The demand for vintage and retro-style axes has become so prevalent in today’s guitar-crazy culture that there’s hardly a brand, style, or color of guitar from the ’50s to the ’70s that hasn’t been resurrected in one form or another.
From Danelectro to Hallmark to Univox, oddball guitars were the first instruments for many an aspiring guitarist. One such brand that enjoys the that designation is the guitar-boom era favorite Airline.
Originally manufactured by Valco (who made Supro/National), Airline guitars of the ’50s and ’60s were loaded with futuristic style and design.
Fast-forward to 1997. Mike Robinson, a Torontonian with a big-time jones for the funkiest of old-school guitars, fires up a website to serve as a shrine to guitars with more switches, knobs, and pickups than usually proved necessary, comfortable, or even safe! But his skills and advocacy didn’t stop there. In 2002, Robinson also fired up Eastwood Guitars, where he re-creates modern versions of instruments by Univox, Mosrite, Coral, Harmony, and Airline. Made overseas, his axes are produced in limited numbers using state-of-the-art techniques and machinery.
We recently had one of Robinson’s Airline guitars fly in for a touch-and-go.
Eastwood Airline models are available in standard and deluxe trim in two- and three-pickup versions. The two-pickup model has a tune-o-matic-style bridge with trapeze tailpiece, while the three-pickup has a Bigsby-style with a roller bridge. The deluxe versions feature alnico-magnet humbucking pickups (versus standard ceramic) and a sweetly-retro raised Airline headstock logo and vintage NOS knobs. The logo and knobs are made from the original molds, from the original manufacturer!
In terms of quality of fit and finish, the Airline is top-notch; frets are highly polished with round, clean ends; paint is flawless; and the block mother-of-pearl inlay work is cleanly executed. The guitar features a chambered Nato body that’s light and resonant, and a bolt-on maple neck with rosewood fretboard. The off-white body, along with the black-and-white four-ply pickguard, black pickup rings, black-painted neck, in-line control layout, and geometric shape of the body lend a very art deco vibe. Contributing to the look is the chrome hardware, including the Bigsby and bridge, three-on-a-side strip tuners, and chrome pickup covers.
Controls include volume and tone controls for each pickup, five-way pickup selector switch, and master volume.
The Airline was set up well, with low action and a dead-on straight neck with level frets. The guitar is comfortable to play, though the row of six volume and tone knobs does make for a bit of alteration if you palm-mute or strum aggressively – so there are minor concessions for the sake of looking very cool and playing an utterly original instrument! And after a while, it’s easy to work around.
With the Airline plugged into a Fender Vibro-king 3×10″ combo, a run through its five pickup combinations revealed a very mellow, well-balanced sound. The guitar’s overall tone is darker than you might expect – more on the jazzy side than the surf side. The bridge pickup alone does have significant snap, while the middle and neck pickups sound smooth and round. Some of that mellowness is contributed to the semi-hollow Nato body; even with the guitar unplugged, you can hear the guitar’s jazzy tendencies. Plugged into the overdrive channel of a Koch Twintone 1×12″ (see accompanying review in this section), that mellow tone translated well to edgier blues and rock playing, with a creamy, well-defined tone. If we used too much gain or got too close to the amp, it wanted to howl a bit, but never became uncontrollable. The Bigsby-style vibrato and roller bridge work very well – smooth, with no real tuning issues, even with hard use.
The Eastwood Airline is a surprisingly pleasant departure. In the ’60s, you didn’t see an instrument like this in the hands of jazz players, likely for the same reasons you didn’t see Fender’s Jaguar or Jazzmaster; at the time, Gibson’s big-box hollowbodies ruled the scene. But today, the Airline is ready to go aloft, whether the assignment is rock, surf, blues, or jazz.
Eastwood Airline Deluxe
Features Semi-hollow Nato body, three alnico humbuckers, vintage-style hardware and knobs, Bigsby-style vibrato, roller bridge.
Contact Eastwood Guitars, 75 Main Street S., Brampton, Ontario L6Y1M9 Canada; phone (416) 294-6165; eastwoodguitars.com/myrareguitars.com.
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.
Airline 3 PU Deluxe