Electric guitars have their roots in resonator guitars made with metal bodies and aluminum resonator plates – the first commercially successful electric guitars were Ro-Pat-In’s Electro “frying pan” lap steels, made out of aluminum.
And Wandré Pioli, the Italian luthier had used aluminum for his necks in the late 1950s and ’60s. But even though John Veleno’s aluminum guitars were not the first (or only) guitars to be made of aluminum, there’s no denying that when he named his principle guitar design the Original, his description was right on! Velenos hold a special place in guitar lore as being unique originals.
John Veleno was born in 1934 and began playing guitar in a combo in Massachusetts in ’58. He eventually became a guitar teacher, though his day job trained him as a machinist. In ’63, he relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he got a job carving aluminum electrical boxes for the aerospace industry. Long story short, Veleno carved a guitar-shaped mailbox out of aluminum to promote his guitar teaching sideline. A co-worker saw it and suggested he make a real guitar. Hmmm.
Veleno set about making his first aluminum guitar in 1966-’67, but when he showed it to various players, it went over more like a lead balloon. The idea for the Original came about in the late 1960s, though it didn’t fully materialize until the ’70s. In 1970, Veleno was introduced to some guys who made costumes for rock stars, and they suggested he could sell guitars by going backstage at sound checks. Veleno first went to a James Gang gig, where he sat backstage, polishing his guitar. And though he and the axe garnered the attention of the people who mattered, no sale came about as a result. Nonetheless, this became Veleno’s primary sales technique, and he next took his guitar to a Jorge Santana concert. Jorge saw it, loved it, and used it at the gig. After the show, Santana made suggestions for improvement, all of which were used in subsequent Veleno guitars. The prototype had a bird-shaped six-in-line head, which Santana didn’t like, so John changed it to the now-famous V shape. Still, though, Santana wasn’t buying.
Veleno’s first sale came shortly thereafter, as he polished the guitar at a T-Rex sound check. Mark Bolen walked over and fell in love with the guitar. Before the night was over, he’d bought one for himself and one as a gift for Eric Clapton (who Veleno had never heard of!).
The very first Velenos were made out of 7075 aluminum, but it tended to rapidly discolor, so he switched to 6061, which he then chrome-plated. The first four or five were actually cast aluminum, but Veleno quickly changed to the more familiar carving process. Chrome plating was used on the majority of Velenos, though John offered them in gold plate, polished aluminum, and anodized blue, red, green, gold, ebony, and super black. Very few of the colored guitars were made, but when one does show up, it tends to be gold or black. You could get either a chrome- or black-finished fingerboard. The first few fingerboards had 21 frets before they all became 22-fret. You could also get a chrome- or black-finished neck, which was cast out of Almag 35. Hardware varied; Veleno occasionally made his own bridges, but he’d just as likely use one from Gibson or, preferably, Guild. All Velenos were equipped with a pair of humbuckers. The earliest sported DeArmonds, but he quickly switched to either Gibson or Guild humbuckers depending on availability. Some later examples had DiMarzios.
Veleno guitars sold for $600, and this ’74 Original is typical with its black-anodized neck and few spots where the chrome plating has bubbled (which is fairly common for chromed guitars). Electronics include a three-way select, plus one mini-toggle for coil tapping and another to reverse phase, plus one knob for volume and one for tone. The Guild pickups generally have a neutral response that makes this guitar tonally well-balanced. If you prefer the overdrive qualities of a Gibson or DiMarzio, you’d want a Veleno with those units.
However, expect to be looking for a long time! Veleno’s approach to sales was skewed toward professional players, so they never reached a mass audience. And since they were essentially hand-made in Veleno’s home, that was just as well. Among Veleno’s first Original owners were Gregg Allman, Sonny Bono, Johnny Winter, Pete Haycock, Alvin Lee, Ronnie Montrose, Martin Barre, Ace Frehley, Dave Peverett, and Mark Farner. Veleno quit building guitars in 1976 or ’77, and at the most, 195 were made. All Velenos have a hand-engraved consecutive serial number on a little plate that tells you where in the sequence it falls.
Toward the end, Veleno produced several other models, but finding one of those will be even harder. After meeting B.B. King, who expressed an interest in being able to carry a guitar on the plane, Veleno designed the Traveler, a short-scale travel guitar. He only built about 10, though his son later assembled another 20 or so. He built one bass, and a pair of ankh-shaped guitars for Todd Rundgren that were seen with him on the cover of Guitar Player. These latter models rarely come up for sale, so their value in dollars is nearly impossible to calculate. Originals come to market in flurries and have recently traded in the range of $10,000 to $12,000. In 2003, John Veleno announced plans to again begin building the Veleno Original, as well as the company’s Ankh model.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s August 2006 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.