Supro Dual-Tone and Thunderbolt

One of the most amusing by- products of the vintage-gear craze pervading every music store from Maine to Moscow is the perversion of the original manufacturer’s intent. For example, Les Paul meant for his guitars to elicit squeaky clean, direct-into-the-board jazz guitar tones—just like what you hear on Les Paul and Mary Ford recordings. Les (and Gibson) never suspected that rockers and heavy metal head bangers would adopt the Les Paul as the ultimate ax.

Similarly, Supro (an offshoot of the Valco brand, who also made National, Airline, and other house brands for various mail-order catalogs) originally intended for their Dual-Tone guitar and Thunderbolt amplifier to be a delightful way for dad and son to pass time on a Saturday afternoon with some campfire ballads, or perhaps a jaunty polka. The men in suits never realized that soon, rock and roll cavemen such as Link Wray and Jimmy Page would be wrangling some of the most brutal and positively rawking tones from their gear.

The Supro Dual-Tone was the flagship solidbody electric of the Supro line, with two pickups and dual Volume and Tone controls (hence, “Dual-Tone”). Its art deco styling and visually appealing white/black color scheme set it apart from other guitars that were seeking to imitate the Gibson Les Paul in the single-cutaway electric solidbody market.

While the Dual-Tone is perfectly capable of yielding jazzy tones from its rhythm pickup, the real magic happens when the treble pickup is selected, and the Tone control is rolled off, which turns the rather bright-sounding lead pickup into something resembling a howling pack of snarling werewolves. Wray (who also sliced his amp’s speakers to make it sound meaner), adopted the Dual-Tone as one of his main axes around 1960, and used it on several of his post-“Rumble” instrumentals to great effect—the sound of pure violence—thus setting the stage for the distorted rock guitar of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Page was highly influenced by Wray. And while most people assume that the crunch of the early Led Zeppelin records of the late 1960s was courtesy of a Marshall stack, the truth is that, in the studio, Page favored smaller amps— including the Supro Thunderbolt. With both Volume and Tone controls turned all the way up, the small dual-6L6 amplifier kicks out the jams with a sonic assault that bedroom metalheads have been trying to imitate ever since. Sadly, the secret on the Supro Thunderbolt got out a few years back, and now they command serious buckaroos on eBay.

All of this carnage would undoubtedly horrify the designers of Supro guitars and amps. But these kindly old men in their Ward Cleaver-attire and horn-rimmed glasses had no idea that rock and roll was lurking around the corner when they built these rather innocent-looking instruments.