Mention the Alamo and most of us conjure up a rich variety of images. Whether it’s Davy Crockett (Fess Parker, maybe John Wayne) swinging his flintlock rifle as General Santa Anna’s troops breached the walls, Pee Wee Herman’s futile quest for his stolen bicycle, or a symbol of modern Mexican-American politics, the Alamo means something to almost all Americans.
But to guitar fans, conjuring up the name Alamo raises a spectre of mystery, a puzzle made up of guitars and amplifiers built in San Antonio, Texas. And that’s about it. What’s the story about Alamo guitars and amps? How about we brighten up yet another dimly lit corner of American guitar history. Lights, camera, action…
The long search for the missing picture on Alamo guitars and amps was rewarded recently when, by total serendipity (or was it foreordination), I hooked up with Chris Amant of Krazy Kat Music, San Antonio, who happens to own some of the remains of the Alamo guitar operation.
Chris gave me a lead to Mr. Charles Eilenberg, the father of the Alamo empire, and who gave us the foundation for reconstructing and remembering the Alamo story.
Eilenberg was born in Newark, New Jersey. Upon graduating from high school, he traveled west to Wisconsin, where he studied electronic engineering at the Milwaukee School of Electronics. Interested in broadcasting, Eilenberg got his First Class license and got a job at a radio station in Jersey City, New Jersey. Jersey City was the home of Frank Sinatra, who worked at Charles’ first station and, according to Eilenberg, was fired because he couldn’t hold key when the band played.
Eilenberg worked in New Jersey until World War II intervened, when he joined the CBS network in New York. Charles went into the Navy as a communications engineer, coordinating communications for the big warships like the Iowa and Missouri.
In late 1946, Eilenberg was contacted by Milton Fink, owner of Southern Music, a large publishing company and music wholesaling business in San Antonio. Mr. Fink wanted to recruit Eilenberg to help set up a manufacturing business. Eilenberg agreed and moved to San Antonio to establish Alamo Electronics (as you might guess, Alamo is a pretty common name in those parts).
In 1947, Alamo Electronics was up and running in a 2,000 square-foot facility at Romana Plaza. The initial products included record players – luxury items unavailable during the War – and battery-operated radio sets. These were mainly distributed at post exchanges in Texas. Very few retail outlets sold the early Alamo gear.
At the time, Southern Music was also distributing musical instruments. Thus, the company had a great need for cases, and decided to get into the case manufacturing business. To that end, they bought the necessary equipment and began making cases, with the company divided into two areas, electronics and case manufacturing.
From instrument cases and radios it wasn’t a big step to making instruments and amplifiers, a move which occurred in 1949-50. Alamo began manufacturing amps and lap steel guitars.
Alamo’s first combos were the AMP-3 Embassy amp and steel (the -3 signified the number of tubes), and the AMP-4 Jet amp and steel, later to be augmented by the AMP-2 Challenger amp and Challenger steel. There was also an Alamo Dual 8 doubleneck Hawaiian steel guitar. The earliest amps featured a wooden case of birch plywood with an “A” on the front, very similar to Epiphone amps of the time. The amp itself featured a top-mounted chassis, with tubes suspended downward.
An AMP-5 was also produced at some point during this early period, featuring four inputs, the birch A cabinet and, presumably, five tubes. Also, a small, asymmetrical, pear-shaped, 6-string lap steel was made, probably the predecessor to the multicolored Embassy. This had a small German-carve lip around the top and was a natural-finished hardwood guitar. The pickguard was white leucite with black markers. The pickup had no handrest cover, but sat on a small plastic pickguard assembly with the volume and tone controls. Strings attached at a slotted metal tailblock. The head was strictly rectangular with rounded edges.
One of the early Alamo amp innovations was their own tremolo design, which they patented.
During this era, Alamo sold only to distributors. Probably the most famous was C. Bruno and Son, their major distributor through the glory years. They also did a brisk business in Mexico and into Central and South America. Eilenberg recalls that one salesman had his own airplane and used to regularly fly south of the border to sell Alamo amps.
By 1953, Alamo had grown and relocated to a new 6,000 square-foot facility in San Antonio. The company was building most of its own lap steels, though some were reportedly made for Alamo by National/Supro. The pickups on early Alamo lap steels were similar to those encountered on their later Spanish electrics, but slightly larger. And the Alamo line ultimately included 14 or 15 amps, which Eilenberg admits was probably too many.
In the ’50s, Alamo also did a lot of O.E.M. manufacturing. One of its primary clients was Aloha, the Hawaii-based guitar and amp company. Many Aloha amps and guitars were made by Alamo. As Eilenberg recalls, Aloha bought only the AMP-3 Embassy amp and guitar. The Embassy was a tapered, roughly triangular, hardwood lap with a German carve top. Later examples were finished in Alpine White, with black and red aluminum fingerboards, chrome handrest, extended range adjustable pickup, volume and tone, and Deluxe Safe-Ti string machine heads. Presumably, Alohas were similar.
In about 1956, Eilenberg helped Aloha start it’s own amp-making operation, but the company continued to buy Alamo products, as well. Aloha acoustic guitars were sourced primarily from Chicago-based Harmony.
Alamo production was limited to amps and lap steels until 1960, when the company had to relocate again to a 25,500 square-foot factory at 926 West Laurel Street. Alamo occupied the majority of the site, but leased part of it. In 1960, Alamo increased the size of its woodshop and started making electric Spanish guitars.
A good snapshot of the maturing Alamo line (and reflection of the old offerings) can be gleaned from an undated catalog from about 1960. It combines the old “birch A” amp cabinets with newer styling, and features Alamo’s first solidbody Spanish electric guitar.
With an occasional exception, Alamo guitars and amps were all built in San Antonio, Texas. Pickups, as would always be the case, were also made by Alamo.
By this time, the Alamo amplifier line had expanded to include seven basic models, all but one of which existed prior to this catalog. Most were offered in a choice of coverings, either in the old birch cabinet with the A cutout on the grill, or in a new, more modern “grey lite” leatherette, offset with two vertical lines of dark grey beading on either side of the grille, and a dark grey plastic grillcloth. The handles were long, rounded, chrome-plated steel. Prices were identical for either the birch A option or the leatherette.
Still in the Alamo line were the Embassy, Challenger and Jet amplifiers of yore. It’s not known whether they underwent any upgrades. The Embassy featured three tubes (6SL7GT, 6V6GT, and 5Y3GT), a 10″ Alamo speaker and 6 watts of output power. The No. 2563 came in leatherette, whereas the No. 2463 came in birch, both for $82.50.
The Challenger amp also had three tubes (6SL7GT, 6V6GT and 5Y3GT) with two inputs, volume control, 8″ Alamo speaker and 5 watts of output power. The No. 2562, in leatherette, and No. 2462, in birch, each cost $62.50.
The No. 2561 Jet also had three tubes (including one 6SL7GT), two inputs, volume control, 6″ Alamo speaker, 4 watts output power, in leatherette only, for $59.50.
Above these three was the Montclair, which had five tubes (12AX7, 6SLGT, two 6V6GTs and 5Y3GT) with four inputs, tone control, 12″ Jensen speaker and 15 watts of output power. The No. 2565, in leatherette, and No. 2465, in birch, cost $124.50.
Top of the line were two Paragon amplifiers. The Paragon had seven tubes (unidentified), four inputs, two volume controls, a pushbutton tone control (bass boost), 15″ Jensen Concert Series speaker and 25 watts output. The No. 2567, in leatherette, and No. 2467, in birch, cost $234.50.
The Paragon Special was a bass amp version with a 15″ Jensen bass speaker. The No. 2569, in leatherette, and No. 2469, in birch, cost $259.50.
New in about 1960 was the Capri amp, No. 2560. This had three tubes, two inputs, volume control, 6″ Alamo speaker and 3 watts output. It was covered in brown leatherette, with no beading, and cost $46.50.
Five Alamo Hawaiian lap steels were available circa 1960. Most had been introduced in the early ’50s. Top of the line was the No. 2499 Futuramic Dual Eight, with two rectangular necks (the outside one slightly elevated), a black and silver fingerboard with block ALAMO letters as position markers, upward facing 4-and-4 tuners, and a script Alamo logo on the front. Each neck had a single Alamo Alnico V pickup mounted under a chrome handrest. Between the necks was a rectangular (chrome) control plate with one volume and one tone control. Next to it was a 2-way toggle select. Cost was $199.50 for the guitar, plus another $50 for hard case and $39 for legs.
The No. 2497 Futuramic Eight followed, with a satin-finished hardwood body, sort of pear-shaped, with the bass side longer than the treble, and a carved taper toward the head, away from the fingerboard. This had a flat 4-and-4 head with Safe-Ti tuners, a single Alamo Alnico V pickup, chrome handrest/control assembly with volume and tone controls, black fingerboard with the block ALAMO markers, and a 25″ scale. It also had a flocked back. Cost was a hefty $96.50, plus another $30 for hard case.
The No. 2495 Futuramic Six was the same as the Futuramic Eight, except it had two fewer strings and an $84.50 price tag.
The old No. 2493 Embassy guitar was still around. This was a cool 6-string lap with a light hardwood body, symmetrically pear-shaped with two contrasting strips of walnut running along the neck, through the body. It had a red and black aluminum fretboard with dots, a flat 3-and-3 head, and one Alamo Alnico V pickup on the chrome handrest assembly with volume and tone. Cost was $59.50. For an additional $14, you could get the optional Gladstone flannel-lined case.
Also still around was the No. 2490 Jet guitar, with a large, triangular, hardwood body finished in Alpine White. This had a white fingerboard with black “frets” and dots. There was a script Alamo logo at the bottom of the angular fingerboard. This, too, had the Alamo Alnico V pickup on a chrome handrest assembly, with volume and tone. Cost was $47.50, plus $12.50 for a Gladstone case.
Both the Embassy and Jet lap steel guitars had their respective names (not Alamo) on the headstock. The Embassy lap and amp and Jet lap and amp were sold as outfits.