Ecco-Fonic Tape Echo(2)

It didn’t take long after the advent of commercial reel-to-reel tape recorders in the 1940s before Les Paul and other studio engineers figured out a way to make “echo,” or tape delay, which sounded magical on the electric guitar.

Outside of expensive studio recorders, there was no way for a guitarist to have tape echo until Ray Butts invented the Echo-Sonic amplifier in the mid 1950s. This was a guitar amplifier with a tape echo built into the bottom of the cabinet. Chet Atkins was the first to promote the Echo-Sonic amp, and soon thereafter Scotty Moore was using one with Elvis Presley. The Echo-Sonic amplifiers were expensive—$500 in 1955—and hand-built, and as a result few were made.

The next logical step was a stand-alone echo unit, and in 1958, the Ecco-Fonic tape echo became available, produced by a small company in Los Angeles. The company had no relation to Ray Butts’ Echo-Sonic, but the two are often confused today because of the similarity of their names. A marketing push was launched, showing celebrities such as Joe Maphis, Del Casher, and others using the Ecco-Fonic. In addition to ads in all the trade magazines, a promotional record was sent to interested parties that featured hot playing from Maphis and Casher, and a science-fiction-voiced announcer stating that the Ecco-Fonic was “the sound of your present, and your future—a greater sound for you and your guitar!”

The best-known recorded example of a properly-working Ecco-Fonic in action is the introduction to “I Fall to Pieces,” the Patsy Cline hit that featured ace guitarist Hank Garland playing the opening phrase, with his newly-purchased Ecco-Fonic providing some unusual repeating echo effects.

Sadly, the operating phrase here is “properly working.” When the Ecco-Fonic units were properly maintained, they sounded great. What the company didn’t realize was that guitar players were a lazy lot, and the ritual of cleaning and oiling the unit regularly proved too much for almost every guitarist who bought one. It didn’t help that the Ecco-Fonic was poorly designed in that regard—to get at the guts to clean the tape path and oil the bearings, one had to first remove the large delay time knob, then remove a cover with four screws, etc.

It’s not hard to guess what happened next. When I asked Larry Collins of the Collins Kids what happened to his Ecco-Fonic, he replied, “It quit working, so I threw it in the dumpster.” As a result, few Ecco-Fonics are seen today, and even fewer of those actually work. A redesigned solid-state unit was sold to Fender and the basic Ecco-Fonic design continued as the Fender Echo Chamber well into the 1960’s. However, the death knell for the Ecco-Fonic was the introduction of the more rugged and musician-proof Echoplex (invented by the late Mike Battle), which eventually became synonymous with the use of tape echo on the electric guitar.

All that being said, the Ecco-Fonic has its rightful place in history. Along with the DeArmond Tremolo, it was one of the first commercially available standalone guitar effect ever made. Legions of stompbox-happy guitar-bashing kids owe the Ecco-Fonic a passing nod of respect.

Special thanks to Mark Neill, Del Casher, and Crazy Joe Tritschler.