A Brief History of Valco

Part I: Roots (not starring Levar Burton)

 The Valco company has its roots in the National String Instrument Corporation, which was founded in 1927. The company is famous as the first manufacturer of resonator guitars, which were hugely popular in blues and (a bit later) bluegrass music. National merged with the Dobro company, another maker of resonator guitars, around 1932 to form the National Dobro Corporation. The company began producing electric instruments in the 1930s that included electric guitars, lap steels, mandolins and amplifiers. These pre-war electric instruments are fairly rare today, though the lap steels pop up with some regularity. The archtop bodies for the guitars were sourced from Regal and then from Kay, but the electronics were developed and manufactured by National-Dobro. The Supro brand name was introduced in the mid-‘30s for cheaper electric instruments.

1967 Supro catalog coverNational-Dobro was reorganized into the Valco company in 1942. The new name came from the first initials of the owners (Victor Smith, Al Frost and Louis Dopyera), thus V.A.L. Co. The company was based in Chicago (hence the “Chicago 51” postal address that appears on some amps and at this site’s home page). Manufacturing of resonator guitars ceased with the introduction of metal rationing in World War II, and the focus was placed on Spanish- and Hawaiian-style guitars and amplifiers. Starting in 1947, a new serial number system was adopted that allows for reasonably accurate dating of instruments. Valco quickly became one of the leading manufacturers of lap steels, alongside Magnatone, Gibson and Rickenbacker, and the company also sold acoustic guitars with National necks and bodies by Gibson. A number of electric archtop models were sold with bodies by Gibson, Harmony and Kay, but fitted with Valco-made pickups, hardware and necks.

Following the leads of Fender’s Telecaster and Gibson’s Les Paul models, Valco introduced its first solidbody Spanish guitars in 1952 under the National and Supro brand names. These small guitars hand peanut-shaped bodies and chunky, 25”-scale necks; the bodies were available with or without cutaways and with one or two pickups. The National-branded guitars were available in a dark sunburst finish, while the Supro equivalents were at first covered in a plastic faux-pearlescent plastic commonly referred to as “mother of toilet seat”. Guitars sold under other brand names, such as Oahu, generally followed Supro stylings.

These were fairly plain, understated instruments, however, so in 1955 Valco introduced the National model 1104, also called the Town and Country. This new top-of-the-line guitar was designed to compete with Gibson’s Les Paul model, complete with a single-cutaway body and two large, chrome-covered pickups. The solid maple body had ivory-colored binding and a matching plate covering the back. The bound neck was bolted on and inlayed with fancy parallelogram fret markers. The six knobs and two pickguards gave the instrument an appearance akin to a Les Paul in a tuxedo. The first professional-quality Valco solidbody had arrived.


Part II: Apogee

However, Valco was hardly a company to rest on its laurels. By the end of the 1950s it had introduced a variety of guitars under the National and Supro names, and it had also begun building guitars for other retailers’ brands such as Academy and Silvertone. The Supro Dual-Tone is probably the most famous guitar from this period. In 1959 many of these models were radically updated with German carves and additional small cutaways on the bass side. Some models were available with Bigsby vibratos or Valco’s own vibrato design, and the Silver-sound pickup was introduced. This famous (or, more accurately, infamous) pickup is often described as a piezoelectric unit, but it is actually a regular electromagnetic pickup with a coil in the base of the bridge and two magnetic polepieces suspended from the saddle. The result was a primitive attempt to replicate the sound of an acoustic guitar that was unique but not very successful.

About the beginning of the 1960s, Valco had ceased production of most archtop models and revamped its amplifier line. National amps now bore flashy chrome panels, and the largest ones quickly grew to accommodate two 12” speakers, plus effects like tremolo and reverb. Supro amps, as well as those made for other brands, were mostly covered in conventional tolex with appealing piping. The largest National- and Gretsch-branded amps were 70-Watt monsters with numerous features and up to 15 tubes. Valco also experimented briefly with other electronic devices like the Supro Stereo Converter, which took a mono input and sent the high frequencies to one amp and the bass frequencies to another. Amps were also built for an increasing number of brands, such as Vega and Martin.

Valco guitars were also revamped at this time. In 1961, National and Supro guitars debuted with hollow fiberglass bodies (called res-o-glas in company literature) in bright, opaque finishes. These fairly expensive guitars came out of molds, not carving shops, and the result was unlike anything produced before or since. The bodies received cutaways in unusual places and horns in others, so that some models are referred to as “map” bodies – they look a bit like a map of the continental USA. A res-o-glas bass was also introduced but failed to sell, probably due to its extremely short 25” scale. The top-of-the-line National res-o-glas models, such as the Glenwood series, are by far the most collectable Valco products ever made.

1969 Custom Kraft catalog coverValco continued to make lap steels through the ‘60s under a variety of brand names. These were nowhere near as fancy as the nicest steels of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but their space-age flair is a nifty reminder of the days when rocketships were en vogue. However, their fewer pages in instrument catalogs indicated that there was less room for steel guitars in popular music.


Part III: End of the Line (and other Traveling Wilburys singles)

 The mid-‘60s saw a huge boom in guitar sales, and Valco and its various brand names benefitted as much as any other manufacturer. However, the market for instruments collapsed by 1968 and Valco collapsed with it. The company had merged with Kay in 1967, and this is reflected in a few former Kay models receiving the Supro name on their headstocks and vice versa.

Supro amps were visually revamped about 1966 to keep up with changing styles, although their circuitry changed little. They now sported blue-green striped control panels and slider switches, and some of the larger ones had separate heads that could be stored and transported inside matching cabs. While these amps sound just as good as models from a year before, they lack the earlier amps’ visual flair and collectability. National amps suffered the same unfortunate restyling by 1968. Valco produced some solid-state amp models around this time, and even though they are fairly rare, they are not highly sought-after.

The National and Supro guitar lines were both completely changed by 1967. The res-o-glas models were abandoned in favor of solid and hollow wood bodies made in Japan. These were really as sturdy as anything made in-house by Valco in years past, but they’re hardly as visually interesting as previous models. Acoustic guitar bodies were also imported from Japan, and the 1968 National catalog shows a range of acoustic guitars and banjos that were clearly imported.

Valco’s mounting financial difficulties caused it to declare bankruptcy in 1968. The National brand name was used for a time by a Japanese company to produce copies of Gibson instruments, but it appears to have been little used until 1989 when National Reso-Phonic was founded to build National-brand resonator guitars. National Reso-Phonic has no real connection to the original National company (this is certainly not a criticism of the new guitars).

For a long time, Valco guitars and amps were traded on the cheap in the vintage market while the likes of Fender and Gibson ruled at the cash register. However, there has been a recent surge of interest in Valco amps - particularly Supro models - which has lead to the Zinky company producing a line of Valco-inspired models under the Supro name. Valco-built guitars aren’t usually as sought-after as the amps, but they too are gaining ground in the vintage market. Now that the most desirable Fenders and Gibsons are out of many people’s reach, folks are turning to other brands and realizing that there is something magical about those Valco instruments that they’ve previously ignored.