58. Supro twin-pickup “USA prototype”
THE Supro/Valco guitars of the late 1950s and early 1960s are truly fascinating – so much so, they are probably worth a blog of their own. For this post, though, I’m focusing on the Supro pictured above, which came in to my possession early in 2022.
Quirky would be a good description for many of the older Supro guitars, especially the lap steels, with their odd-looking, string-through pickups. These pickups have been in huge demand ever since Ry Cooder installed one into a 60s Strat, paired with a vintage Guyatone “Gold Foil” pickup, to create the original “Coodercaster”. These days, recreations of these funky old pickups are available from several companies, notably Lollar and Mojotone, making the quest for the Cooder tone – at least in terms of hardware – a little easier. A huge amount of it, of course, is in the hands.
Supro/Valco was originally a budget brand for the guitar-maker National Resonator – best known these days for its fabulous acoustic resonator guitars (read about mine here), but it’s a name also associated with a variety of electric instruments, not least the distinctly odd fiberglass-bodied National Map and Airline models favoured by the White Stripes’ Jack White. Supro also built amplifiers from the 1930s to the 1950s, including, apparently, the first combo amp to feature built-in reverb. Supro amps have always been pretty well regarded – Jimmy Page used one on many of his Led Zep recordings. The name vanished off the musical map in 1968, reappearing after it was acquired by Absara Audio, the parent company of high-end effects pedal manufacturer Pigtronix.
Fresh amp ranges – mostly retro-flavoured – soon appeared and pretty good they were, too, – followed in the late 2010s by some tasty-looking guitars. The subject of this blog appears to have been an early prototype for one of these guitar ranges.
My lad Owen hooked up with Supro’s artist relations people in the mid-2010s when he was working as a session guitarist in Los Angeles. He filmed the odd amp demo for them and was a bit of a brand ambassador for a while. In return, he got a small amp, a few pedals and a couple of Supro guitars, one black, with a single, rather fancy-looking Gold Foil mini-humbucker pickup and this two-pickup sunburst instrument. (The whole artist endorsement thing is just so much bigger in the US than it is in Britain, so players of Owen’s calibre often come by nice pieces like these.)
Both shared the same attractive single-cutaway shape, with bevelled edges to the body and a really attractive headstock – all loosely based on a fairly obscure model from the late 50s. For such a compact guitar, I was quite surprised to discover it has the full 251/2” Fender scale length, with a Gibson-style tune-o-matic bridge and an attractive chromed tailpiece that hooks around the end of the body.
They were clearly forerunners to the Indonesian-built “Island” series – the single-pickup Jamesport, the twin-pickup Westbury and the three-pickup Hampton. Also broadly from the same mould, came reissues of David Bowie’s 1961 Dualtone (played and featured on the sleeve of his 2003 single, New Killer Star) and the 1957 Ozark, famous as Jimi Hendrix’s first electric guitar, reportedly bought for him by his dad in 1959. The Ozark is an especially interesting beast, since it sports a similar string-through pickup to the lap steels.
I first saw Owen’s Supros when I visited the USA in early 2019. He’d not long had them and I instantly fell in love with their quirky looks and the fact they were so well-made, with an especially hand-friendly black satin finish on the backs of both necks. Owen ended up touring quire regularly with the black one, usually for slide guitar, sporting heavy strings and a variety of pickups and tunings, while the sunburst guitar had spent quite some time languishing in a scruffy gig bag, minus its electrics.
Fast-forward a few years to my most recent 2022 trip to Owen’s current home in Nashville, when he very generously agreed the sunburst Supro could come back over the pond with me. Fortunately, he still had the original bridge and the Gold Foil pickup from the black one, plus a spare Lollar Gold Foil pickup. They also made the trip home.
Having seen pictures of the lap steel pickup on the Ozark, and knowing I had a spare guitar with a similar Lollar pickup, a plan began to form…why not to kit out the Supro as a one-of-a-kind Coodercaster? The donor guitar (No 43 in this blog) is a lovely thing, but hadn’t been earning its keep, largely because the pickup combination wasn’t quite right. (Look out for a future update when I finally get around to reviving this one with a pair of P90s!)
All I needed to complete the project was some tuners (one of the original Supro plastic tuner buttons didn’t survive the transatlantic journey in the overhead locker), a pair of pots, a pair of knobs and a jack socket…and a nice, custom-cut pickguard to finish it off.
A set of Wilkinson’s excellent Ex-Lok tuners in plain, three-a-side vintage Kluson format and a suitable sheet of tortoiseshell 3-ply pickguard material (of late, I’ve become fairly obsessed with torty!) got me started.
The pickguard took longer than anything else about this project. First I had to come up with a suitable design – the outline when through a dozen iterations before I came up with the shape I cut with my newly-acquired Dremel multi-tool. This was only the second pickguard I’d made from scratch (no pun intended) and all things considered, it turned out pretty well. (I actually ended up making two, since the first one wasn’t quite right, but we’ll gloss over that!) From the same material, I cut a nice truss-rod cover to replace the one missing from the headstock.
Part of my overall design was a nod to the original Valco lapsteel, in which the pickup was mounted on a large, oval chromed plate, something the Lollar version lacked. Not being any kind of metalworker, I opted for a contrasting oval of grey pearl pickguard material the same shape as the Valco’s steel plate. A rather elegant solution, I thought.
The body – mahogany on this USA prototype, rather than basswood of the production versions – needed a bit of chiselling out to accommodate the Gold Foil pickup. The lap steel pickup was designed to sit flush on the body, with some wood removed to accommodate protruding polepieces, but in practice, it needed shimming up with small bits of plastic card. The volume and tone knobs on the original guitars were rather funky plastic jobs resembling the controls from a 40s valve radio set. They were not dissimilar, though, to the knobs fitted to early 60s Fender brownface amps, so guess where I looked for these… The rest of the electronics came for my usual source, Northwest Guitars.
Once screwed together and strung up, a fatal flaw quickly became apparent. The through-string nature of the lap steel pickup, combined with the tallish tune-o-matic bridge made it impossible to set up the guitar high enough for slide. If you set it low to clear the steel cover across the top (part of the pickup’s magnetic field, I think), it was too low to comfortably play slide; any higher, and the strings buzzed against the cover! The best-laid plans and all that…
So out came the Lollar, to be replaced by the guitar’s original, rather attractive gold foil mini-humbucker. I’m not quite sure why Owen took it out in the first place – he’s an inveterate tinkerer with a very clear idea of the kind of sound he’s after – but I’m not complaining. It sounds really good and transformed the guitar into something very useable, as well as being unique and a real head-turner. (It’s been one of my two main guitars for slide on the past dozen or so Leavin’ Trunk gigs).
I’m pretty pleased with the way it turned out. It plays well, sounds terrific – and as you can see, boy, does it look cool!