I’m just happy to own this guitar. I know we really don’t “own” anything in the spiritual sense of the word, but having this guitar in my studio, holding this guitar, playing it through some vintage tube amps, I feel thankful. I really do. I searched for one of these buggers for many years until I found one out in beautiful Tujunga California. Oh man, it was so cool to open that case for the first time! Wow. Also, I’d like to give some credit to Scott Freilich of Top Shelf Music in beautiful Buffalo, New York. He’s been really great to me with sharing advice and knowledge! For some reason, many guys in the guitar collecting world hoard knowledge like they hoard guitars. It’s been a little puzzling to me since there’s so little information on so many brands. People, please tell me if I ever swerve in that bitter direction!!!!!
The Supro Triple Tone (often called the Tri-Tone) only appeared for one year in the Supro catalogs, 1959. Think about that year for a moment. RIght away when I hear 1959 I think of the Gibson Les Paul. What a great year for guitars! In fact, I often find myself associating years with guitars. Like when I hear someone say 1965, I’m already thinking “oh, the year CBS bought Fender.” Do you do that? Anyway, like I was saying these Triple Tones were probably only made for one, or two years max. A one year production run already makes these guitars rather rare, but if you can’t manage to find one of these, the more popular Supro Dual-Tone guitars will get you a similar vibe. Of course, just like the Model-T, you can have any color you want so long as it’s black (or white with the Dual Tone).
In 1959, Valco was still making solid wood bodied guitars. The “glass-fiber” bodies started to appear in 1962, but before that year, these Triple and Dual Tone guitars sported a medium weight body that was covered in a “No-Mar” finish that seems to be a thin coat of vinyl, or as the catalog of the time states “a tested durable glossy plastic.” One drawback to this finish is that it can peel with the passage of time and neglect, often in the cutaway area and on the edges. Although these finishes do hold up rather well. It seems that Valco used the No-Mar finish on less expensive instruments and reserved their lacquer “mirror finish” for their better models. Even so, these Triple Tones cost $179.50 brand new, and cases were $42.50 (hard shell “plush” case) or $24.50 (hard shell “flannel” case). A quick glance through the catalog shows some prices as follows:
- 1507 Super Single $74.50
- 1561 Ozark $89.50
- 1508 Super Twin $99.50
- 1570 Belmont $99.50 (No-Mar finish)
- 1550 Ranchero $99.50
- 1524 Dual Tone $149 (No-Mar finish)
- 1582 Del Mar $179 (lacquer finish)
- 1595 Rhythm Master $189 (lacquer finish)
- 1590 Coronado $225 (laquer finish)
Where I think all Supro guitars shine is the awesome pickups designed by Mr. Ralph Keller. I talked about these pickups before in my Supro Lexington article, and if you have a few spare hours, feel free to digest the patent information regarding these cool pickups. These are some of the best single coils ever made, period! Of course they do look like humbuckers from the top cover, but underneath they clearly aren’t. Speaking of humbuckers, the best ones always sound like really good, fat single coils. And these sound just like that! Scott pointed out that under the covers the structure is similar to Grestch Hi Lo Trons, but with much more wire. Early on in my guitar playing days I was able to buy a Custom Craft Valco guitar, almost identical to the Supro Lexington. That was the guitar that got me hooked on the Valco sound, and soon after I bought a fiberglass Dual Tone. I played these guitars for many years but never thought about why they sounded so cool. The pickups in my Triple Tone read out at 9.37k at the bridge, 8.80k at the middle, and 9.30k at the neck. They’re pretty hot sounding, and most seem to have this extra sizzle that I simply LOVE! Most Valco pickups that I’ve come across all read out in this 8-9k range, and I have found two that read in the 10k range (those two were from the mid 50s)! Valco produced a few variations of these pickups, but the most common is what you see here where the two end pole piece screws actually serve a dual purpose in that they also screw into the body and help attach the pickup to the body. By the way, in the literature of the time the pickups were often referred as “units.” Like the “bass unit” for the neck pickup and the “treble-melody unit” for the bridge pickup. The catalog also shows the really interesting “western unit”, but that will be a story for another time!
The headstock on this model shows the nice outlined pin striping and the Supro logo is standard for most of the 1950s. By 1960 the logo changed to the raised Supro lightning bolt logo that’s more commonly known. Here you can also get a look at the butterfly key tuners. They’re Kluson tuners, and they work very well. And the large keys are very comfortable! On some of the Valco guitars you’ll see some very fine Grover tuners, and it bears to note that Valco used some really top shelf components an all of their guitars. These were not built cheaply and they didn’t cut corners to make a quick buck. Below you can see the serial number that was nailed onto the back of the headstock. So often, this little plate falls off! This serial number points to the year 1959, and a good resource for dating Valco amps and guitars can be found here.
The way Valco attached the neck to the body is also interesting. You can see on the back that there are only two screws there, and only one of them serves to hold the neck on! The other screw is for tilt adjustment! Where the body meets the neck, Valco contoured the area and created this “cradle” that conforms to the shape of the neck so it sits in there rather snugly. Usually, you’ll see neck heels that are sanded flat, and that’s how the body and neck join. But not so with the Valco guitars. The body in contoured to meet the rounded neck shape, and that innovative design does seem to translate to a good sounding guitar. Speaking of the neck, the literature of the time touted the Kord-King neck as being “slim, straight and comfortable. The feather-weight neck is of a modern aircraft material. This neck improves tone, has no heel, and is fully guaranteed.” Well, the necks on these might have been slim for the time, but they are robust and feel similar to the 58 or 59 Les Paul shape.
Speaking of turning these into players, as soon as I got this guitar it headed over to Dano Dave’s for the full “Dano” treatment! He pulled all the tiny frets, sanded out the humps and bumps in the rosewood fingerboard, and gave this one a complete and tasteful re-fret with medium gauge wire. The way he does re-frets is simply a site to behold. It’s like watching surgery! Playing this guitar, most people would be hard pressed to notice there was any work done at all! Dano is a true craftsman when it comes to guitars like this and he seriously deserves a lot of credit for toiling away in shops honing his craft for the past few decades. Dano also pulled the really nice three way switch (Carling) and replaced it with a five-way so I could have those in-between sounds, a la Stratocaster. He also moved the pickups around so that the in-between positions are now hum-cancelling. Valco didn’t seem to have a method to pickup placement by pickup reading or polarity. They just screwed them on in there! The neck heel can sorta be seen in the picture below. The tilt adjustment is very nice and there really isn’t any need for shimming there.
And lastly, here’s a video we did of Mike Dugan playing my beloved. In about twenty or so more years, I may be able to play like that! One day….