Danelectro Convertible and Commando Amplifier
The products of pure Yankee ingenuity, Danelectro's Convertible guitar and Commando amplifier were the output of a design and manufacturing genius whose pioneering company churned out durable, affordable, and unique electric guitars and amplifiers in the 1950s and '60s. The vast majority did not bear his name, nor the slightest hint of their origin.
Sold through the catalogs of retailing giants who represented them as their own, the instruments and amps were underappreciated in their era. Extremely cool, they struggled for acceptance because they didn't bear a name like Fender, Gibson, or Rickenbacker. Rather, they were made by Nat Daniel's Danelectro company. Get it? Dan-electro!
Those who admire fine electrics will debate the tonal differences between ash, alder, mahogany, and maple. They will feud over the subtle relativities of pickup magnets, windings, and bobbins. They will engage you with curious lore of craftsmanship paradoxes such as the two instruments that left the factory the very same day but sound completely different. Danelectro lovers, however, sleep well with the knowledge that the characteristic sound of their favorite guitars is largely the result of two factors — lipstick tubes and Masonite.
Nat Daniel was as frugal as he was crafty. He was also an incurable scavenger who adapted the widgets and wares of completely unrelated businesses to his own needs as instrument parts. And while the story sounds too crazy to be true, he actually did construct good-sounding pickups that fit into chrome-plated hollow lozenges actually intended to dispense actual lipstick! So characteristic and desirable has the tone of these little babies become, that today, vintage lipstick-tube pickups are replacing the standard issue of other makes. Cosmetics industry remnants or not, they've proved surprisingly hardy.
Though most Danelectro electrics do a good impression of being solidbodies, all are, in fact, hollow sandwiches of sawn pinewood rims and flat tops and backs. The success of this construction formula is entirely due to the magic of Masonite.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with mid-20th-century building materials, Masonite is wood, but only in the loosest sense of the word. Its furry brown fibers were once some part of a tree, but one shouldn't speculate exactly which part; it's basically particleboard, but thinner and softer. It is easily decorated with paint or, as is the case with this Danelectro, supplied factory-direct with a lifelike woodsy pattern applied to a scuff-resistant non-skid scratch-proof surface. So, the same stuff that lined the walls of your boyhood rec room turned out to be just the ticket for a budding guitar company that wasn't much interested in laborious luthier-type tasks such as sanding, sealing, and buffing. Moreover, it turns out Masonite is extremely stable, and most Masonite-clad Danelectros have stood the test of time as well as or better than many of their contemporaries.
The duo pictured here defines the two extremes of Danelectro's early-'60s line. At $65, the single-pickup Convertible was the company's least expensive offering. Its rosewood-faced poplar neck with twin steel reinforcements, its three-on-a-side "skate key" tuners, and its symmetrical double-cutaway body with white vinyl sides were all fairly standard fare. Slightly unusual, however, was its marketing pitch.
For 45 bucks, you could have just the guitar — an acoustic guitar — sans pickups, electronics, and styrene knobs. Little "decorative plugs" were included to fill the pre-drilled wiring harness holes. Now, any other Danelectro guitar or bass would be entirely ill-suited to acoustic setup. Each had an internal transverse pine block into which were mounted long wood screws that both connected and adjusted a simple and ingenious combination bridge and tailpiece.
For the Convertible, this arrangement was scrapped in favor of a system that would allow at least some top vibration. A chrome-plated metal trapeze anchor was secured into wood at the tail of the instrument. The strings passed over an odd-looking oval top-tension bridge with three set screw adjustments that made contact with the Masonite underneath. Twenty bucks more got you all the stuff necessary to make your guitar electric. You simply removed the inserts, dropped in the parts, plugged 'er in. Cough up the $45 and the $20, and it came to you looking just like it does here. Not a bad little deal, really.
Looking like a huge Gladstone handbag with grillecloth is Danelectro's most expensive — and expansive — amplifier. Measuring 22" x 22" x 10", the Commando married eight 8" speakers to a 30-watt tube unit with separate channels of three inputs each. When the hinges were undone, 25 feet of speaker cord allowed for wide placement and an unusual two amp effect.
Nat Daniel was clearly hoping to upscale his own "amp in the case" scenario that had done so well under Sears' Silvertone brand, but unfortunately, the Commando wasn't much of a success. "At $315, they can't have made too many," offers Rick King, a Danelectro guru. "Today, they're certainly the company's rarest amp." Shucks, even the slip cover would have set you back $8.75 — a lot of scratch in those days.
When Danelectro strayed from its mandate, it was almost sure to fail. The instrument-buying public looked to the company to provide reliable, well-designed, user-friendly music tools, reasonably priced, with professional quality. They wanted guitars and amplifiers that were cool quirky, and collectible. They still do. — R.J. Klimpert
Legendary Bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn Passes
Donald "Duck" Dunn with his Duck Dunn signature model Lakland bass. Photo: Paul Natkin.
Donald "Duck" Dunn, the bassist who, alongside guitarist Steve Cropper, helped create the sound of Memphis soul at Stax Records as part of Booker T. and the MGs, died in his sleep May 13. He was 70.
One of the most respected session players in the history of popular music, Dunn's bass is heard on a host of classics recorded in the studios of Stax Records, including Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," as well as two hit versions of "Soul Man" — the original by Sam and Dave from 1967, and the 1978 cover recorded by the Blues Brothers.
Dunn was born in Memphis in 1941. He began playing bass in high school, which led to his joining the Mar-Keys with Cropper. He later followed Cropper into Stax Records' house band, Booker T. & The MGs (which stood for "Memphis group"), one of the first racially integrated soul bands. Along with sessions backing the numerous soul stars on the Stax roster, the band scored instrumental hits of their own, such as "Hip Hug-Her," "Soul Limbo," and "Hang 'Em High."
Later in his career, Dunn worked with Eric Clapton (with whom he performed at Live Aid in '85), Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Peter Frampton, Robert Palmer, Rod Stewart, and Levon Helm. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and received a lifetime achievement Grammy award for his work with Booker T. & The MG's. Most recently, Dunn was semi-retired, playing shows and festivals with Booker T. & The MGs. When he passed away, he was playing with Cropper and vocalist Eddie Floyd in Japan. Dunn was interviewed in the the February '06 issue of VG.