Form and function, the fundamentals of design. Equally important yet not always easily held in the balance. It’s true of architecture, technology, engineering, and yes, even guitar design. Since the inception of the electric guitar, there has been a relatively stable set of design features. While luthiery is an advanced craft, it’s a craft with parameters within which artistry and skill are exercised. For example, while guitar makers and players will debate the tonal qualities of different woods or combinations, the choice of wood for electric guitar bodies is almost a given, a no-brainer, it just makes sense.
In rethinking electric guitar design, however, some have abandoned the tradition of tone woods in favor of other materials. From back in the day to contemporary models, Danelectro championed light-weight designs using Masonite and Formica. Thanks to the more recent fame garnered by the preferred use of Jack White, the Valco Airline sparked a small resurgence of plastic guitars from the 1960s when plastic bodies were both experimental and economical.
This week we’ll start a two part series on brands that not only ventured beyond the forest to experiment with other materials in design but did so with such great success that entire businesses were built atop them. We’ll start off with a look at one of the most iconic such items, Ampeg’s 1969-1971 Dan Armstrong model (part 1). Next Sunday morning we’ll tell the tale of where Reverend guitars began with some early (and more recent) models that blend wood with other materials and design features, from chambered spaces, to metallic plates, to phenolic components (part 2).
That’s where we’re heading, but let’s wind back the clock with Ampeg’s now classic take. You’ve probably seen it, or, more likely, seen through it.
The year 1969 signaled a lot of change in music history. This was the year that Ampeg showed up at NAMM in Chicago with a show-stopper guitar sporting a crystal clear acrylic body. To give a nod to the traditional, the top of the instrument had a tasteful, faux wood pickguard. Well-played. Having brought Armstrong on the previous year to help right the ship on Ampeg’s recently acquired acoustic line-up of Grammer guitars, Armstrong set his sights on a design that was anything but Nashville country. The result was the hefty 10 pound acrylic model that had a surprising sustain quality due to the material’s density.
The eye-catching quality of the Ampeg Armstrong axe was destined for the stage. By late 1969, both Keith Richards and bassist Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones toured with the Armstrong models. Unlike the rock-solid instruments that bore his name, Armstrong’s relationship with Ampeg, however, was not built to last. By 1971, the two parted ways and after a short two-year run the Dan Armstrong acrylic guitar was discontinued. While knock-offs of the guitar cropped up from time-to-time starting in the mid-1970s it was not until 1998 and then again in in 2001 that Ampeg re-released the design in the ADA lineup.
These days, instruments from the original 1969-1971 run are not uncommon and fetch prices usually in the $3000-$5000 range. In most cases, at around forty-five years old these vintage finds retain their remarkable material clarity. While other companies have since dabbled in the acrylic guitar game—probably most extensively, B.C. Rich—none have built a brand off it in the same way as Ampeg. Eventually the company caved and released a lineup of guitars using traditional tone woods yet all other aspects of the design harkened back to that original, radically unthinkable Dan Armstrong model that broke the mold.
Let’s say Ampeg was first to stray into this territory. But a few decades later in 1997, in a garage in East Detroit, a young Joe Naylor began tinkering with guitar designs that also sought tone outside of the forest of trees. Check in with us next week for that part of the story. Until then, have a great #RiffCitySunday.