Airline Guitars: Then vs. Now
by Lincoln Smith
You know Airline guitars. The brand has existed in the collective world of guitar for nearly 7 decades now. Over the course of its history, Airline-branded instruments have been manufactured by Valco, Kay, and Harmony; but most recently, Airline was resurrected by Eastwood Guitars.
Though the Airline brand has existed in many forms and has been produced by several companies, it has always personified mystique of Americana mid-20th century designs. In this new millennium, Eastwood has taken up the torch and introduced a new level of craftsmanship and reliability to the timeless style of Airline. In this article, we'll take you though the 3 major phases of Airline's existence.
Airline by Valco
You can’t talk about the history of Airline Guitars without touching on the history of their manufacturer, Valco. From 1958-1968, Valco produced not only Airline instruments, but two other popular brands, National and Supro.
Between these three names, models were similar and sometimes exact builds were sold under different names at the same time. The Airline brand name was specific to Valco instruments sold through Montgomery Ward stores and catalogues, which gave players around the country easy access to purchasing American-made instruments.
During this time, larger-scale companies like Fender, Gretsch, and Gibson dominated the majority of the guitar scene. While “catalogue” brands like Harmony, Airline, and Kay were aimed at providing the best value for the every day player, their more affordable build techniques and the unique innovations that came from this planted them firmly outside of the “world’s best guitar” conversation.
Few popular musicians of the day used a Valco product as their main instrument. Notable exceptions were artists who are now praised for trailblazing in the field of guitar performance such as bluesman J.B. Hutto and early rocker Link Wray. As a result, this category of guitars found real popularity years after their production had halted.
In 1967, Valco merged with another of these “catalogue” instrument manufacturers, Kay Musical Instrument Company. The merged company produced Airline-branded guitars for just one year before going out of business in 1968.
Airline Out of Production
In the 70s and 80s Fender largely dominated the market thanks to a downturn in quality from Gibson. This dull landscape of Fenders and Fender copies turned out to be fertile ground for a boom of individuality for guitarists of the 1990s and 2000s.
Icons began slowly reintroducing the world to the diversity and pure Americana that was Valco. Robert Smith of The Cure played a Res-O-Glass National Newport. David Bowie fell in love with the Supro Dual Tone and used it almost exclusively. Not long after, a young upholstery worker from Detroit named Jack White broke onto the scene and forever changed what people thought about these “pawn shop guitars.” His vintage Airline guitar, a “J.B. Hutto” Res-O-Glass model, became an icon in itself, and people were itching to dig up more hidden gems tucked away in the dusty corner of a pawn shop or a relative’s attic.
There was only one problem … most of them were bad. Valco had simply not manufactured these with longevity in mind. The Res-O-Glass that they used for many models is a fiberglass, and fiberglass doesn’t cure as it ages - it weakens and cracks. The necks, while sometimes steel reinforced, did not have adjustable truss rods. The bridges were not made to adjust intonation or height. Sure, you could find some diamonds in the rough that had aged well, but these were few and far between - especially when regarding vintage Airline Res-O-Glass guitars. At the end of the day, these were not reasonably fit instruments for the working musician.
There was a demand - and Canadian manufacturer Eastwood stepped in.
In the early 2000s, right as a collectors market began to bloom for the more obscure instruments of the 60s, Eastwood Guitars came on the scene with a simple idea. Keep the looks, keep the sound, but do it right this time. Make these timeless designs and innovations fit for a working musician who wants a guitar they can set up, take care of, and play for decades rather than years.
It didn’t take long for the idea to gain a head of steam. The word was out, and players wanted more. Eastwood responded by acquiring a brand that had been left in the dust of the 1960s, like so many of the instruments branded with its name. Airline Guitars was back and better than ever.
Since being reestablished, Airline has brought back so many of the retro design innovations and tasty tones that put their name on the map in the first place. The previously mentioned J.B. Hutto model was brought back as the “Airline ‘59”, with 1, 2, and 3 pickup iterations. The resonator-equipped Folk Star was re-released, as well as the Airline Map, inspired by the map-shaped National guitars of the 60s.
But wait. Weren’t those models all originally made with Res-O-Glass? The stuff that warps, and cracks, and crumbles?
When reissuing these designs, the goal was clear. Keep the looks, keep the sound, but do it right this time. These previously Res-O-Glass models were constructed with a tone-chambered mahogany body, and carefully redesigned to replicate the same famous resonance that you would get from the vintage guitar models. The big difference is that a tone wood body cures and gets more durable and sweeter-sounding over time.
Other improvements have included truss rods, fully adjustable bridges, redesigned modern pickups that replicate the tone without the inconsistencies of the originals. Every step of the way, Airline has sought to point back to its history, while blazing a new trail of unique, professional-quality guitars with modern playability.
Gone are the days when guitarists were limited to the two or three brands that are carried by their local music shop. Today, players can explore their individuality in a guitar’s looks and tone to find their perfect guitar, and they will find a ripe field of Eastwood Airline instruments on the Eastwood Website.
In the meantime, those of us at Eastwood can’t wait to keep celebrating under-appreciated Americana classics and preserving Airline’s tradition of providing a new generation affordable and timeless professional instruments, ready for the stage or studio.