Sometimes you take a look at a guitar and the warning bells start ringing: bogus. Like those early “missing links” proposed by inventive amateur anthropologists who put gorilla skulls on anthropoid skeletons. That’s what happened to me the first time a dealer hauled this out and showed it to me. It was a Danelectro alright, but those pickups? Then I looked again. Who would stencil “Dan Armstrong Modified Danelectro” on an aftermarket pickguard? Then there were the pickups. Epoxy potted. Trademark of who, or is it whom? Dan Armstrong. Think his Ampeg see-through guitars. No, on second thought, this had the air of a mystery wrapped in an enigma with a generous dash of authenticity. So it proved to be. And so it came my way and all I had to do was put the links back together again.
Turns out Danelectro, like every other musical instrument company, got caught up in the corporate feeding frenzy of the 1960s. Danelectro had its origins in electronics work done for a department store by Nathaniel “Nate” Daniel (born 1912) in the Bronx in the 1930s. He came up with his own amplifier design and from 1934-42 made Epiphone’s Electar amplifers. After World War II Daniel moved to Red Bank, New Jersey, and founded Danelectro, building amps for Montgomery Ward (Airline), Sears (Silvertone), and Targ and Diner (S.S. Maxwell). In the early 1950s, when solidbody electrics demonstrated that they were more than a passing fad, Sears wanted more guitars than its subsidiary Harmony could produce and arranged for Danelectro to start making electric guitars. Danelectro and its Silvertone counterparts debuted in 1954.
The first Danos were solid, made of poplar. In 1956 the legendary “lipstick tube” pickups appeared and yes Martha they were purchased from a lipstick manufacturer! In 1958 the classic masonite hollowbodies took a bow, the same year Danelectro relocated to Neptune, New Jersey.
Fast forward to 1966. By then guitar companies could sell any guitars they could make. A number of large corporations, many with experience on the periphery of the entertainment business, started seeing dollar signs and began acquiring guitar companies. CBS purchased Fender in 1965. Norlin, whose interests including breweries (I guess that’s entertainment!), bought Gibson. Baldwin Pianos and Organs bought first Burns of London and then Gretsch. Even Westheimer Sales, importer of Teiscos, was purchased by King Korn trade stamps. Seaburg, the juke box folks, bought Valco/Kay. Avnet bought Guild. Danelectro was purchased by MCA, the company that owned Decca Records and Universal Pictures, among other properties.
Unfortunately for all the greedy corporations, the bloom started to fade from the guitar business almost immediately. According to the Music Trades magazine, guitar sales began to decline in 1967 followed by an even bigger drop in 1968. That year Valco/Kay went belly up. MCA wanted out, but there were no takers to buy the brand. In 1969, MCA simply locked the doors of the factory and that was it.
Which links up with this guitar. Dan Armstrong was a well-known repairman nee guitar designer who had a shop in New York. He and his then girlfriend Carly Simon came up with this idea for a plexiglass “see-through” guitar which would be sold through another area amplifier company, Ampeg in 1969. Armstrong was hired to personally inspect every guitar before it left the plant, but, reportedly, Armstrong was, shall we say, not very interested in showing up for a regular day job shift. Ampeg had trouble meeting demand for the plexiglass guitars and basses. There may have been other production problems.
In any case, a part of the Ampeg design was a series of interchangeable pickups that slid into a slot on the front. These were cast in epoxy to help cut back on feedback.
The rest of the story is a little murky. Some sources say that Armstrong purchased a bunch of leftover parts from the closed Danelectro factory and assembled between 650-700 guitars outfitted with his epoxy-potted pickups. Some stories link this to Ampeg’s supply problems, but why they don’t then say Ampeg is a mystery. Other stories have these guitars being sold out of Armstrong’s New York shop, which probably makes more sense, given the identification on the pickguard. One interesting clue is that Ampeg used Danelectro bridges on its see-through guitars. This has always struck me as odd, that such an advance guitar concept wouldn’t have a sophisticated bridge.
Somehow, this all ties up with the fact that Unimusic, Ampeg’s parent company, ran into financial troubles about this time. They couldn’t pay Armstrong. Had Ampeg purchased those Danelectro parts to use the bridges and save money? Did Armstrong get the parts to make these guitars as part of the pay Ampeg couldn’t give him? We may never know the whole story.
All this came tumbling down in 1971 when the Ampeg see-throughs bit the dust. Along with the company. Ampeg was sold to the consumer electronics giant Magnavox that year. Magnavox operated the company until 1980 when the brand went to Ernie Briefel’s Music Technology, Inc. (MTI), distributor of Westone and Vantage guitars from Matsumoku Moto in Japan, as well as Giannini from Brazil. In 1985 the brand was sold once again to St. Louis Music, where it still resides.
Following the see-through debacle and the brief fling with these Danelectros, Dan Armstrong moved to London where he produced some mahogany versions of the see-through designs.
So, that leaves us with these Dan Armstrong Modified Danelectros. As you can see, they do exist! I’m pretty sure these date from 1969, but that’s far from certain. The timing fits. They could date from slightly later, but probably not much.
Basically everything on these guitars is vintage Dano except for the pickups. They are smooth, rich and quiet. Unfortunately, a Dano really needs cheapo lipstick-tube single-coils to sound right. These high-tech units kind of leave the guitar with no soul. I have no idea what the three-way toggle is supposed to do. It may have already been installed!
Nevertheless, like those anthropological missing links, this Dan Armstrong Modified Danelectro fills in some curious connections between some of our most famous brand names and innovative guitar personalities. Maybe some day we’ll know the whole truth about this oddball.
8 thoughts on “A Missing Link? (1969 Dan Armstrong Modified Danelectro Electric Guitar)”
Michael, I’ve gotten a lot of information and pleasure from your books and articles over the years, but you’re slightly off-base on several points on your Dan Armstrong/Danelectro story.
Armstrong was modifying and selling Danelectros long before he came up with the Ampeg See-Through guitar. When he’d opened his NYC music store, the franchises for Fender, Gibson, etc, were already sewn up by his neighboring dealers. He recognized Danelectros as being essentially good guitars that were easily improved, and he set about making his initial reputation by selling upgraded Danelectros in his shop.
He did two main things with them, the first being getting rid of the “skate-key” tuners that Nat Daniel made in-house from about 1963 on. I’m not sure on this, but Dan may have had a unique deal with Danelectro, buying guitars from them before the tuners were attached: Dan’s all came with individual chrome Klusons, and there are no extra holes where skate-key ones would have mounted.
The other thing he did was dump the stacked pots, replacing them with a single volume and tone, plus replacing the standard tone cap with a .022. He was a gigging musician, and found the stacked pots awkward to use in a live situation. (There’s some mid-60’s photos of Van Morrison gigging in the mid-60s, and you can see Dan in the background on a bass he’d made from a black “Page Model” body and a longhorn neck; he made a similar bass for the Youngblood’s Jesse Colin Young.) One sign of his shop-modified Danelectros was that they always had black Gibson domed knobs. The Longhorn bass you see Jack Bruce playing in photos of the NYC studio Disraeli Gears album is also one of Danny’s jobs.
When the Danelectro company folded, Ampeg was having a slow time getting the Plexi guitars into production, and there was already a lot of buzz about them. Dan saw an opportunity to get some guitars with his name on the market almost immediately by buying some of Danelectro’s unfinished stock.
Using leftover 1-cutaway Silvertone bass bodies, he made a guitar and bass model of “Dan Armstrong Modified Danelectros.”
The bass used a standard a Danelectro lipstick pickup (You’ll find one on eBay right now), while the guitar’s potted pickups actually had Danelectro pickup coils embedded in them, sans lipstick tube covers. I got that straight from Dan himself. He also wanted a physically larger pickup, since everyone wanted chunky humbuckers on their guitars then. What I don’t recall is whether he paired coils in the epoxy as humbuckings (One of the things that impressed him about Danelectros is that Nat Daniel had wired his two-pickup models so that when both pickups were on, they were in series, forming a humbucking circuit.) Whether it’s one coil or two in there, he potted it/them so it could take the high volume and fuzztones of the day without squealing. I think he’d learned about potting from Bill Lawrence, who did a lot of the design on the Plexiglass’ pickups.
When the Ampeg Plexi came out, Dan told music writer Richard Robinson, “There’s a lot of Danelectro in this guitar.” The bridge was certainly one of the things that influenced him, but the Plexis do not have actual Danelectro bridges on them. The design was similar, but they’re rectangular, rather than the Danelectro’s trapezoidal shape, and are mounted flush with the body instead of being raised and adjustable via three screws. The Dan Armstrong bridge came with three fretwire-topped rosewood saddles of different heights, allowing players to choose the action that best suited them. (Those who used the guitars for slide, such as Jo Jo Gunne’s Matt Andes, preferred the highest one).
The three-way toggle on the switch was standard on single-pickup Danelectros. Nat designed a clever circuit: in the center position the tone knob was defeated; to one side it had it function as a standard treble roll-off tone control; to the other side it actually cut lows to give a more trebly sound. The cheap Carling switches Danelectro used crap out over the years. With the switch in the center position, push down on it and spray some contact cleaner into the switch, wiggle it like crazy, and you should have a working switch again for several months, then repeat.
The Ampeg-distributed “Dan Armstrong Modified Danelectro” models were sold nationally through music stores, not just at Danny’s shop. The bass player in my high school band bought one new in a Fullerton music shop.
A couple of small Danelectro corrections: The initial models were not solid poplar, but were constructed much the same way the later guitars were, with a masonite top and back on a poplar frame. The chief difference between the first 1954 guitars and the Danelectrros most of us know and love is that the original neck was essentially a rectangular tube aluminum that had a rosewood fingerboard on top and wood sections glued on to give it the shape of a traditional neck. (The pickups also initially lacked the lipstick tubes, but were mounted in raised sections under white molded plastic pickguards). The neck idea was radically ahead of its time—the tube actually ran well into the body, terminating by the bridge–but it also didn’t work well: the wood tended to separate from the aluminum, so sometime in 1955, he’d switched to using a more traditional neck construction, but with twin steel beams instead of an adjustable truss rod. These guitars had a U-2 shape, but with a smaller “peanut” body. They went full-sized by 1958, and were joined around then by the longhorn models.
It should also be noted that Dan’s post-plexi, London-built guitars differ considerably from the plexi models. They have more of a double-cut Les Paul Junior shape, with a deep body and no contours, and the single humbucking pickup slid on a rail under the strings.
Hope this info helps a bit. Best regards – Jim Washburn
I’ve seen both Dan Armstrong modified guitars and basses. Some with lipsticks and some with the pickups seen here. When I inspected one of these types pictured here, the owner said that these pickups were exactly the same as lipsticks but with epoxy covers instead of lipstick covers. Definitely odd, and infinitely cool!
Cool read. Left out some pretty important facts about the Ampeg Company of today.
“In 2005, Ampeg, and its parent company, St. Louis Music (also makers of Crate amps) were purchased by Loud Technologies (LTEC on the NYX). In March 2007, Loud ceased production of Ampeg and Crate at the manufacturing facility in Yellville, AR, outsourcing the manufacture of Ampeg and Crate to contract manufacturers in Asia. In May, 2007, Loud closed and sold the plant in Yellville, AR and also closed the Ampeg and Crate engineering department in St. Louis, MO, preferring to have new models designed by their own engineers, as well as an Asian engineering group. These moves have been strongly questioned ‘on the streets’, as it has raised concerns about the overall quality, especially among Ampeg users. A major selling point for Ampeg in the past was that it was designed and made in America.”
Word on the street has Loud Tech. getting ready to introduce an upscale, hand-wired, boutiquey, Ampeg to tray and regain their part of the bass amp market share.
I’m not sure but I suspect the three way switch is similar to the current Armstrong/Ampeg clear lucite guitars in that it changes how the tone control works. In the middle the tone is completely bypassed and in the forward position it is a normal tone control then in the backmost position its brings in a darker tone setting (probably just changes capacitors). I have a newer model Amped lucite model and this is what they do and I have heard the older ones for 69-71 did that too. Cool find!
Hats off to Jim Washburn and Michael Wright for always sharing their excellent information. Regarding the epoxied pickups, I wrote an article in the 90’s for GBASE titled “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” detailing one of the Dan Armstrong Modified’s I had in my collection. In that article I revealed how surprised I was to see that the black epoxy Dan Armstrong pickups indeed held an encased Danelectro Lipstick pickup. Also, I’ve seen DA Modified guitars with both Lipstick and epoxy style pickups.
I had one of these as a kid when they came out. they were sold in mom and pop music stores , a bigger piece of junk you will never see . it wasn’t even up to a regular Dano or Silvertone standards. The pick up was loose and there was no way to tighten it scratchy and prone to feedback . I believe that the quality control on these guitars were pretty inconsistent because I had heard one which led me to buy it . I moved on to a 59 single cut away Melody maker with a three quarter neck that I paid 60 dollars for. That guitar rocked I kept it for years and sold it not too long ago for $1100 dollars.
CHEAP ? Need Lip-stick P/U`s ? Dan Armstrong was a Friend of all of Us in the Guitar BIZ of So.Cal & when AND IF (and that`s a JOKE) You design a Pick-Up OR a Guitar..OH Do Let Us Know. I had one of these Dano/Armstrong Guitar`s & the Sound was PERF. BUTT You can ONLY Think(There`s that JOKE again) in term`s of Gibson,Fender,Martin etc
I have one of these guitars.