Guitars are obviously major contributors to the sound of Americana and we’ve already had articles about two iconic guitar models here on The Unsung Heroes of Americana series – the Gibson J45 and the Martin D28. Now Tim Martin is here to tell you about something of a maverick guitar design that became closely associated with one very significant artist.
Charles Kaman, whose business had been in aerospace design, found himself needing to diversify and, as a keen guitarist, his thoughts turned to what could be done to bring some design innovation to building guitars. Using lessons learned in designing helicopters and using a composite material he called Lyrachord, the Ovation guitar was born.
One of the advantages of this new way of doing things was that onboard electronics could be used with much less chance of the intrusive feedback that had plagued earlier attempts to electrify acoustic guitars. It was this advance that brought Ovation on of their first key endorsees, Glen Campbell. At the time he was hosting a TV show called the “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” a variety show that ran from the late 60s until 1972. Campbell wanted to be more mobile on stage. “I didn’t like having the mic in front of the camera,” Campbell told Guitar World. “I kept pressing Ovation to come up with a solution”. Ovation’s acoustic/electric piezo pick-up system was the answer to his demands. At that time Campbell was one of the biggest names in music. As a session player, he was a member of The Wrecking Crew, a loose collective of musicians based in Los Angeles whose playing appears notably on The Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’, and hundreds of other hits. Their work backing Campbell on his 1968 single ‘Wichita Lineman’ turned him into a major draw, and for Ovation the chance for their guitars to appear on a weekly syndicated TV show was a godsend. As a working player Campbell was instrumental in helping set the pattern for Ovations, reducing the weight helped make it more usable on stage, and the introduction of electric guitar style thin, almost “V” shaped steel-reinforced necks opened up the market to electric players put off by bulky acoustic guitar necks.
Campbell played and endorsed Ovations for the next 40 years. Another early endorsee, and the first Africa American musician to have a signature model named for him, was folk bluesman, Josh White. Ovation also designed a set of fiberglass finger picks to help White overcome the effects of Psoriasis which made his nails brittle. He attached these with another revolutionary product, Eastman 910 adhesive, soon to be marketed as Superglue. Other Ovation players included Bruce Springsteen and a whole host of electric guitarists looking for an easy acoustic instrument. For a while, in the 70s and 80s, the high-end Adamas range, with carbon fibre tops in a range of blues, greens and reds, were almost as common a sight in mainstream country music as a Stetson hat.
With improved electronics, more standard shaped acoustic/electric guitars became available. The difficulty of playing the round bowl sitting down was always a problem and, while they remain in production, the company has changed hands several times and their quality, if not the price, has declined markedly in recent years.
Players tend to either love or loath Ovation guitars. Glen Campbell’s commitment to them over several decades, when he can’t have been short of endorsement offers, suggests he was in the former camp. The Glen Campbell signature 6 and 12 string models have been in the Ovation range since 1969, and innovations he helped introduce are used across the range. Since his death in 2017, Campbell’s reputation as a superb technical guitarist has grown, as the video of him playing ‘Gentle on My Mind’ below shows. Even later in life, while his voice was not what it once was, his guitar playing certainly remained as good as ever. His soloing on an acoustic guitar was very much tied to the unique construction and sound of the Ovation guitar, and you can still hear the influence of both on many Americana artists today.