On August 22, 2020, I removed the five screws that hold together my sea-foam green Airline Res-O-Glas guitar copy to make a correction. As I will explain, this is not an uncommon occurrence. The inside of the guitar is covered in haphazardly scribbled dates, stretching back to 2013. Each date marks a time I opened this guitar to fix something, or to change something. I quickly wrote down the date and got to work. This time I decided to tackle a phantom buzz that has haunted the guitar for many years.
A Peculiar Instrument
I started construction of my Airline Res-O-Glas guitar copy in 2013. I only say “started construction” because, with the frequency I have needed to make revisions, I can hardly call it complete. This guitar is the first guitar I ever built (or rather technically assembled, as I personally did not cut any of the components).
My Airline Res-O-Glas guitar copy is peculiar. Its grounding wire is attached to a screw that holds the strap button to the tail piece. Traditional guitars are usually grounded to the bridge, but since the bridge on this guitar quite literally “floats,” it requires a different set-up. The screw that holds the strap button on this guitar is the only access to something metal that evenly touches the strings. It occurred to me that the strap buttons, while metal looking, could easily be some sort alloy, or even plastic, and not very conductive. I also realized that the wire that connects to the screw could be loose. Both were true. I replaced the strap button, found a new screw, and soldered the wire in place. Content that it wouldn’t move, I screwed the guitar back up. Similar to every other time I finished work on the guitar and closed it up, I vowed that this time would be the last.
How I Came to Build My Airline Res-O-Glas Copy
In 2012, I was accepted into an NPR competition that would take place the following year, and in celebration of the event I’d ordered a guitar from a reputable builder located in New York City. The builder gave me a reasonable time estimate for completion — which was slated to be before the contest – but as time rolled on it became very clear that my custom instrument would not be ready in time. Frustrated by the slow process, and emboldened by seeing how this builder worked, I decided to tackle building a guitar myself. While I had dabbled a tiny bit in guitar modification before this project, I had never undertaken a project of this magnitude.
A Brief History of Res-O-Glas
I chose to build a guitar inspired by Jack White’s famous Airline guitar for a number of reasons. In addition to respecting how Mr. White revives classic folk and blues standards, I thought the materials for this guitar were perfect for a home build.
Guitarists are often prone to purist sentiments. Anyone who has partaken of the guitar community is familiar with the internet debates about which kinds of guitars sound best and which guitar-building materials are preferred. Opinionated guitarists with resources can be very particular about their instruments – spending upwards of $40,000 for guitars sourced from a single tree in the Honduran rain forest.
While guitar afficionados argue about which tree produces the best guitars, Jack White takes the stage with a plastic guitar. For a brief period in the 1960s, the Valco Guitar and Amplifier Company produced a line of guitars made out of a material that they called “Res-O-Glas.” These fiberglass instruments are essentially hollow, held together with screws covering a hard strip of maple running down the center of the body. The guitars were sold with “Airline” on the headstock, and retailed for $99 in 1964. These days, one would be lucky to find an original for less than $5,000.
While the classic Res-O-Glas guitars are not made out of exotic rainforest trees, they have a unique and wonderful sound.
What Drew Me to Res-O-Glas Guitars
Already being inspired by the anti-purist nature of the Res-O-Glas guitars, I decided to research whether it would be possible to make one of my own. I discovered that a company called “Guitar Kits USA” had recently acquired the patent that would enable it to produce the plastic Res-O-Glas frames. The kits were advertised as requiring a “moderate skill level” to put together. In hindsight, I think that Guitar Kits USA understated the skill required to complete the kits.
My purchase from Guitar Kits USA came with the plastic shell for the guitar, a maple block for the center, and some smaller wooden blocks to connect the back to. Shortly after my purchase, Guitar Kits USA went out of business. As luck would have it for me, however, Eastwood Guitars, a company that also copies classic Res-O-Glas guitars (albeit in shape, not in materials), was beginning to take off, and was selling their excess Res-O-Glas necks on eBay. I began slowly assembling all the parts I needed to complete my guitar, mostly through Craigslist. My co-editor, Nicholas Austin Ferrell, surely remembers our trip to upper Manhattan to acquire a single pickup, which nearly fell through because the seller overslept and left us waiting on a street corner for more than an hour.
A Multiplicity of Mistakes
I proceeded to make every possible mistake in the book when building the guitar. I broke a screw that connects the neck to the guitar, and then left it inside like a bullet that couldn’t be removed by surgery. The boat-bottom epoxy I used is great for boats, but antiquated for guitars – it gave out not too long after I applied it. After the whole guitar fell to pieces, I had to begin anew.
The associate who I was working with miscalculated the placement of a decimal by several zeros, so the capacitors I used made the instrument sound unpleasant at best. After realizing this mistake, he neglected to inform me for several weeks. Despite all these pitfalls, the guitar was completed in time for the contest – as can be seen in the video here.
Ups and Downs with My Airline Res-O-Glas Guitar Copy
After the show, I played the guitar exclusively for some time, but I continued to encounter problems. For example, during one of my shows at the Jalopy School of Music and Theater one of the guitar’s wires came undone, causing it to stop working at a very inconvenient time. At Brooklyn’s Paper Box a lazy sound technician dropped a mic stand on the neck – which for some reason he found comical. In addition to the haphazard numbers inside the guitar, the outside is covered in scratches, dents, cracks, and now, rust.
Nevertheless, it is because of this instrument and all the work I did to iron out a number of kinks and solve a variety of problems that I gained the knowledge and skills that allowed me to start building guitars with gusto. While it was not the end of my learning, it was a crash course that got me submerged into an art form, and for that reason, I’m forever grateful to it.