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February 25, 2005

The Father of the Silvertone Guitar

Beatlemania hit America hard
Thirteen minutes of Ed Sullivan was all it took. Girls, so placid only yesterday, could now not stop their screaming; boys, who yesterday shot baskets, could now do no better than stand around slackjawed, hands in their pockets, suffering in silence. And while most of the girls would eventually recover, millions of old men remain haunted still. Because if "cool" had been a high jump, the Beatles would have been the Empire State Building. And while hair growing might get a guy to the 50th floor, and sideburns to the 60th, maybe--the climb was as high as the price: detentions, groundings, expulsions, drafts. If a boy wanted to climb above the 70th floor he'd better play guitar.

The problem was money. Electric guitars were expensive and required amplifiers that cost as much or more than the guitar itself. What prepubescent boy, impoverished by allowance and too young to work, could ever convince his parents to front him $300 for an instrument he couldn't even play, plus another $300 to crank it up louder than the hi-fi? On this point hung futures.

National Headquarters - Sears, Roebuck and Company - Homan & Arthington, Chicago, Illinois. 1963 -
Two men doodle in a one-man office thick with cigarette smoke. Joe Fisher, 38, is Sears new buyer of musical instruments in a time when a Silvertone guitar meant a cowboy guitar with pick and songbook, or a cowboy guitar with crank and songbook. Nathan Daniel, 51, owns Danelectro, a small manufacturer of electric guitars. Like any manufacturer of the era, he wants Sears to sign on, but Fisher would not be sold. The guitar does him no good without the amplifier. They had to be combined somehow, at an irresistible opening price point. Fisher saw the opportunities of Beatlemania, and he wanted to give American dads a break because he was getting hit up himself by his own son, who was me. So he and Nat Daniel, legendary Prince of Cheap who put pickups in lipstick tubes and preferred flecked paint because it hid the staples, put their heads together to make two things into one thing--the thing with the unfortunate name "Electric guitar and carrying case with built-in 5-in speaker and amplifier," a name that just never really caught on, though it was descriptive as heck.

It would be a piece of the cheapest wood available, with masonite stapled to the flat sides, spray painted and edged with vinyl--there's the body. According to Nat, bodies don't matter in an electric guitar (in direct opposition to the ideas of Les Paul, who believed a fine electric guitar should be made of fine woods and weigh more than a sack of fine potatoes). Nat put all his attention into the neck, and here no expense was spared. His pickups were odd then and now, not because of the lipstick tubes, but because he wired them in series. This, they say, is what produced the unique Dano sound that remains locked inside the remains the entire Silvertone line, now scattered across eBay and proudly owned by collectors and still played by some of the world's finest guitar players, Les Paul being a notable exception.

Throughout the sixties my father brought many of Nat's creations home for me to test, including the famous guitar and amp in a case they came up with. Of course, he could have picked them up "on accomodation," but I never had the scratch. My dad was like that. Ethical.

Nat Daniel is today a legend. His guitars, under both the Danelectro and Silvertone name, have been played by an incredible array of guitar greats: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix (pictured), Elvis Costello, Pete Townsend, J.J. Cale, John Fogerty, Jimmy Page, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, Chris Isaak, Melissa Ethridge, Dave Navarro, Jesse Colin Young, Link Wray, Beck, Jack Bruce (Cream), John Entwistle. Even Elvis Presley. Vinnie Bell. Whom I met. Another story.

It is not an overstatement to say that Silvertone guitars profoundly influenced the course of rock and roll. Without Silvertone, most sons would have failed to make up their father's minds. Their dreams of becoming rock stars would have faded fast, along with their dreams of sex and drugs.

I still play a mean Silvertone, including the one with the amp in the case, which I picked up on eBay. And today my son Danny Fisher sells these amp-in-case beauties starting at 99 cents. He makes enough money now to move out. See how it works?

Comments on "The Father of the Silvertone Guitar"


Blogger CW Fisher said ... (10:40 PM) : 

Wow. Arianna Huffington published this in the Huffington Post, June 12, 2007. See? I'm famouser.


Blogger CW Fisher said ... (10:41 PM) : 

By the way, I had a lot more comments on these older posts, but I lost them when I canceled Haloscan. So pile on, please.


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