Metal machine music: The history of guitars made from metal
From National to Travis Bean, James Trussart and beyond, the bodies and necks of guitars have been made out of metal for almost a century. Join us as we chart their history.
Let’s get something out of the way before we begin. If you’re expecting some wise words about the kind of metal associated with big hair and extreme shredding, please leave now while there’s time. In this feature at least, we’re all about metal as a guitar-building material alone.
Most guitars are largely made of wood. This you know. Usually, the only metal you’ll see is contained in the frets and the pickups and some of the hardware, such as the bridge and the tuners and the strap buttons. And perhaps a few plates, and maybe the knobs. And there’s the strings, of course. Best not to forget them.
Some brave souls throughout the history of our instrument have gone further, and in some cases much further. Our story starts in California in the 1920s, where John Dopyera set up the National company in Los Angeles in the middle of that decade with several of his brothers. It’s likely that he and George Beauchamp collaborated to design the resonator guitar, National’s contribution to the search for more volume.
George was a Texan vaudeville guitarist and a keen tinkerer, by now living in LA and working for National. Like many performers at the time, he was fascinated by the potential for making conventional flattop and archtop guitars sound louder. Many guitarists playing in bands of all sizes wanted more volume than existing instruments could offer.
The resonator guitar that George and his pals came up with was a striking instrument introduced in 1927 with a gleaming metal body. Inside, depending on the model, National mounted one or three thin metal resonator discs or cones, underneath and connected to the bridge. These acted like mechanical loudspeakers to project the sound of the strings and gave the resonator guitars a powerful and distinctive tone. Other brands such as Dobro and Regal also made metal-body resonators at the time.
Not far from the National HQ, Adolph Rickenbacker ran a tool-and-die firm where he made the metal bodies and resonator cones for National. George Beauchamp, Paul Barth, and Adolph teamed up to combine their fresh ideas for an electric guitar, and they formed the Ro-Pat-In company at the end of 1931—just before George and Paul were fired by National.
In summer 1932, Ro-Pat-In started to manufacture Electro cast aluminium electrics, designed for lap steel playing, where the player rests the instrument on their lap and slides a steel bar over the strings, generally tuned to an open chord. Little lap steels had been in vogue since the 20s, and the instruments were still tremendously popular. It’s worth emphasising that the “steel” name came not because these guitars were made from metal – many beside the Electros were wooden, of course – but from that metal bar players held in their left hand to stop the raised strings.
The Electro brand morphed into Rickenbacker and around 1937 they began making small guitar-shaped steels from stamped sheet metal, often chrome-plated brass, and eventually decided that aluminium was an unsuitable material, for reasons that every guitar maker since who uses metal as a significant constituent in their instruments must consider. The aluminium in the steels expanded in hot conditions – under stage lights, for example – and this often put them out of tune. The differences in the way wood and metal change due to temperature and humidity have been enough ever since to cause many makers and players to run quickly in the other direction from a guitar that mixes the two materials, especially in necks.
Gibson also briefly used cast aluminium for its first electric guitar, the Electric Hawaiian E-150 steel, which appeared toward the end of 1935. The metal body was clearly designed to compete with the look and style of the Rickenbackers, but it proved impractical for Gibson, too, and early the following year Gibson shifted to what it understood best, introducing a new version with a wooden body (and a slightly different name, the EH-150).
Now we jump forward to the 1970s, still in California and at a time when brass had come into fashion as a hardware material thanks to its alleged qualities for enhanced sustain. Meanwhile, Travis Bean introduced his aluminium-neck guitar from Sun Valley, California, in 1974 with his partners Marc McElwee and Gary Kramer. He was not the first to use aluminium in relatively modern neck construction, however. That honour belongs to Wandrè guitars from Italy.
Antonio Wandrè Pioli worked from the late 1950s into the 60s, designing and producing a series of remarkable looking guitars with some notable design features, among them the Rock Oval (introduced around 1958) and the Scarabeo (1965). His instruments appeared with a variety of brandnames, including Wandrè, Framez, Davoli, Noble, and Orpheum, but beyond Pioli’s striking shapes were some interesting constructional features, including an aluminium neck section. The best version had a through-neck consisting of a hollow semi-circular aluminium tube leading to a frame-like headstock, with the fingerboard screwed on and a rear plastic cover to provide a suitably smooth feel.
Wandrè guitars had vanished by the late 1960s, but the idea of an aluminium neck took a fresh hold with Travis Bean, who hollowed out a good deal of the inside of the neck to create what he called a chassis for his aluminium alloy through-neck, which included a T-frame headstock and had the pickups and bridge attached, the whole completed with a wooden body. He said this provided consistent rigidity, and therefore good sustain, and that the extra mass reduced vibration. The business was shortlived, however, and the Travis Bean company ceased trading in 1979. Travis reappeared briefly in the late 90s, and a new revival, Travis Bean Designs, is still in operation in Florida. Meanwhile in Irondale, Alabama, the Travis Bean-influenced Electrical Guitar Company is also keeping the flame alive.
Travis’s partner Gary Kramer left to start his own company in 1976 and began his take on the aluminium-neck scheme. Working with guitar-maker Philip Petillo, Gary made some modifications. He put wooden inserts into the rear of the neck, designed to overcome a criticism that the metal of the Travis Bean necks felt cold, and he used synthetic ebonol fingerboards. By the early 80s, Kramer was offering conventional wooden necks as an option, and gradually the aluminium was dropped. A revival by Henry Vaccaro and Philip Petillo, at first with the Kramer name and then Vaccaro, lasted from the mid-90s until 2002.
John Veleno went further still with his guitars, making them almost entirely from hollow aluminium, with cast necks and hand-carved bodies. Based in St Petersburg, Florida, Veleno began to produce his unusual instruments around 1970, and he finished them in bright anodised colours, including a striking gold variant. Some of them had a V-shaped headstock with a red jewel set into it. He gave up in 1977 after building around 185 guitars.
Another custom maker who used aluminium in an individual way was Tony Zemaitis, a British builder based in Kent. He began making metal-front instruments when Eric Clapton suggested that Tony should make a silver guitar. He developed models with an aluminium plate covering the whole front of the body. Many of Tony’s creations featured the work of a shotgun engraver, Danny O’Brien, whose finely worked designs provided a distinctive look. As well as some other electric and acoustic models, Tony built Zemaitis metal-front guitars from about 1970 until his retirement in 2000. He died in 2002.
James Trussart has done much to keep alive the distinctive qualities that metal can offer in modern guitar making. Born in France, he moved to the USA, eventually locating his workshop in Los Angeles, where he’s been for more than 20 years. He continues to make custom steel-bodied guitars and violins in an array of finishes, combining the metallic look of resonator guitars with the rusty, patinated vibe of discarded machinery.
Billy Gibbons came up with the name for the Rust-O-Matic technique, where James leaves a guitar body at the mercy of the elements for several weeks, finishing it off with a clear satin coat. Many Trussart guitars have patterns or designs imprinted into the metal bodies (or on the pickguard or headstock) including skulls and tribal art, or textures of alligator skin or plant material.
Trussart isn’t the only French luthier to incorporate metal bodies into his builds – Loic Le Pape and MeloDuende have both featured in these pages in the past though, unlike Trussart, they remain based in France.
Elsewhere, makers have occasionally offered conventional electrics with an unusual metallic twist – for example, the few hundred mid-90s Strats that Fender produced with hollow anodised aluminium bodies. There have been very unconventional guitars with metal at their core – like the shortlived 80s SynthAxe, its sculptural fibreglass body set on a cast metal chassis.
There have been metal fingerboards, too, from K&F (briefly) in the 1940s to Vigier’s current fretless ’board. And there have been finishes designed to make an otherwise conventional wooden electric look enticingly metallic – think Gretsch’s Silver Jet from the 50s, plastered with sparkly drum covering, or the JS2 variant of Joe Satriani’s signature Ibanez models, introduced in 1990.
The original JS2 was quickly withdrawn as it became clear that its chrome finish was almost impossible to produce with safe results. The chrome would lift from the body and form cracks, which was not ideal. It seems the Fujigen factory completed only seven JS2 chrome guitars for Ibanez, including the three given to Joe, who had to put heavy clear tape over the cracks of his own favourite example, which he nicknamed Chrome Boy, to prevent ripping his skin open.
Fujigen tried plating the body traditionally by dipping it in a solution, but that resulted in spectacular explosions. They tried vacuum plating, but gas inside the wood was forced out by the pressure, and the chrome would change to a nickel colour. Also, workers experienced electric shocks when they tried to buff the finished bodies. Ibanez had no alternative, and the JS2 was cancelled. However, there were two later and successful limited editions: the JS10th in 1998 and the JS2PRM in 2005.
Ulrich Teuffel has been making guitars in southern Germany since 1995, and his Birdfish model looks nothing like a regular instrument, with its skeletal plated-aluminium frame that takes the conventional notion of metal hardware and turns that into a sort of un-body. The ‘bird’ and ‘fish’ of the name are the two metal elements to which a pair of wooden body bars are screwed: the bird is the front section to which the neck is bolted; the fish is the rear section that holds the control pod; and a rail between the two holds moveable pickups.
“Philosophically, I like the idea of having crude material coming into my workshop, doing some magical things here, and then the end is the guitar coming out,” Ulrich says. “I think the Birdfish is an instrument that takes everyone who plays it on a particular trip. Because it tells you how a guitar could be made.”
Our story ends with a full circle back to where we started with the original resonator guitars of the 1920s. Guitars that draw from this tradition provide most of the current action for metal-body constructions, from brands such as Ashbury, Gretsch, Ozark, and Recording King, as well as modern incarnations of Dobro, Regal, and National, and boutique builders such as Michigan’s Mule Resophonic.
Mike Lewis at Fine Resophonic in Paris has been making metal-body guitars for about 30 years, and he works with brass, German silver, and sometimes steel. “It’s not because one or the other of those is ‘better’, but that they have very different sounds,” Mike says. “For example, a vintage National Style 0 is always brass, a National Duolian or Triolian is always made from steel, and most of the old Tricones were made from German silver, a nickel alloy. And they provide three completely different sounds.”
What’s the worst thing and the best thing about working today with metal for guitars? “The worst is probably when you hand a guitar over to be nickel-plated, and they mess it up. It can happen. The best thing is that it’s quite easy to make custom shapes without too many tools. And there are no restrictions on buying metal,” Mike concludes, adding with a chuckle, “like, say, Brazilian brass. But it’s always nice when the strings are on and I can play it.”
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