglas”) Res-O-Glas, described as being “Space Age Polyester Glass.” This new material was used initially on Valco’s Supro line.
While these guitars appeared to be solidbodies, they were, of necessity, made of two pieces. As part of the styling, Valco also introduced another popular feature at this time – the wide “Gumby” headstock. While the necks remained magnesium-reinforced wood Kord-Kings, the headstock facing was, appropriately, often plastic. Many featured fancy Kluson Butterfly tuners with large plastic buttons.
The first Supro guitars to be made of Res-O-Glas were shaped like Valco’s single-cutaway Ozark, with a cutout on the upper shoulder that set it apart from the Les Paul of its inspiration. New in ’62 was the Arctic White Martinique, with a bevel around the edges of the body, two regular single-coil pickups and a transducer under the bridge. Under the jet-black Martinique was the Coronado II, the same but without the under-bridge pickup. Next in line was the cherry red Bermuda, minus the body bevels. Finally, there was the sand-buff-colored Kingston, slab with one pickup. In ’63, the Bermuda acquired a nifty electronic vibrato and another model became Res-O-Glas, the cherry red single-cut Belmont. By ’64, the conversion to Res-O-Glas reached its zenith, with the stalwart Dual-Tone changing to Ermine White fiberglass, the metallic Wedgewood Blue Tremo-Lectric (replacing the Bermuda) and one-pickup Sahara 70, and Dawn-white White Holiday. Valco liked the idea so much it even converted many of its flagship “map-shaped” National electrics to Res-O-Glas, from the basic Newport to the Glenwood 99.
All the Supro/National Res-O-Glas models were cool and unusual, but perhaps the oddest was a retro nod to the company’s past with the bright red 1964 S444 Folk Star, Valco’s first acoustic resonator guitar since before the War. “Featuring… Hootenanny’s Newest Star. Now in a modern Fiberglas body, Supro offers the famous grandpappy of Hill Country guitar music!” said the catalog. “The most powerful non-electric guitar of them all! The original self-amplified guitar. A beloved friend of the early folk/country artists.”
The Folk Star had two halves joined in the center of the side with a white vinyl gasket. The top had a German-carve beveled relief around the edge, like the semi-solids. The Kord-King neck had the white-plastic-faced wide Gumby head, and Kluson Butterfly tuners. Under the chrome plate was a single resonator cone with a biscuit bridge. As on many other Supro models, the trapeze tailpiece was aluminum.
The Supro Folk Star came only in red. Valco did make an Airline version for Montgomery Ward in black. As far as is known, no other colors were used.
The Folk Star may have been a grandpappy of country music, but it sure as heck wasn’t the most powerful of all acoustic guitars! Alas, while fiberglass is relatively easy to manufacture, looks spiffy, and may sound okay as an electric, it sucks on an acoustic guitar, at least as Valco formulated it. The fiberglass on this example, at least, serves to deaden the sound of the resonator and kill sustain. It might make you look tres cool onstage with your cowboy hat, but don’t expect to make great music on it!
The Folk Star actually lasted quite awhile, although whether or not it’s plentiful is unknown. In 1966, it was renamed the Vagabond, but that didn’t help. These lasted mainly because they had a bunch of unsold stock! By ’67, all of Valco’s Res-O-Glas guitars were history, replaced by a growing list of more traditional wood-bodied guitars. But by that point, it was pretty much academic. Valco had been sold to its accountant, Robert Engelhardt, in ’64, the year the Folk Star debuted. In ’67 (the year it exited) Engelhardt bought the mighty Kay company from Seeburg, the juke-box company, who’d purchased Kay the year before. This was probably to get Kay’s new state-of-the-art factory. Unfortunately, the market had gone soft, and in ’68, Valco/Kay closed its doors for good, leaving these space-age fiberglass guitars as part of its legacy!
1964 Supro Resophonic FolkStar. Photo: Michael Wright.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.