1971 Ampeg ARMUB-1

 

Although the fundamentals of modern electric guitar design were largely defined by the end of the 1950s, succeeding decades still saw considerable innovation in circuitry, materials and aesthetics. A number of synthetic materials were used for guitar bodies in the 1960s and 1970s: fiberglass (Valco) and resin (Ovation and Gibson) were both used in instruments with varying degrees of success. Arguably, the popularity of synthetics was limited more by guitarists’ conservatism than for reasons of tone or structural integrity.

Clear acrylic plastic – whether called Lucite, Plexiglas or something else – was probably first used to build a guitar in 1957; in that year, Fender built a see-through Stratocaster to demonstrate the inner workings of the guitar. This was a promotional gimmick rather than a production model, and it remained an obscure novelty for many years. However, in 1969, Ampeg introduced a line of guitars and basses that were mass-produced with clear acrylic bodies. Although they were only in production until 1971, the clear bodies made a lasting impact; Japanese copies followed in the early 1970s, and the instruments remained popular enough to inspire reissues in 1998.

These were not, however, the first guitars and basses sold under the Ampeg name. The first Ampeg guitars were imported from Burns from 1963 to 1965, and they were nearly identical to their European-marketed cousins except for the name on the pickguard. Ampeg stopped selling guitars in 1965 but in the following year started building their own bass guitars (called “horizontal” basses to differentiate them from Ampeg’s upright electric Baby Bass). These instruments were highly unique – they included the first production model fretless bass, the AUB-1 – but they, too, were produced briefly and were discontinued in 1968.

Ampeg next teamed with Dan Armstrong to design its next series of instruments, one of which is shown above. The resulting guitars and basses was a typically Armstrong-esque mix of the familiar and the unique. The acrylic bodies were married to maple necks with a bolt-on joint. There were Schaller or Grover tuners and a conventional truss rod at one end but a semi-intonatable bridge derived from Armstrong’s days at Danelectro at the other. The guitars came with multiple pickups that could be replaced simply by sliding them in and out. The basses only had one non-replaceable pickup, but it consisted of two stacked coils that were blended via the tone control.

The bodies were ordered from a local manufacturing company and the instruments were assembled at Ampeg’s plant in Linden, NJ. Armstrong insisted on inspecting every one, which allegedly caused problems because he wasn’t always available when Ampeg was otherwise ready to ship; this was one factor in Ampeg’s decision to discontinue the series after just a few years. While at least one fretless bass was constructed early on, it was not catalogued as a production model until 1970 and it appears that most of the ~150 fretless basses produced were built in early 1971. This bass fits that pattern, with a high serial and pots dating from the fall of 1970.

My bass is typical of the later basses: the pickup is held in by a thumb screw running through the back, while early versions had a chrome plate holding it down on one side. There is also a roughened patch on the bridge plate that helps the rosewood saddle stay in place, a practice that was started because early saddles were prone to slippage. The bass is very clean and entirely original, including the Ess & Ess hard case. As with all the original Armstrong series, intonation is imperfect due to the straight saddle – but this is of negligible concern on a fretless bass anyway.

This website contains excellent information on Dan Armstrong and the instruments he designed.

 

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