Most industries know a great idea when they see it and aren’t shy about jumping on a bandwagon. In 1969, an electric guitar made out of translucent acrylic proved it.
The materials and processes that ultimately yielded acrylic were discovered in the late 18th century, but modern polymethyl methacrylate (acrylic glass) was invented in the late 1920s/early ’30s by companies looking to make safety glass for automobiles. Several brands emerged – Lucite, Perspex, Plexiglass, Acrylite – all basically the same thing. Acrylic was used in World War II as “bullet-proof” glass and in other military applications.
Acrylic’s crossover from glass to guitars began around 1951 with Magnatone’s Jeweltone G-216 lap steel, an Art Deco/stainless-steel-and-colored-acrylic masterpiece.
In 1967, Unimusic Inc. acquired the Ampeg amplifier company from founder Everett Hull. Formed by engineers Al Dauray and Ray Mucci, Unimusic promptly added Grammer Guitars of Nashville to its portfolio, and also began distributing Emmons Steel Guitars along with Altec Lansing speakers.
In ’69, they hired Greenwich Village guitar guru Dan Armstrong to fix neck problems on the Grammars – and design a line of electric guitars and basses to carry the Ampeg name.
The anecdotal story is that Armstrong, while contemplating the project, went on a road trip with his girlfriend, singer/songwriter Carly Simon. Their conversations spawned the idea for a guitar made of clear acrylic. Armstrong turned loose his assistant, Matt Umanov, to build “see-through” guitars with interchangeable pickups wound by Bill Lawrence (a.k.a. Billy Lorento), and the guitar debuted at the NAMM show that summer. Their dense plastic, while heavy, offered an excellent audio showcase for Lawrence’s epoxy-potted pickups. They were an immediate sensation (Keith Richards championed them), though how many were actually sold remains unknown. A contract dispute ended the Ampeg Dan Armstrongs in 1971.
Inadvertently, Armstrong’s acrylic guitars provided a much-needed shot in the arm for Japanese guitar makers, which had fallen on hard times beginning in ’68. Ampeg knock-offs by Ibanez, Aria, Electra, and Conrad appeared in 1970, revitalizing sales and effectively launching the “copy era.”
Plexiglass resurfaced again in ’77/’78 with Renaissance guitars, built in Malvern, Pennsylvania. After consulting briefly with Armstrong, Renaissance owners Phil Goldberg, Dan Lamb, and John Marshall settled on acrylic, and their first instruments were a cross between a Les Paul and a Telecaster. By ’79, the company was struggling before receiving an infusion of cash from music store owner John Dragonetti, who soon after became owner of Renaissance and redesigned the line to look more like the B.C. Rich Bich. Still, Renaissance was gone by the fall of 1980.
Supporting the “great minds think alike” hypothesis, at least three other acrylic guitars celebrated the beginning of a new millennium. First was the Ibanez JS2K-PLT JS Crystal Planet, a clear-plexi version of the Joe Satriani model that evolved from the late-’80s Radius. The Planet’s acrylic was infused with purple dye that glowed when illuminated with blacklight. Only 200 were made.
Next came the Samick Ice Cube KR-560, a superstrat with scalloped cutaways, H/S/S pickups, recessed Floyd Rose, and boomerang inlays that was part of a series with specially painted graphics over carved designs such as a Hawk and a skull-with-snake. They lasted one year.
The third millennial model was this B.C. Rich Acrylic Warlock, also introduced in 2000 (though production began in 1999). Created in 1981, the Warlock “…was the only guitar I ever designed at a drafting table, using straight-edges and French curves,” said founder Bernie Rico in a 1995 interview for VG. The design sketch was pinned on Rico’s wall until Spencer Sercombe, lead guitarist for the L.A. glam metal band Sharks saw it and wanted one. When Lita Ford and Nikki Sixx started playing them, the Warlock took off.
Like the Samick, it’s unknown whether this guitar was meant to celebrate the millennial changeover or just a coincidence. B.C. Rich had been run by Bernie Rico in Hesperia, California, until 1997, when it was purchased by Davitt & Hanser, which moved it to Cincinnati. Bernie Rico passed in 1999.
The Warlock was one of three acrylic guitars introduced as part of B.C. Rich’s 2000 Korean-made Platinum Series, along with the Acrylic Bich and Acrylic Mockingbird. Flashy shred machines meant to turn heads, they were described in one Rich catalog as “stage wear!” All had a pair of B.C. Rich BCR-6 humbuckers with basic dual Volume and Tone controls on a three-way select.
The Acrylic Bich and Mockingbird were initially offered in green or red, the Warlock in red or black. By ’02, the Acrylic Bich was gone and the Mockingbird offered only in green. In ’04, a clear “Ice” option was added. In ’05, Ice was the only option, and in ’06 the Acrylic Bich returned, offered only in Ice, while the Acrylic Mockingbird was available in Ice and a new red, and the Acrylic Warlock could be had only in blacklight-reactive green!
It’s impossible to say how many B.C. Rich Acrylic guitars might have been made but these acrylic guitars do not show up very often.
B.C. Rich revived the Acrylics briefly in 2014, offering Chinese-made variants with wooden headstocks. It’s hard to keep a great idea down!
This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.