Nathan I. Daniel, Danelectro Founder, 9/23/1912 – 12/24/1994
A lot of people know about Danelectro – especially the now-retro-looking electric guitars, which have become collector’s items and have even given rise to that sincerest form of flattery, a company of the same name as the 1940s, 50s and 60s Danelectro, which manufactures reproductions of the original instruments, and another company that also issues reproductions, albeit without the name.
Fewer people, however, know much about Nathan I. Daniel, my dad – and the genius behind Danelectro. Nor is my father’s contribution to the history of electric musical instruments widely known. He was devoid of interest in fame or publicity, and after Danelectro closed down in 1969, he simply got on with his life. As a result, most of what has been written about Danelectro has focused on the appearance of the guitars, right down to the shape of their heads and the style of knobs, pick guards and tuning pegs.
I hope that for the people who admire, collect and play original Danelectro guitars and amplifiers (or the Silvertone and Airline products my dad also created), this tribute will give a new appreciation for these old instruments, because the essence of the Danelectro story is Nat Daniel’s lifetime of innovation.
Nathan “Nat” Daniel was born in New York City in 1912, a year to the day after his young parents arrived in the United States, immigrants who had come to this country to escape the anti-Semitism of czarist Russia, which then ruled their Lithuanian birthplace. The younger of my father’s two kid sisters, my Aunt Ray, tells how one of their parents’ first words in English was “learn,” and how, when they were children, their parents would take all three of them around to New York’s many wonderful museums, urging them to “learn.”
Because my father could not yet speak English when he entered school, he had to repeat the first grade. At some point during his second time around, as he later told me, “it was as if someone turned the lights on one day, and suddenly I understood everything.” A bright, mischievous child, hardly a devoted student, he nonetheless went on to skip several grades and graduated from high school ahead of his contemporaries. (My dad often ignored homework assignments but aced exams, much to the irritation of certain teachers – most notably a high school math teacher who wanted to flunk him but couldn’t because of his near-perfect score on the New York State Regents Exam.)
My dad developed an early interest in radio, still in its infancy during his teenage years. He built the first crystal radio set in his neighborhood. During the Great Depression, he dropped out of City College of New York and began assembling and selling amplifiers of his own design. It was during this period, in the mid-1930s, that he designed and began manufacturing a push-pull amplifier circuit that eliminated the input transformer that had made it impossible to achieve good high-frequency response. His amp tested “flat” (i.e., provided equal response across the full range of sound frequencies) to the limit of then-existing equipment. He did not try to patent his invention because he could not afford the expense.
My father’s first “factory” was his bedroom in his parents’ New York apartment. Later he moved his small manufacturing operation – Daniel Electrical Laboratories – to a loft in Lower Manhattan. His first big customer was the well-known guitar maker Epiphone, second only to Gibson at the time.
During World War II, Nat Daniel served as a civilian designer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Among the other problems he worked on at that time, he found a simple, economical way to equip military jeeps and motorcycles with shielding to prevent the electronic “noise” their engines generated from interfering with the reception of critical battlefield radio messages. Protected from the draft by the critical nature of his work, at one point he considered enlisting in the Marines. His boss – and my mother, Mollie – talked him out of it. As a kid, I once asked about his work during the war. His response: “I saved the government a million dollars.” Whatever the exact amount, clearly it was not a trivial sum.
At the end of the war, my father left the Signal Corps and reopened his amplifier manufacturing business in Red Bank, N.J., near Fort Monmouth. He called it the Danelectro Corporation (coined from “Daniel electric”) and over the next nearly two and a half decades produced what writers Jim Washburn and Steve Soest in the July 1983 issue of Guitar World called “an impressive number of electric instruments … distinguished in their design innovations [and] their quality at a budget price….”
After supplying Epiphone again for about a year, he won contracts to make amplifiers for two major national retail chains, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. These were sold under their respective brand names, Silvertone and Airline. For about two decades Danelectro was the sole supplier of Sears’ Silvertone amplifiers. Danelectro began making electric guitars, with their distinctive “lipstick tube” pickups, in 1954. By the time my father sold the business, in 1966, to MCA (Music Corporation of America), Danelectro – by then located in a much larger plant in Neptune City, N.J. – employed about 500 people and was shipping out an average of more than a full trailer-truckload of amplifiers and guitars every day.
The Danelectro years were marked by a series of innovations. Between 1949 and 1969, my dad secured a total of eight patents – on vibrato (tremolo, or, as he dubbed it, “Vibravox”) and reverberation (“reverb”) systems; a loudspeaker cabinet with inclined baffles (the “Acoustic Case,” designed to boost bass response by lengthening the sound wave path from the back to the front of the speaker); a combined bridge, tailpiece and manual vibrato for guitars; and the electric sitar, which faithfully reproduced the unique sound of the classic Indian instrument but could easily be played by any guitarist. (My dad shared the sitar patents with Vinnie Bell, New York’s busiest, and almost certainly most innovative, studio guitarist, with whom he enjoyed a warm, collaborative relationship.) He also patented – way back in 1953 – an electric organ that foreshadowed a basic principle of some of today’s synthesizers, but reproduced true tones of many instruments in analog rather than digital fashion. He never put it into production, however.
However, Nat Daniel did not patent most of his innovations, which also included:
• the first six-string electric bass (1956)
• the first 12-string electric guitar (1961 – the “Bellzouki,” developed in collaboration with Vinnie Bell and inspired by Greekbouzouki music from the film classic “Never on Sunday”)
• a 31-fret “Guitarlin” (1958) with a deeply cut-away “longhorn” body that enabled a guitarist to play an extra 10 frets into the mandolin range
• an amplifier and speaker built into a guitar carrying case (this was done for Sears, which sold the Silvertone “amp-in-case” and guitar for under $50 as a set for novice players)
• a “convertible” guitar that could be bought, inexpensively, for beginning students, as an acoustic, and later, with the purchase of a pickup kit, turned into a semi-hollow-body electric
• total shielding of guitar and amplifier circuits to protect against hum from neon signs, motors or other sources of electrical interference (he introduced this at a National Association of Music Merchants – NAMM – show, with Vinnie Bell demonstrating Danelectro guitars and amps while sitting right next to a glowing neon sign; the Danelectro products sounded crystal clear, while a specially assembled “Brand X” guitar, lacking the shielding, hummed noisily every time Vinnie plugged it in)
• guitar necks that never warped because they were reinforced with twin steel I-beams
• the use of inexpensive, yet strong and stable composite materials in both amplifier cabinets (Homasote, particle board) and guitar bodies (Masonite, Formica)
• a guitar neck-tilt adjustment system “nearly identical [as Washburn and Soest wrote in Guitar World] to the one Fender used – except that Danelectro did it a decade earlier and didn’t bother to patent it”
• a “master-slave” amp system with 300-plus watts of distortion-free power (back in 1956)
• a “hexaphonic” guitar, with each string having its own separate pickup, amplifier and speaker (1958 – but never manufactured)
• a capacitance pickup for classical guitar with a tube pre-amplifier built into the body; etching the nylon strings and coating them with graphite made it possible to pick up the signal (1959 – but never manufactured )
• a hybrid vacuum tube/solid-state amplifier (1968)
My father’s most fundamental innovation, however, may well have been the basic idea behind virtually everything he made – to produce amplifiers and guitars that were both high-quality AND affordable to ordinary people, especially the families of youngsters – beginners – who wanted to learn the guitar but didn’t have a lot of money to spend. In a recent note to me, Jim Washburn, co-author of the Guitar World article, wrote that the thing that really sticks in his memory from the interview for that article was that “when I asked your dad what he was proudest of, he didn’t cite any of his industry firsts but just the humble fact that he was able to make instruments a beginner could afford that were of a quality that wouldn’t discourage them from progressing on the instrument.”
Legends like Jimi Hendrix, to name just one, learned to play on Danelectros or Danelectro-made Silvertones, so it can be argued that Nat Daniel played a significant role in getting some of the genre’s greats started on their careers. This may be somewhat ironic in light of the fact that he played no instrument himself and preferred music by composers like Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov – Rimsky-Of Course-Of Course, my dad liked to joke – to rock ’n’ roll.
By beginning the design process by first seeking to understand the qualities that were most important to musicians, my dad was able to figure out how to incorporate these characteristics in his products at low cost without compromising quality. That, to take just one example, is why he employed inexpensive materials like Masonite and Homasote, which some people derided at the time. But these materials did the job for which they were intended perfectly well, and they held costs down.
In his autobiography, Joseph N. “Joe” Fisher, Sears’ principal musical instrument buyer from 1959 to 1968, wrote that “Nat was an innovator who understood the principle of ‘rigid control of expense,’ an example of which was his innovative and inexpensive … magnetic pickups used in electric guitars. He made them from surplus [actually, they were not “surplus” at all] lipstick tubes, bought from a cosmetics manufacturer. He inserted the electronics in the tubes and produced the lowest cost guitar pickup in the industry.” Low-cost they may have been, but their innovative design makes them still highly sought-after by many guitarists today, who love their distinctive sound as well as their “cool” appearance. (Fisher admired my father for more than his innovativeness and ability to keep costs down. He also wrote, “I think the reason I respected people like Nat Daniel was because he disagreed when he thought my ideas were off base, even though I, representing Sears, was his economic lifeline.”)
Perhaps the best example of marrying high quality, low cost and innovative production methods was the Danelectro guitar neck. First, my father wanted a neck that would not warp or bow. He thought the traditional approach to this problem – an adjustable rod to counter the bowing effect of the strings – was a poor, “Band-Aid” solution. He wanted a neck that would simply NEVER bow. So first he aged the poplar wood used for the necks in a climate-controlled drying room. Then, in building the necks, he reinforced them with twin steel I-beams. These necks just would not bow – Danelectro hardly ever received an instrument back for repair or replacement because of a complaint about the neck. (And guitars that came back for other repairs, even after many years, never exhibited bowing problems.)
Rigid reinforcement achieved another objective – to make possible a neck that was slender, like those of high-priced competitors such as Fender. Why a slender neck? To make fingering easier, especially for the young beginners with small hands and tender fingers who comprised the bulk of his market. The I-beams meant less wood would be needed for rigidity, making possible a thinner neck.
In his recent correspondence with me, Jim Washburn pointed out that “while some of [my dad’s] designs were pure whimsy – he said [in the Guitar World interview, that] the longhorn originated as a doodle – most had a solid reason behind them. The lipstick tubes provided shielding, but with a gap in the middle that prevented the shorted-turn effect in which a typical pickup’s shielding acts as a transformer loop that diminishes the pickup’s high-frequency response. When he explained why he used the steel bars in his necks instead of a[n adjustable] truss rod, he went into the formula of Young’s Modulus of Elasticity, which he used to determine that even the cheapest steel rods provided the resistance the necks needed.”
In addition to designing all of Danelectro’s products, my father also came up with manufacturing equipment and processes that saved time and money. In the case of guitar necks, for example, he kept costs low and quality high by designing and building a unique, proprietary machine to finish the surface of the fingerboards (Brazilian rosewood, a handsome, durable material) to the exacting standards required. Like so many other elements of the manufacturing processes he designed and developed, this device made it possible for employees who were not craftsmen to produce craftsmanlike results.
The fingerboard-finishing machine was a horizontal, cylindrical frame, the length of a standard neck, with two large, circular wooden hoops forming either end. The outside rim of each hoop was fitted with clamps that allowed necks with unfinished, unfretted fingerboards to be laid lengthwise along the cylinder, fingerboards facing out, and secured at each end. The finishing was done automatically by a table saw. When the saw was turned on, a link to the cylinder started it slowly rotating along its axis while simultaneously drawing the saw almost imperceptibly along a finely threaded, revolving bolt running underneath the cylinder from one end to the other. After some time, the saw blade had passed along the entire length of each fingerboard, shaving it to precisely the right height and leaving a perfectly finished surface. The only manual work required was for an employee to clamp the unfinished necks in place, turn on the machine, and come back a couple of hours later to remove the necks and start another batch.
As ingenious as my dad’s many amplifier and guitar innovations were, the manufacturing processes he developed were an essential element in producing high-quality products at low cost.
MCA closed Danelectro in 1969, but my father never looked back. When, over a decade later, he learned, almost by chance, of the continuing interest in the major portion of his life’s work, he expressed surprise, gratification … and, characteristically, bemusement.
Following my mother’s death early in 1974, my dad left New Jersey for warmer, more hospitable climes. Late that year, he moved to Hawaii. Soon after arriving, he became intrigued by the seemingly inexplicable absence of passenger ferry service in this island state. After some investigation, he concluded the basic problem was that no vessel existed that combined the three qualities he deemed essential to any passenger service across Hawaii’s rough interisland channels – a smooth ride even in heavy seas, reasonably high speed, and operating costs low enough to permit fares to be set well under the price of airline tickets.
My father then began thinking about the physics of a vessel that would provide such a gentle, fast and inexpensive ride. In 1978 he came up with the SuperOutrigger, which (together with a 1981 variation on his original concept) he patented in the United States and 12 foreign countries. The vessel was a synthesis of a long, needle-like, fully enclosed main hull that rode low in the water; a passenger cabin held high above the hull, out of the reach of waves, by an open truss structure; and a smaller, stabilizing outrigger hull.
He built two working models of the SuperOutrigger on which tests were performed and demonstrations conducted. The testing of his first 28-foot model in 1979 showed that in 13-foot waves, rolling and pitching of a full-scale craft would be less than five degrees. In 1986, he launched a 58-foot demonstration model (with wooden hulls he built in his driveway) on which he gave rides to government officials, potential investors and journalists. One of those who rode the craft was the then-editor of the authoritative Jane’s High-Speed Marine Craft and Air Cushion Vehicles, Robert Trillo, who later wrote that the SuperOutrigger had “a substantial economic advantage over current fast craft such as hydrofoil and catamaran craft and especially when its potential seakeeping ability [stability in heavy seas] is taken into account, enabling operations to be extended into rougher seas….”
My dad spent years in a search for the investment or funding required to build the first commercially operating SuperOutrigger. He drew up plans for 300-foot-long versions of the craft that would travel at 35 knots (40 miles per hour) and cover the roughly 100-mile distance between Honolulu and either Maui or Kauai in under three hours for about half the price of flying. He attempted to interest officials in using SuperOutriggers for commuter ferry service between downtown Honolulu and various other points on the island of Oahu. He also explored the possibility of putting his vessel to use for other purposes and in other parts of the world. A number of investors indicated a willingness to back or operate a “second” SuperOutrigger, but my father never managed to locate a source of capital for a first commercially operating vessel.
My dad suffered a heart attack and died on Christmas Eve, 1994, at age 82. He was survived by his second wife, Connie; two grown stepchildren; three grandchildren; sisters Sally and Ray; and me. [Update: If he had lived to see them, my dad would have loved his five great-grandchildren, two of whom are named for him.]
Nathan Daniel was a conceptualizer, an innovator … an American original, just like the things he dreamed up, put together and gave the world. Growing up, I had thought of him as an engineer, not a businessman. (He was certainly no salesman. His idea of good sales technique was simply to offer a great product at an attractive price. Period. For profit, he relied entirely on high volume, not high markup.) However, as I grew older, it seemed to me that engineering was somehow too limited a description of what my dad did. In his later years he told me he felt as though what he did was basically to apply an understanding of physics to practical problems.
At bottom, THAT was his talent – problem solving. Nat Daniel believed that if you could manage to state a problem correctly, its solution would become apparent. He spent a lifetime doing just that … grasping the essence of the matter and coming up with solutions that, in the world of science, are called “elegant” because of their simplicity and originality. His ability to do this is only barely reflected in the U.S. patents he was granted – 10 that I know of, filed over a nearly three-and-a-half-decade span between 1947 and 1981.
In a recent note, Jim Washburn wrote that in his roughly quarter-century of journalism, “I’ve been lucky to have met and interviewed several of the major players in the history of the electric guitar – including Leo Fender and Gibson’s Seth Lover – and even in that company I think your dad was a giant of inventiveness and achievement.” In a subsequent message Washburn wrote that my dad “was no less inventive – as evidenced by how many of his innovations were later copied by Fender, Gibson and other firms, including the six-string bass, the 12-string electric and shielded electronics – and that, unlike those others, his leaps of creativity were accomplished within the self-imposed constraint of producing excellence on a budget. If a musician wanted Gibson’s version of Nat’s six-string bass, they had to find a Gibson dealer, special-order the thing, wait sometimes for months, and shell out $400 or more for it. With Nat’s, any American could walk into a Sears or Montgomery Ward, plunk down $90 and walk out with one. And, decades later, it is still the Danelectro that most musicians rely upon.”
A friend recently observed that my dad had the habit of “thinking outside the box” long before that expression was ever dreamed of. He was right. That was the way Nat Daniel always thought. That’s what made him the smartest, most original person I’ve ever known.
This tribute was written in 2007. It serves, in a very slightly adapted form, as the introduction to the book Neptune Bound, by Doug Tulloch. For more information, visit www.danelectro.guru. The book, in hardcover and softcover, is also available from Amazon. The tribute is also posted on this site’s Portfolio page.
For more information about Nathan I. Daniel and Danelectro, please see the relevant posts on my Braindrops Blog.
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