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Whack Job: 1964 Montgomery Ward Airline

June 4, 2013
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THE CHICAGO-BASED VALCO GUITAR and Amplifier Company—which made guitars under the National, Supro, and Dobro names— offered a lot of cool, fiberglass-molded “res-o-glass” models with neato names such as Westwood, Stylist, and The Cosmopolitan. But this weirdo was nameless when it was first offered in the 1964 Montgomery Ward catalog. Originally known unofficially as the “J.B. Hutto” model (named after the famed blues guitarist ), contemporary players now identify it with Jack White of the White Stripes.

WEIRDO FACTOR

The angular shape is part of what makes this model unique, but its construction from bright-red plastic is what’s really striking. The two-piece body—as with all “res-o-glass” Supros, Nationals, and Airlines—is screwed together with just five screws. The body is essentially hollow, with a narrow piece of maple going down the middle that serves as the anchor for the neck, pickups, and tailpiece. One might think that these plastic guitars would feel flimsy, but with the help of that strip of wood, this “Hutto/White” model feels pretty darn solid.

PLAYABILITY & SOUND

Jack White has often said he has to be on the top of his game as a guitarist to make up for the “rinky-dink” nature of his Airline. Not being Jack, I “cheated” a bit by replacing the wooden bridge on my Airline with a Tune-o-Matic-style bridge. Now, along with the ever-reliable Kluson tuners, this guitar can take a pretty good beating and stay in tune. The 25" neck only has 20 frets (not counting the zero fret), but this doesn’t impede playability at all, and, in fact, riffing around on a well-set up Airline is a very enjoyable experience. (Be forewarned: This model does not have a trussrod, so if you find one that doesn’t play well, you will not be able to make adjustments.) One less-than-enjoyable quirk is that the Volume and Tone knobs are positioned right in the path of my strumming. The Airline’s unique, round yet chimey sound is informed by its hollow plastic body and large Valco single-coils. The clean tone is almost acoustic-like, but the distorted sound gets downright beastly, with tons of sustain and spiky overtones.

VALUE

In 1964, this guitar sold new for $99. But thanks largely to Mr. White—as well as other players such as David Bowie, who plays a similar model—these guitars now fetch anywhere from $1,500 to more than $3,000. I paid $150 for mine about 20 years ago. The salesman who sold it to me back then asked why I would even want a guitar like this. I answered, “Because the headstock reminds me of Gumby.”

WHY IT RULES

The 1964 Montgomery Ward Airline is no toy. It looks almost ridiculous, but it plays quite well, it’s light, and it has a very unique sound. The originals are also appreciating in value. Dig it!

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