1959 Danelectro Double Cutaway, and Accurately Setting the Intonation

In my initial post in this series, I summarized this guitar as: "1959 Danelectro. A gift from my brother Jonsan, I have no idea what its model name is. Made in Neptune, New Jersey. The body has a pine frame with black painted Masonite pressboard top and back, and sides covered in textured white vinyl tape. Poplar neck with double non-adjustable steel flat-bar truss rods, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, and aluminum nut and side markers. Kluson tuners. All original. Any brand of regular light electric strings, .010 to .046."

As a quick run down on this Dano, that's a pretty good description, and it just begins to touch on how basically really strange old Danelectros are. And how much different are they from other guitars? Let's start with the neck:

Yeah, that's an aluminum nut, and it's never going to wear out, unless you use diamond coated strings. As you can see, it's attached with a screw, into the really thick slab Brazilian rosewood fingerboard. In the 1950s, Brazilian rosewood was the only rosewood being used, back before the Amazon rain forest was almost totally wiped out, both of old growth trees, and the indigenous population, but that's another story.

Here's a shot of the heel end of the neck:

You can see how thick that rosewood 'board is here. Under the slab, are the exposed ends of the two steel bar trussrods. They're totally not adjustable, and under most conditions, they never need it, being way stronger than any other trussrod design out there. I've seen old Danos with heavy gauge flat wound jazz strings, and no warpo, no worries. With my preferred 10-46 round wounds, the neck should be good for a couple lifetimes.

* Update: This Dano now has a GHS Gilmour 10.5 - 50 set on it. After I put the heavier strings on, I expected the neck to bow a bit under the increased tension, and was prepared to go back to the 10 - 46 set, since there is no truss rod adjustment. But what actually happened was strange: after the string change (and I only replaced them one at a time, to reduce the chance of neck flex), the action got a bit lower, rather than higher as expected - and there were a few buzzing notes in the middle of the fingerboard. I didn't reset the bridge, and let the guitar sit. After three or four days, the strings came back up, and the action is now where it was before, and hasn't changed for the past two months. It doesn't make sense, can't explain it, it's like magic. Or genius engineering.

Here are the tuning machines:

No idea what brand these tuners are - maybe Kluson? They were a major provider of machines for many makers back in the day, so maybe. They're now 57 years old, and still work fine, no issues. A drop or two of Tri-Flo every once in a while, and maybe they also will last another 100 years.

Down at the other end:

The neck is attached with three of the strange looking screws that you only see on old Danelectros - wide round heads, small Phillips slots. Why only three? No idea, but it works.

Let's move the camera a bit:

This Dano came with two cheesy looking, white plastic shove-in-hole style acoustic guitar end pins. They also did what they were supposed to do, no problem. Except, once at a jam, I set the guitar leaning against the amp, tail end down, and that end pin cracked off. Bummer. Next day, drilled the remains of the end pin out, stuck a dowel in the hole, and installed a regular nickel plated strap pin. While I was at it, I pulled the pin out of the heel - see the hole left behind, above - and put another nickel button on the left horn:

Okay, I guess I lied when I said this guitar was all original. I put on a couple strap buttons, big deal; I don't care, I'm never gonna sell it anyway. The Dano hangs a lot better now, and no big fat plastic end pin stuck on the heel means better access to the upper octave.

Here's something cool, the back control cover "plate":

This may just be the piece of Masonite that fell out when a circle was cut out of the back, I don't know, looks like it. In a stroke of genius el-cheapo engineering, the way in which it attaches to the back is simply a small screw threading into a rectangular piece of Masonite - when you tighten the screw, it pulls the other piece up against the inside of the guitar, and thus bringing the round cover down flush with the back:

In this picture, you can see what the other, non-finished side of Masonite looks like. Don't ask me what Masonite is, I don't know, but it's one of those 1950s "Space Age" materials like Bakelite, Plexiglass, and Naugahyde, that was supposed to make our lives zoom into the 21st century and help us evolve into higher consciousness. "Better Living Through Chemistry!" - that's a real ad slogan from back then. Too bad - here we are actually in the 21st century, and we never zoomed anywhere; we're still stuck here on planet Earth, and still trying hard to kill each other.

Now, let's look inside the control cavity:

Lots to see here. In the bottom of the frame, you can see part of the pine frame that actually is the body - imagine a guitar shaped slab of wood, that's been cut again and hollowed out on the inside, leaving a thick outline. Onto that, the top and back Masonite pieces are glued, and voila - instant guitar, more or less.

At the top of the picture is the block that the bridge is screwed into, which also keeps the back and top from sympathetically vibrating into howling "wolf tone" mechanical feedback, just as a sound post dowel does inside a violin. To the right of that, is another wooden block, doing much the same thing. These blocks also strengthen the whole body - since they are well glued to both top and back, which are in turn glued to the pine frame, the whole assemblage becomes one fairly rigid unit.

This is only a single pickup guitar, but it has three basic variable tones, thanks to the control layout, using a SPDT center-off switch, two pots, two caps, and a resistor. In the center switch position, the tone control is disabled. Flip the switch one way, and the tone pot is the familiar, progressive high-cut control. Flipped the other way, you can control varying levels of low-cut - cool! And great when you want to get that sharp, razor thin skankin' tone that really cuts through the mix with a Reggae band.

And next, here's the bridge:

Another unique, genius, and inexpensive to build invention by Nat Daniel, the "Dan" of Danelectro. I should mention here that the big thing about Danelectro guitars and basses is that were incredibly good guitars, great playing and great sounding, but really inexpensive, and easy to afford. Genius indeed, and thanks, Nat.

The bridge is a thick, chrome plated steel plate, with four holes and six slots. One hole is countersunk on the top, through which a flat top screw runs down into the center block. Two other holes are counter bored on the bottom, half way through the plate, toward the front of the bridge. Two more flat top screws also run down into the block, and the front of the bridge plate rests upon those screws at the counter-bored holes, and the whole thing is held tightly in place by the tension of the strings. Depending on how far each of the screws are threaded down, the bridge can be set higher or lower, and the tilt angle can be varied to a fine degree:

With this arrangement, it's possible to get any kind of combination of string break over angle past the saddle and string height above the body, as well as the usual action adjustment. I once played a Danelectro that had a shim in the neck pocket to get a steeper neck-to-body angle, and the bridge plate set up high, which felt a lot like playing a Les Paul. Mine is set more or less stock, with a Fender-ish flat neck angle.

At the rear of the bridge plate are six open slots that the strings run through, trapping the ball ends. The first time you change strings on a Dano, it feels freaky, and you think the strings are going to pop out when they get tightened up - but they don't, they stay in place. Yeah, it's like some kind of magic, can't explain it. Once again: it's weird, it's different, and it works.

The fourth hole through the bridge is also a slot, running on axis in the middle of the plate; there is a smaller screw, with its head on the bottom of the bridge plate, its shaft going through the slot, and attached to the bottom of the rosewood saddle. The saddle is not screwed down tight against the plate, and it's possible to move it back and forth to set the intonation. This jazz guitar-like rosewood saddle is one of the factors in the unique tone of a Danelectro, along with the body and neck materials, the semi-hollow construction, and of course the famed soulful toned lipstick pickups.

Usually, in everyone else's Danelectro, the plate is set at an angle to the body, with the front of the bridge higher than the rear, so that the strings break cleanly over the front edge of the saddle, for notes that are clear and crisp. As an alternative, it's possible to raise the rear of the bridge higher than the front, thus making the strings lay flat over the saddle for its whole width, and creating an indistinct and really buzzy tone, reminiscent of a sitar.

However, my Dano is a bit different:

I have the bridge plate set more or less flat in relation to the top of the body, with the difference in height made up for with my Danelectro intonation innovation: simply, a low "E" string cut to length and placed between the rosewood saddle, and the strings. After tuning up to pitch, I pull and push the string around, until the intonation is right on, and it's a done deal. And unlike using an aftermarket individually adjustable saddle bridge, the original Danelectro tone is maintained, since it's still just strings sitting on top of rosewood (!).

So that's my method of accurately setting the string intonation on a vintage Danelectro - it's cheap (free, actually), it's effective, easily reversible, and doesn't mess with the original vibe of these fantastic guitars. Or their collector's value if you're into that sort of thing, which I'm not. I've been doing this to Danos for a long time, since way before there was an internet, and over the years I've shared this trick with other Danelectro players, from Colorado, to Nashville, to Bakersfield, and even Britain. Possibly, they've passed it on to others since then, and you're also welcome to it, it's my pleasure. It always feels good to give something back to the global guitar playing community.

So what's missing from this article? I've only barely mentioned the Danelectro's nicely toneful pickup, but there's already been maybe a million and a half words already written about those legendary sound transducers. Nothing much I can add to that, so I won't. Except, and I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: this is one of the very finest sounding, and playing, guitars I've ever had the pleasure of squeezing notes out of.

Okay, thanks again for visiting, see you next time; make sure to bring along a guitar, we'll open up a couple beers, and have a good long jam.

*               *               *

For more guitar stuff, you can also go to the first post in this series, "My Arsenal".

The Stratocaster in that post, which is actually a Parts-O-Franken-Caster, has three posts up so far about the build in various stages: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. When I get around to replacing the bridge with a new Gotoh trem, I'll update with a Part 4. Lately I've changed the neck pickup three times (did a couple dumb things), as well as replaced a couple more hardware bits with nickel ones, so I may do a Part 3.5 soon. Maybe.

Also, on the right sidebar are some topic links - click on "Guitar" for a few articles that may or may not be of interest to you.

Next time, we'll probably be taking a look at a '77 Gibson Les Paul TV Special. See you then.


Mick Wright said...

Thanks for this informative post. I just scored a Silvertone 1448 and was looking for bridge setup info. Mine was as wrong as it could be - screws through the bridge plate adjustment holes instead of under the bridge. I thought maybe they were the wrong screws altogether, but they do look like the ones in your picture. My Silvertone is a good deal uglier than your Danelectro, but probably identical sound-wise.

It came with the remnants of the original case, with built-in amp. The case looks beyond rebuilding, but the amp works, so I'll try to find or build an enclosure for it. Eventually.

James Aoyama said...

Hi Mick, and thanks for reading! Those amp-in-case guitars are ultra-cool, as are the amps too. And yeah, I hope your guitar's tone is identical to my old Dano, which is very sweet and Hi-Fi sounding. Yesterday I took it to a jam, plugged into an old TS-808, and into a Fender DeVille, and the tone with a slide was amazing - huge, fat yet clear, incredible sustain and almost endless controlled feedback. That nearly flat fingerboard radius really makes for a great slide guitar.

It will definitely be worth making a new enclosure for your amp; the 12AU6 pentode first stage has a very unique tone, nice for studio use.


Unknown said...

Hey Jim, I have an old Dan Electro Companion. The action is quite high and the bridge is a moveable style with pins coming out of the body.
Thanks so much for your tip. I will send pics of this guitar if you are interested, I only ever play slide. Btw, I’m sure you have heard of the trick of putting a pencil behind the nut for raising the action temporarily so you can play some good slide but if not , there ya go!
Take care

James Aoyama said...

A Danelectro Companion is a model never seen in the wild, only in photos - nice score! Also, cool trick with the pencil; they also come in handy for lubing a nut slot, making a temporary capo w/ a big rubber band, and believe it or not, writing grocery lists.

Danos are freakin' great sounding slide guitars, paired with a decent overdrive such as a Danelectro Daddy-O or Marshall Guv'nor boosting the low-output lipstick pickup's signal enough to make an amp squeal. And sure, do send some pics of the Companion, love to see it - just go over to the right side bar of this blog, and there’s a link to get in touch via Gmail.