Throughout the years luthiers have built guitars out of a lot of exotic materials, from Torres’ paper mache acoustics to Danelectro’s masonite to Dan Armstrong’s lucite guitars to Steinberger’s all-graphite headless wonders. While all of these instruments are absolutely cool, few have the magic of those shiny metal guitars with bird-like headstocks and gleaming ruby eye crafted of aluminum named Veleno. Veleno guitars are the essence of glam, perfect icons of the decadence of the Me Decade.
And, as it turns out, quite rare. To learn their story we have to travel back in time to those innocent days of 1966, or, indeed even back further, to the formative years of a young machinist by the name of John Veleno.
The Rhythm Masters
John Veleno was born in 1934 and began studying guitar in Massachusetts in around 1958, eventually playing part-time in a rock and country band called the Rhythm Masters. From 1961 to ’62 he worked as a guitar teacher at the studio where he had been taking lessons. As most of us know, music teaching hardly proved to be a reliable source of income, so during the day Veleno pursued a trade as a machinist. John had completed his apprenticeship in 1956 and had held down his day job until 1963, when his wife’s health condition caused him to relocate to Florida. Two days after his arrival in the Sunshine State, he was offered a job in a machine shop in St. Petersburg.
Once in St. Petersburg, Veleno’ job at the Universal Machine Company was to make aluminum boxes which were designed to contain the electronic components used on the rockets launched from Cape Canaveral. These boxes were of various shapes and had to be both strong and lightweight. The most common way to make them was by taking a 35 pound billet of solid aluminum and cutting it down to a rib-reinforced box of around 11/2 to 3 pounds in weight. It was this background in working with aluminum which would eventually give birth to Veleno’s unique guitar designs.
While working by day at the machine shop, Mr. Veleno continued to give guitar lessons in his off-hours. To do this he obtained an occupational license allowing him to teach guitar in his home. To advertise his guitar lessons, he wanted to put up a sign, however, to his dismay he discovered that local ordinances only allowed him to put a one foot by one foot sign attached to the outside of his house, hardly something that would catch the attention of people passing by.
The guitar mailbox
Veleno thought about it and decided to make a guitar-shaped mailbox out of aluminum to sit at the street curb shaped like a guitar. This was not technically speaking a “sign” and therefore he could draw attention to the sign on his house with the mailbox. Since he was an aluminum worker, Veleno naturally decided to machine the mailbox stand out of aluminum.
As it turned out, the fellow who was Veleno’s aluminum supplier was also a guitar player, and while they were talking, the supplier asked: “Why make a just a guitar-shaped mailbox out of aluminum? Why not make a guitar out of aluminum?” A little light went off in Veleno’s head, and it was only a matter of time until Veleno aluminum guitars came into being.
Veleno began to hand-make his first guitar in 1966, working at home, constantly changing the design to overcome problems as he progressed. Finally, in 1967, it was complete.
Since he was not particularly well connected with the local music scene, the only way Veleno could think of to market his new guitar was to take it around to area niteclubs. Like many a visionary before him, all Veleno received from the local musicians was laughs and insults. Dispirited, the aluminum guitar went into the closet to collect dust, and John Veleno thought his guitar-making career was over.
However, as fate would have it, in around 1970, Veleno ran into his old friend the aluminum supplier, who asked if he had ever built that aluminum guitar. Veleno reluctantly admitted that he had. The aluminum supplier asked to look at it and got very excited when he saw the design. He took John Veleno and his aluminum guitar to a local niteclub called the Cheshire Cat where the guitarist in the band playing that evening loved Veleno’s guitar. They stayed at the club until 1 or 2 AM in the morning, after which Veleno’s friend took him to the south side of St. Petersburg, not the nicest neighborhood in town at the time.
Clothes for the stars
Veleno recalls that night with amusement. “My friend took me to this house that looked like a haunted house. The grass hadn’t been cut for ages. It was about 18″ high! The house had paint peeling off it. A real horror house. We went into an apartment in the house where I was introduced to a couple named Michael and Tony, I forget their last names. Michael and Tony made costumes for rock stars and they were completely surrounded by racks and racks of wild clothes and shoes with 5″ soles on them. They supplied some of the clothes Sonny and Cher were wearing for their act at the time. I remember that Michael and Tony had just completed a wardrobe for Jimi Hendrix. I remember the Hendrix connection because this was just about the time that Hendrix died.”
Veleno’s aluminum guitar was shown to Michael, who was also excited by it and offered to show Veleno how to sell his idea. He insisted the only way was to get guitar players to see it, and that he could show Veleno how to get into the big rock shows which were frequently visiting the area coliseum at the time.
“Remember this was around 1970, before there was so much security,” muses Veleno. “Michael took me to the first show, which was the James Gang, I believe. I didn’t know anyone’s names in the band at the time. Michael’s suggested technique was to show up carrying a guitar case in the afternoon, between 1 and 3 PM. No one ever stopped someone entering backstage with a guitar case at that time of day. The idea was then to get near the stage during the soundcheck, take out the aluminum guitar and begin to polish it. Michael assured me that there was no way that the guitar player wouldn’t come over to look at it. He was right. It worked like a charm for years.”
“By the way,” adds Veleno, “later on I would always go to the record store before a band was coming to town so I could find out the names of the band members and see their pictures before I showed up!”
The other Santana
The first group to really take a look at Veleno’s guitar was led by Jorge Santana in either 1970 or 1971. “I was really excited that I was going to see Santana, but then I found out it was actually Carlos’ brother,” recalls Veleno with a self-deprecating chuckle. Veleno followed the pattern, going in for the soundcheck, pulling out the guitar and polishing it. Jorge Santana couldn’t resist his curiosity and came over to try the guitar. He liked it so much, he took it out and used it on his first three songs that night. His manager was furious, Veleno remembers, telling Jorge that he should stick to the guitar he was familiar with for the show, but Santana was adamant and used the Veleno.
After the show Jorge Santana met with Veleno and offered about a dozen ideas that would improve the design, all of which were incorporated in subsequent guitars.
Veleno’s first few prototype guitars had a bird-shaped headstock with six-in-line tuners. One of Jorge Santana’s suggestions had been to change it to a three-and-three arrangement, since it was easier to find the string you wanted to tune while performing onstage. Veleno went home and got his five children around the kitchen table and had a brainstorming session. One of his children suggested using the family’s last name and came up with a “V” design, and that was it. The trademark red corundum ruby set in the middle of the headstock was inspired by Veleno’s first wife’s birthstone. Some of the heads are all chrome, but some (on black necks, especially) were black with a silver V highlight. At least one example is seen in all black with no highlight.
The Veleno Original
The main Veleno guitar design is called the Veleno Original, although several other models appeared over the course of his brief luthier’s career. The Original is sort of an equal double cutaway cross between a Strat and a slab Tele with an aluminum body and a bolt-on aluminum neck. Some differences can be seen in guitar shapes; some are a bit slimmer like a Gibson Les Paul Junior and some are a bit chunkier like a Tele.
Veleno’s necks were cast from Almag 35 aluminum, the most corrosive-resistant alloy available at the time. Veleno came up with his ideal profile and took it to a pattern maker who made a board which allowed casting three necks at a time. Casting was then done at a local foundry.
To come up with the neck profile Veleno studied many popular guitars. He liked the flatter fingerboard radius of Gibson guitars, but he preferred the shallower back of Fenders. He was fortunate to have access to quite a number of people in the neighborhood who had retired from the guitar business, so he was able to consult with them and learn why companies did things. Veleno chose a compromise that combined the Gibson radius with the Fender back. Their designs, of course, had been dictated in part by the necessities of truss rod installation, whereas Veleno, with his warp-proof aluminum neck, was free of such concerns, and could make any shape he liked. Many of Veleno’s necks were coated in a black finish, making them feel more like a conventional neck finish.
Originally the Veleno fingerboard had 21 frets, but this was quickly changed to 22. Frets were seated with a special quick-drying glue. In theory, this design was supposed to allow easy refretting as often as required or desired. Veleno admits that the necks were a little heavy, causing the guitars to be a bit unbalanced, although he tried to compensate by putting three different places to connect the guitar strap so the player could adjust somewhat. Still, this was a design flaw that was never corrected.
Fingerboards could be finished in black with white dots or in chome with white or black dotes. The typical dot pattern on Velenos was an alternating one/two pattern, with three dots at the octave.
The Veleno Original is actually a hollowbody guitar which is carved from two solid blocks of aluminum, 17 pounds of raw material reduced to a pound and a half! The first five or so guitar bodies were actually cast like an automobile engine, but Veleno quickly switched to the method familiar from his job. Veleno bodies are not stamped and have no bends or welds. Backs were removable to allow access to the electronics. The final guitar was 81/2 pounds, lighter than a Gibson Les Paul. The first cast Originals did not have a pickguard, but when John switched to carving he addied a clear plexiglass pickguard to protect the finish.
The first Veleno bodies were made of 7075 aluminum, but these quickly tarnished and changed color. Veleno switched to 6061 aluminum which was then chrome plated. Eventually, in addition to the most common chrome finish, Velenos were offered in real gold plating, polished aluminum (similar look to chrome plated), plus anodized finishes of blue, red, green, gold and two blacks, ebony and “super finish.” The super finish was a special process which yielded a harder finish that regular anodizing. This availability does not mean that Veleno guitars were necessarily produced in these colors. Chrome was the most common, with a few in gold and at least one in a black finish.
Occasionally Veleno would make his own bridges, although he sometimes used Gibson Tune-o-matics or Guild bridges. He actually preferred the way the Guild bridges adjusted.
Electronics on Veleno guitars were pretty straightforward. Typical controls consisted of two volume and two tone controls, two threeway mini-toggles (off in the middle, coil taps in the up position), and a mini-toggle phase switch. Since the guitars were made of aluminum, they were automatically shielded to reduce feedback.
Pickups on the first few guitars were DeArmond humbuckers, but Veleno quickly switched to chrome-covered Gibson humbuckers, when he could get them. When he couldn’t, he sometimes used Guild humbuckers, although he didn’t care that much for their more trebly output. Somewhere between guitar #25 and guitar #50 Veleno was approached by Larry DiMarzio and asked to use his early pickups, which he did, when they were available.
Veleno guitars sold for $600.
At least one gold-plated Veleno Original was built with three DiMarzio pickups. This can be seen on page 95 of Tony Bacon and Paul Day’s The Ultimate Guitar Book (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991). This featured three volumes and three tones, three on/off mini-toggles under the knobs, three mini-toggles on the upper bout bass horn and a single mini-toggle on the lower horn.
The first sale
While the Jorge Santana connection was productive in terms of input, it didn’t result in a sale. That would come shortly thereafter when John