To the eyes of most present-day guitar players, the guitar in the image above resonates as the “Jack White” model. Due to White’s success over the past decade and the unique look of the guitar, it really isn’t that surprising. In fact, it’s actually pretty fair to refer to it as that; considering that the guitar was un-named when it was released in 1964.
“The Jetsons Model” and the “J.B. Hutto” were a couple other nicknames unofficially given to this VALCO-built, Montgomery ward-sold guitar. The first was given presumably due to its futuristic, funky look, while the second was thanks to the first man to make regular appearances with this guitar: legendary blues guitarist J.B. Hutto. (Left)
This guitar made its debut in a Montgomery-ward catalog in 1964 with only the brand name “Airline” on it as an identifier. At the time, you could get the standard two pickup version, or a white three-pickup “Professional” with a factory Bigsby. Montgomery-ward sold a wide variety of guitars, and although branded differently, many were built by one Chicago-based company known as VALCO. National, Supro, Dobro, and Airline were all brands built under this name, and as such feature a similar build quality and style. The success of these instruments at the time can be attributed to the fact that they were inexpensive. Without the internet, you couldn’t buy a guitar from anywhere and have it shipped to you. Nor could you easily look up and find a location that carries the guitar you want. Living in smaller towns, retail stores like Montgomery-Ward, Sears & Roebuck, and Spiegel all dominated the market by making cheaper, accessible guitars available to those who needed them. (Page from vintage catalogue below)
What makes many of the VALCO guitars stand out is the fact that their bodies were made out of two pieces of “Res-O-Glas” (VALCO’s trademark name for fiberglass) screwed, and stuck together with a piece of white binding. A center-block ran down the middle of the guitar for neck support, and for mounting the pickups. This made it easier for the company to crank out high quantities of guitars faster than doing builds entirely out of wood. Think about it – to make the body shapes all they needed were molds to pour in the chemical compound that formed the fiberglass. Because the top and back were separate pieces, routing and wiring the electronics was a much simpler process. Plus, any repair work that needed to be done in the future was way easier than with hollow body wood guitars that have no access point. Here, you can simply remove the binding, unscrew the mounting screws, and take the two pieces apart. (Right, below)
For all the positives, however, the efficiency of these builds weren’t without their cons. One of the biggest problems is the fact that the necks on these instruments don’t have adjustable truss rods. This makes setting up the guitar extremely difficult (if not impossible) once the neck starts to move. Some of the originals you will find today have necks so far out of whack that you can’t even play them.
Shortly after their merger with Kay in 1967, VALCO unfortunately went out of business. Whatever popularity these instruments had dwindled over time, and once the ‘80s rolled around they were almost completely overshadowed by the super-strats and “glam” colours. If you wanted one at this time, it was prime time to buy. There was no supply, and very little demand – it wouldn’t cost you much to pick one up. However, fast forward 30 years…
Sometime around the late ‘90s the value of these guitars started to rise. The demand began to increase, but the supply remained extremely low. That’s a recipe for very high jumps in cost. Much of the credit for reviving this particular model can be given to Jack White for his extensive use of this vintage guitar. White’s unique sound and tone can attributed mainly to the raw, stripped down yet energetic playing he incorporates into his music – which are all qualities that this guitar naturally embodies.
Another notable guitarist to have used a vintage Montgomery-Ward model like this was Rory Gallagher. Rory was known for using a plethora of different guitars on stage, one of them having been a 1965 Airline/Supro/National. The guitar is unnamed as you can see in the photo, and has a different headstock design than the one on Jack White’s. This just goes back to VALCO being in charge of manufacturing a ton of instruments with parts from different factories across Chicago, and branding them differently to be sold by separate big box stores.
Call it what you will, in the mid ‘60s you could have picked one up for $99.95. Due to rarity and demand, these days it would cost you at least $2000 to so much as breathe on one of these.
Here at Eastwood, we want you to more than just breathe on one. Our remakes carry over all the vibe and cool-factor of the originals, but are made with modern, quality components that will last. The best part? They come at a fraction of the cost. Check out our Airline 2P '59 Custom below!