Randy loves his Silvertone! Randy loves his Silvertone!

Silvertone Guitars and Amps: The Sound We Love (Interview with Randy Holmes)

Silvertone!  A great guitar, a great amplifier.  But what is it about these Sears, Roebuck & Co.  instruments that make them not only so sought after, but just simply enjoyable to have and play?

Maybe it's the great garage rock revival that has been going on for the past 20 years, maybe it's the collectors/traders market, either way it's a piece of history that you want to own.  I had to ask a man who knew, Randy Holmes. Randy has been studying Silvertone guitars and equipment for over 2 decades and currently runs the website Silvertoneworld.com, an extensive and well categorized website of Silvertone guitars and equipment, and the international known artists who love them.  Read on!

Unger: What is it about Silvertone guitars that make them so special and sought after?

Randy: Couple of things. Lots of folks, famous and not, learned their first chords and solos on a Silvertone guitar of some sort from the late 1930s through the 1970s. Sears was gigantic; bigger and better than Wal-Mart could ever hope to be, as far as variety and well, quality. So, you've got a lot of folks looking for that "one that got away;" they want the guitar they had when they were a kid, or the setup they had in their first band. So, Nostalgia.

Second, lots of musicians are looking for a sound they can't get anywhere else, and a lot of Silvertones (especially the Danelectro-built ones) fit the bill. The Dano-built Silvertones were quite unusual in their construction: not solidbodies at all (until the very last models before Dano shut down), the body was a hardboard top and back over a wood frame. There was a wood block inside where the bridge was screwed into, but there was very little mechanical coupling between the bridge and neck. This results in an unusual banjo-like operation, with the hardboard top acting as the resonating surface. Also, the Dano-built guitars, contrary to popular perception, have awesome necks. Nat Daniel used two truss rods set in the neck to keep 'em straight. Unless mistreated or left in adverse climate conditions, most Dano-built guitars have straight, totally playable necks, even 60 years out. Also, the famous 'lipstick tube' pickups were certainly unique in their looks, they have a nice strong output, and the lipstick tube provided a slight high frequency attenuation. Also, the guitars are internally shielded (many models with solid sheets of copper formed into a box around the circuitry), so they're much quieter than most 'bargain bin' single coil equipped guitars you might be familiar with.

Plus, Silvertones of any stripe, from Harmony to Dano to Japanese built, have a style all their own. It's almost a non-style, as they tried to look cool without completely ripping off existing designs(although the Japanese certainly seemed less concerned with avoiding any copyright laws). I mean, look at a 1448; it's shaped like a raw Stratocaster before it's received its contouring! The U1 and U2 type Dano-built Silvertones? You're certainly in Les Paul territory, shapewise, if nothing else. The Harmony solidbodies? Think Jazzmaster, Mustang.

Unger: Despite being rather vintage, these guitars are somewhat affordable still, why?

Randy: Well, for all their cool factor and playability, they aren't made out of top-grade woods or componentry. The top and back of the electric 1448 (and the rest of the Dano-built Silvertone family) what you have is actually a compressed fiber product, a hardboard called Masonite. The mid-40s-early 50s acoustics actually did use a lot of solid wood, quality tuners and binding and nice finish jobs. They bring good money, but you'll rarely see one for much over a grand; nothing near the price of a new mid-line Taylor flattop. I don't think we'll see the prices ever skyrocket, but they may rise in the future when we hit 'Peak Silvertone.' That is, when every Silvertone has been rescued from every attic or pawnshop backroom, and the market is nothing but Silvertone owners trading/buying with other Silvertone owners. We're not there yet, but eBay has certainly accelerated the day when 'Peak Silvertone' will occur.

Unger: Of course there is Dex Romweber; who are some of the other notable players of the Silvertone guitars that play out these days?

Randy: Wow. Let's see... Annie Clark (St. Vincent) has been seen frequently with a triple-pickup Harmony-built fire engine red 1488, and I've seen her with a 1446 and a 1457, although she currently is favoring her mid-60s Harmony 'Bobkat' models, which are essentially identical to the 1477 Silvertones. Beck plays a 1448 like the one Dex favors, Cat Power bought a 1448 because of Dex and finally learned to play it, and she has some 'Frankentones' built from Silvertone/Dano parts and some other mostly stock Silvertones that she plays. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys has a few Silvertones that he's seen onstage and in videos with. The red double-cutaway you see him with a lot is actually very much like the rare 1485 Harmony-built Silvertone, but his is even rare than that; it's a Heathkit-branded model that the famous electronic kit store subcontracted from Harmony. Melissa Etheridge has her 1448 in her hand on the cover of her debut album. You'll see Rick Miller and Mary Huff of Southern Culture on the Skids with a Silvertone every now and again, and slide master Dave Tronzo favors a 1457. Mark Knopfler plays a 1452, the final two-pickup ampincase from the late 60s, the period just before Dano and Sears parted ways. Chris Isaak favored a Harmony-made 1446 early on, and it's now known as the 'Chris Isaak Model.' Elvis Costello wrote and recorded most of 'When I was Cruel' on a Silvertone guitar and amp, and has been seen with a 1446. The 1446 model was the same model that Springsteen strapped on for a few songs with Alejandro Escovedo last year at SXSW. Heck, even ol' Mick pulled out his trusty two-pickup 1457 on the Stones 'Steel Wheels' tour for 'Back of My Hand."

As far as 'back in the day,' that would need a whole article to itself. Short list of guitarists who learned/started on a Silvertone: Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Roy Clark, Brad Paisley, Joan Jett, Eddie Van Halen, Don Helms... even George Harrison can be seen strumming a rare black two-pickup 1449 in some Traveling Wilburys clips.

Unger: About Silvertone original amplifiers, Jack White usually likes to play with a 1484 Model. Is there a certain sound that you can get from these amps that is just simply unmatched to the sound of modem amplifiers you can buy today? Why?

Randy: Jack actually prefers the more powerful and rarer 1485; it's the one he's playing his improvised electric 'diddley-bow' through in the movie "It Might Get Loud." They're harder to come by as they didn't sell as many originally because of the higher initial price from Sears. The lower-priced 1484 amps were plenty for most guitarists, so they sold more of those. Sound-wise... hand-built, point-to-point wiring (NO circuit boards in these babies!) that would cost a fortune in a boutique amp these days was SOP for Danelectro. It was a cost cutting measure, but it contributed to the longevity of these amps as far as their operational status. Less parts to rot/break/fail equaled relatively inexpensive amps that still crank after sixty years! The reverb on these was... um... different. Not terribly rich or deep, and that part WAS prone to failure, simply because of the physical nature of a spring reverb, and the low-cost components and housing it was given. Tremolo was another matter; Nathan Daniel of Danelectro designed and patented a tremolo circuit early on, and this deep, wide, rich trem circuit appeared in some form in every amp equipped with tremolo from the late 40s through the late 60s.

Beck plays a 1484, and he gets a great 'wall of rock' sound from his.

Peter Buck has used a 1483 bass head for years in his backline, using it in combination with his VOX. Buck: "I’ve got a split box that leads the processed signal into a Vox, and the unprocessed one into an old Silvertone Top. I have two different sounds, one a little brighter, the other a little softer."

Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett from Rilo Kiley also crank 1483s onstage.

Unger: What should a guitar player do if they are interested in owning one? Where on the net should they go?

Randy: Ebay. During the summer. For some reason summer auctions trend cheaper, so you can get a better deal if you're patient. There are still deals to be had out there. Just the other day, I saw one of the very earliest 1448 models go for just $120. It was just the guitar, but it was one of the first ones to roll off the line, sported black ribbed dome knobs, had a slightly differently placed pickup than the 1448s we usually see, and is quite rare; I may have seen five of 'em in three decades of collecting. A hundred and twenty bucks awas a steal!

Ebay alone generally sells about $70-80,000 worth of Silvertone guitars and amps a month!

Unger: For the collectors of the guitars out there, what are some models that are very hard to find, yet desirable to own?

Randy: Goodness. The 'Newport' derived 1379/1380 models; VERY primitive one pickup machines, actually some of the first production electrics from ANYone. Tom Waits play the Harmony-branded version of this guitar, and they are rare. A neck-through-body design combined with a single-coil neck pickup gives these axes a solid, unique sound.

Any of the 58-59 Dano-built Silvertones, the so-called U1 and U2 models, especially the triple-pickup 1305 and the pioneering 1473, the FIRST six-string electric bass ever offered!

The early, almost prototypical Dano-built Silvertones from 1954/early 1955. No lipstick pickups yet; the pickups hid under a bump in the vacu-formed pickguard. These models' necks had a square aluminum tube running from the head down to nearly the bridge, and a pleather-ish dried-blood color covering. And a lightning bolt accompanied the Silvertone logo on the headstock laminate.

The Valco-made 'Artist' never appeared in any Sears catalog, but they sold a handful of those in the stores. One single-coil pickup, small body, unique Valco/National/Supro styling.

Any of the Kay-built big-bodied acoustic or electric f-hole 'Aristocrat' models available from the mid-40s into the late 50s.

Believe it or not, GRETSCH made a Silvertone just after World War II, the 714. Very similar to the Synchromatic, this f-holed acoustic is a very rare bird.

Not technically a Silvertone, the patented design Buck Owens redwhiteandblue 'American' model flattop was sold in the early 70s exclusively by Sears. Buck's original 'American' was actually made by Semie Moseley (founder of Mosrite), and Harmony was contracted to produce a similar mass-market targeted guitar. These sold well for the brief period of time (1971) they were offered, and Buck bought the remaining stock. They've been well-kept, and doled out over the years for official induction of honorees into the Owens Family Ring of Honor.

Whenever any of these models show up, they usually go for (relatively) big money.

The revived Danelectro released some re-issues of their vintage designs a few years ago, and the ginormous music manufacturer Samick now owns the Silvertone name; they'll be bringing out some very cool 're-issues' of some classic Silvertone designs this spring.

Video: Check out this video below of Teddy Dean (The Shifty South) showing us his Silvertone Guitar collection:

Paul Unger

Paul is from Detroit originally and loves to help out whenever he can.  He has a bachelors in business admin. from University of Detroit Mercy, loves obscure live tracks from his favorite bands and digs happy people.  Paul loves being in Norfolk, VA and is happy to be part of the community.