The Summer of Love. Hippies, flower power, psychedelic drugs. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and feelin’ groovy. 1967 was a heady time for a lot of people, especially the much-discussed and often controversial first wave of post-WWII babyboomers who were heading into their 20s and beginning to flex those cultural muscles they’ve not stopped flexing to this day. They were, after all, the principal audience for the music – and the guitars – that transformed the cultural landscape.
In many ways, 1967 was a year of transition, a kind of idyllic farewell to innocence before the tempestuous storm that was about to break (King, Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic Convention…). And so, in many ways, was this nifty EKO Condor reflective of the transitional Summer of Love.
We don’t actually know if this guitar was built in the summer, but it does date from 1967. And it does represent a lot of transition.
Where to start? You could start with the long tradition of guitarmaking in Italy, which began by the 10th century at least, where Arabs in Sicily were building lutes of all sizes and sending them northward. A strong tradition of lutherie has remained in Sicily ever since. A separate tradition of instrument making arose in the northwestern part of Italy in the Po River valley, especially in Bologna and Cento, thriving by the mid 19th century, if not long before. Just south of the Po around Castelfidardo on the coast a thriving accordion-making industry sprang up in the late 19th century.
It’s from the accordion makers near Castelfidardo that we get back on the trail of this EKO story. Before the guitar craze captured babyboomers, they were seized by the fad for accordions. Lawrence Welk was big-time TV entertainment in the mid ’50s. One of these accordion makers was Oliviero Pigini of Recanati, Italy, not far from Castelfidardo. To serve the upsurge in demand in the U.S., Pigini entered into a business arrangement with the LoDuca Brothers, of Milwaukee. Gaetano (Guy) and Thomas LoDuca had performed a duo accordion act in Vaudeville during the 1930s and ’40s, and taught in the Milwaukee area. They struck out on their own in the early ’40s and established a number of music studios around town. They began importing Italian accordions. In ’47 they introduced a line bearing their own name. Whether any or all of these were made by Pigini is unknown, but by the mid-’50s accordion fad, they were getting them from his plant.
Bad for accordionists but good for us, the air went out of the accordion craze after a couple years. Everyone, from the LoDucas to the Piginis and everyone else struggled to find a replacement for the lost revenue. Then at the end of the ’50s, folk music began to break for the Boomers. Folk music meant – ta da! – guitars. The first accordion manufacturer to figure that out, although there may have been an element of happy coincidence involved, was Hagstrom, in Sweden. In ’58, Hagstrom debuted its classic DeLuxe and Standard “electric/acoustic” guitars – hollowbodies covered in groovy sparkle or pearloid plastic with plastic fingerboards. Accordion makers had a long experience in working plastic, so using it on guitars was a natural thing. The coolest thing about them was that they had removable modules with one, two, or four single-coil pickups. You could switch them or leave them off all together and have an “acoustic” guitar. Good for “Kumbaya.” Not!
According to Karl Hagstrom, Hagstrom, which operated its own retail music stores, was the Swedish distributor for electronic echo devices made by a company called Binson. Pigini was Binson’s Italian distributor. Binson ordered a batch of plastic-covered Hagstrom guitars and shortly thereafter Pigini introduced his plastic-covered EKO guitars. Hagstrom was pretty sure Pigini got the idea from him through the Binson connection.
Whether or not Pigini ripped off Hagstrom for electric guitars, Pigini was making EKO acoustic guitars for the LoDucas as early as 1961, some of which were sold through Sears as Silvertones. The sparkle Hagstroms lasted until ’62. The first plastic-covered EKO electrics, with the famous three-cutaway tulip shape and a Jazzmaster inspiration, appeared in 1962.
Alas, the taste for plastic-covered guitars was fleeting, and by around ’66, guitars made in Italy and elsewhere had shed the sparkle for bright red and sometimes bizarre sunbursts, like greenburst and redburst. By the time this guitar had appeared in ’67, the Jazzmaster styling had transitioned to more of a Fender Stratocaster look.
There’s pretty much nothing not to like about this ’67 EKO Condor! This one is a cool Ford Fairlane peach with complementary black-lacquered four-bolt neck. From a looks standpoint, this only needs matching grey collarless jackets to be perfect! The fingerboard is ebony, the dots real pearl. Tuners are covered Van Ghents, which are not Klusons, but not bad either. The neck is very comfortable and the Bigsby-style vibrato is smooth and sensitive. Unlike many earlier Italian guitars, this eschews pushbutton controls for four on-off toggles with wheel volume and tone controls. Wheels never were as good as knobs, but the four toggles give you an awful lot of flexibility, although they never made the leap to reversing the phases. The single-coils are meaty and loud. This one is “new old stock.”
Then, like in America, things changed overnight; Olivieri Pigini liked fast cars and was killed in a car crash the year this guitar was made. This coincided with a downturn in American demand, a rise in European wages, and a surge of Japanese imports. By ’68, demand for guitars had fallen dramatically and guitars like the Condor sat in the LoDuca’s Milwaukee warehouse until liberated many years later. Then EKO experienced a disastrous fire that destroyed its seasoned wood stock. Quality nose-dived. The Summer of Love was over.
EKO managed to survive until around 1985 (the brand has recently been revived by the Italian distributor fo the same name). Toward the end it became more or less a custom shop, specializing in neck-through guitars, many of which were quite good. Indeed, almost all EKO electrics were pretty good. EKO acoustics? Now, there’s something easy to say farewell to…
This article originally appeared in VG‘s December 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.