Once upon a time I was in a used window shop in Milwaukee—true story, such a thing used to exist; they sold windows salvaged from old houses (I needed a storm window)—and some old geezer was wandering around the store yelling “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” I thought it pretty weird and didn’t immediately understand until I realized he was a Korean-era Vet and needed help and, like in most modern big box stores, there was no one around to assist him. I don’t often need much assistance in knowing about obscure guitars, but, boy, is this guitar off the radar and it makes me scream “Mayday!” Despite what I do know.
I love playing the “what if?” game. You know, like “What if farmers had rotated crops instead of planting the same darned thing every year back in the 1930s?” Crop patterns and guitars? Yeah, because it was the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, caused in part by poor farming practices meeting drought, that sent legions of Okies and Texans west into California. That led to a rage for Western Swing and then the Bakersfield Sound. And without the products of that cultural collision we might not have had Fenders or… wait for it… Carvins.
Some guitars are so unique, they acquire something of a “cult status.” I think you could say that about Veleno guitars. Not only have they been played by some famous guitar players (can you say Mark Bolan [T-Rex], Eric Clapton, Jorge Santana, Pete Haycock [Climax Blues Band], Alvin Lee, Ronnie Montrose [Edgar Winter Group], Martin Barre [Jethro Tull], Ace Frehley, Dave Peverett [Foghat], and Mark Farner, just for starters?), they’re pretty darned rare. Not to mention so darned cool!
I must admit I don’t really pay much attention to K-Pop (Korean pop music), which I only know exists because there was a story about in on NPR. These Techno song-and-dance groups are apparently manufactured by the government in order to help shape Korea’s public image. No lie. However, when the Korean performer is a guitar and shaped like a five-point (six with the neck) star—and is finished in purpleburst—it lands at the top of my agenda.
Ever since electric guitars and amplifiers were invented in the 1930s, certain folks have been interested in cutting down the amount of gear you have to schlepp to a gig. You gotta have a guitar. It’s gotta have a case to carry it in. And the amp electronics have to be housed in some sort of a cabinet. I know! Let’s combine the case and the amp electronics: Amp-in-case guitars. The primary “certain folk” was the brains behind probably the first amp-in-case guitar and the iconic version seen here, Mr. Nate (or “Nat”) Daniel, namesake of the Danelectro company.
Guitar history has yielded some very odd marriages, from a business perspective, at least. While these can be found at almost any time, perhaps the glory days of unusual conjunctions was the 1960s, when cascading demand for electric guitars among maturing Baby Boomers caused corporations, both with and without music industry experience, to realize that thar’s gold in them thar hills. Among the odder of these unions was that between Chicago’s Heads & Threads company and Norma, Noble, and even National guitars.
Recently in a television interview, Linda Ronstadt was asked what it was like on a tour bus with an all-guy band. She started to give a politic answer and then changed her mind, admitting that “they were a bunch of cowboys.” I think we all know what she meant. It was the kind of macho gestalt that led a company like Ampeg to name its immediately post-Dan-Armstrong line of guitars the, uh, Stud series. Stud, eh?! Geddit?! Har, har.
This Imperial came out of a little piece of Dickens in Philadelphia called Torresdale Music in the neighborhood with that name, in the “near northeast” as we call it, near the Burlington-Bristol Bridge (cheapest toll bridge over the Delaware River to New Jersey and back). Torresdale was a tiny, ancient corner shop just up the street from Chink’s Steaks, a legendary cheesesteak sandwich purveyor, the name of whose establishment has been the source of some local ethnic controversy. (Really good cheesesteaks consumed while sitting in 1940s-vintage wooden booths, highly recommended.)
One of the big influences on my guitar writing “career” was Dan Forte’s writing—under the nom de plume Teisco del Rey—for Guitar Player magazine back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Dan, or Teisco, took a much more tongue-in-cheeky approach to regaling the often goofy guitar designs of the 1960s, whereas I’ve always been a bit more dourly serious about the subject, but I like to think we kept the torch burning for decades for those of us who love whatever’s whacky about guitars.
Any time you identify a “first,” there’s always some other dude who shows up to spoil the party and own the claim. However, I think it’s safe to assert that the first company to use computer numerical control (CNC) carving machines to build guitars in the U.S. was Peavey Electronics.
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