What was Valco?
The Valco company was a manufacturer of guitars and amplifiers, but no product ever bore “Valco” as a brand name. Valco-made instruments appeared under a variety of brands; higher-priced instruments were usually sold under the National brand, while lower-priced ones were sold under the Supro brand. However, this price-based distinction is nebulous at best, and the nicest Supro instruments were generally superior to the cheapest Nationals.
Valco also built instruments for other retailers, including a number of famous brands. Sears sold instruments under the Silvertone brand name, and some Silvertones in the 1950s were made by Valco. Later Silvertones (by far the majority on the vintage market) were built by Harmony and Teisco, however. Many Oahu, Airline and Custom Kraft brand electric guitars, lap steels and amps were made by Valco, as were all Gretsch guitar and bass amplifiers up through 1968. Valco guitars also appeared under a few obscure names, such as Academy, Tosca and Tonemaster/English Electronics. A number of other brands sold Valco-made amps in the 1940s and 1950s, but these are often difficult to identify.
Identifying Valco instruments can be confusing because Valco bought some of their guitar bodies from other manufacturers. All National and Supro acoustic guitars through the mid-‘60s had bodies made by Gibson. One example is the National model 1155, which had the body of a Gibson J-50 married to a National bolt-on neck. The National Bel Aire model was an electric archtop that used a Gibson ES-175 body and a National neck, pickups and hardware. Some of the cheaper archtop bodies were made by the Kay company (which Valco bought in 1967). Starting in the mid-‘60s, Valco acoustic guitars used bodies made in Japan. However, all solidbody Valco guitars, as well as semi-hollows like the res-o-glas series, were made entirely in-house.
Valco products ranged from cheap, student-level instruments up to true professional-quality gear that rivaled other big names in the industry. The top-of-the-line National guitar in 1964 (the Glenwood 99 model) cost $450, the same as Fender’s most expensive model, the Jaguar. Nevertheless, Valco products have gained a reputation over the years as being cheap, second-rate instruments. I believe this is due to the relative scarcity of top-end models; imagine what Gibson’s reputation would be if people thought the Melody Maker was its average product, and few had heard of the ES-335!
The List of Brand Names
The following is a list of brand names that featured Valco instruments. It's important to note that besides National and Supro, no brand's instruments were made exclusively by Valco.
English Electronics Tonemaster