A Brief History of Dan Armstrong Guitars
Famous for the iconic ‘see-through’ guitar, Dan Armstrong was a lot more than a guy who made instruments out of Lucite…
Tom Verlaine of Television on stage with his Ampeg Dan Armstrong guitar. Image: Gus Stewart/Redferns/Getty Images
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Dan Armstrong is one of the greatest minds in the history of instrument engineering, but far too often he’s unappreciated or dismissed as a one-hit wonder. But in addition to his iconic see-through guitar and bass designs, he also had a hand in designing some truly iconic amplifiers and effects.
Armstrong was a gifted child who started playing guitar and standup bass at age 11. He eventually moved to New York City with dreams of becoming a jazz guitarist, where he became quite sought after as a session player on both guitar and bass. Armstrong played with Van Morrison’s touring band in 1967 and even played bass on the famous hit song Yummy Yummy Yummy by a bubblegum pop band called 1910 Fruitgum Company, but it was designing tools for musicians that would make him a legend.
Armstrong started working on guitars at Eddie Bell’s Guitar Headquarters in NYC and eventually opened up his own repair shop in 1965 just about a block away. After only a few years, the building his shop in was going to be demolished so in 1968, he moved his shop over to Greenwich Village, which was famous for its jazz scene, and renamed his shop Dan Armstrong Guitars. There, he worked on instruments for many famous artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Eric Clapton.
That same year, Ampeg was looking to dip its toes into the guitar market, so they purchased a company called Grammar Guitars in Nashville, which made acoustic guitars, and consulted with Armstrong about ways to improve the guitar lineup and make them marketable. Upon seeing their operation, Armstrong suggested that maybe Ampeg ought to look into building electric guitars rather than acoustics since they were best known for their amplifiers. In 1969 Armstrong signed a contract with Ampeg to build a line of clear guitars and basses.
To build the prototype, Armstrong tapped another famous New York luthier, Matt Unamov, who he had met when Eric Clapton brought in a 50s Les Paul Custom with a badly broken headstock – Armstrong brought the guitar to Unamov, who was a very accomplished luthier. Unamov ended up creating a completely new headstock for the guitar with a violin scroll sort of design.
The headstock repair impressed Armstrong, which is really saying something because one of Armstrong’s employees was Carl Thompson who would go on to build some eccentric bass guitars for Les Claypool later on. Unamov built the clear prototypes for Armstrong, according to his notes and design. He actually ended up making eight more prototypes using different materials and colours, but none of them seemed to work out quite as well as the clear ones.
The idea for a clear body came to Armstrong during a vacation with his girlfriend at the time, Carly Simon. Fender had actually made an all-Lucite Stratocaster some years earlier to use for trade shows, it even had a Lucite neck. This was only a marketing tool and Fender never made this into a production guitar.
The body of Armstrong’s design was made of Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), a transparent thermoplastic sold under various tradenames such as Plexiglas, Acrylite, and Lucite. It is commonly called acrylic. The material was developed in 1928 and was formally brought to the market in 1933 by the Rohm and Haas Company. The bodies of Dan Armstrong’s guitars were not moulded as some often assume, they are rather carved out of blocks by CNC machines, of course, back during the original run of these instruments the carving was done with saws and routers, making it a much more labour-intensive operation.
The necks were made of quarter sawn maple and quarter sawn Brazilian Rosewood. Matt Unimov claims Brazilian Rosewood was selected because it was quite common – nowhere near as sought after as it is now. The nut was also ivory, which is also something that is much more regulated these days. The headstock sits at a 14-degree angle and was originally going to feature a very Gibson-like headstock, specifically, it was modeled after a 1924-34 Gibson L5, but the top of the headstock was cut at an angle to skirt any legal issues.
The pickups for the prototypes [and some of the subsequent production models] were made by famous pickup builder, Bill Lawrence, who made pickups for Dimebag Darrell and Nuno Bettencourt later on in his career.
After production of the Lucite guitars began, Dan turned his attention over to another passion of his, amplifiers. He sent some ideas over to Ampeg for an amp that would eventually become the SVT and V series amplifiers, but even though his design ideas were invaluable to the project, he never received any credit or compensation for his efforts. This, along with disagreements over quality vs. manufacturing costs of his guitars, soured his relationship with Ampeg and Armstrong ended up breaking ties with the company in 1971.
After that, he moved to England where he worked for Orange Amps for a brief time before working on designing his own line of amplifiers for distributor Boosey & Hawkes, better known for their Laney line of amplifiers. Between 1972-1975 he built a line of guitars and basses that were very similar to the Lucite shape, but these were made entirely of wood and featured a set neck. These are best known as Dan Armstrong London Series Guitars. Perhaps the most interesting feature of these guitars was the sliding pickup design, which allowed the pickup to be placed anywhere between the bridge and the end of the fretboard.
Armstrong returned to the US in 1977 and continued to build his own guitars. He famously came up with a wiring modification for Stratocasters known as the “Dan Armstrong Super Strat” wiring, which replaces the five-way pickup selector switch with three toggles – one for each pickup, allowing more combinations than the stock wiring. In the late 80s he started designing guitars for a company called Westone [later known as Alvarez] which was owned and distributed by St. Louis Music. By the mid-90s, Ampeg had changed ownership a few times and was now owned by St. Louis Music – this led to the reissues of the beloved clear guitars in 1998.
Dan Armstrong passed away in 2004 but the impact he had on the industry is unquestionable. His guitars were famously used by legends such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney [who is rumoured to own the only left-handed Dan Armstrong ever made], David Bowie, and Lou Reed, and continue to be used today by artists like Josh Homme, John Frusciante, and Dave Grohl. While he may not be known as a jazz legend, he certainly carved his own path through his career and broke the mould when it came to instrument construction. For that, we will be forever grateful.
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