Programs and Performances
The Stories of Music Gear from Illinois
Shure Microphones were founded in 1925 by Sidney Shure in Chicago. The company began as a supplier of radio parts kits, but is now heard across the world through its microphones. The Shure SM57 was used by Michael Jackson on the hit “Billie Jean” and Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin like the durability of the SM58. Every president since Lyndon Johnson has used a Shure microphone from the presidential lectern. Shure is headquartered in north suburban Niles, Illinois.
Ludwig and Slingerland Drums
It was the 1964 endorsement of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr that put Ludwig Drums on the map. Ringo dug the drum kit’s oyster pearl black color. William and Theobald Ludwig started the company in 1909 as a spin-off from their Chicago Drum store. By 1923 Ludwig was the largest drum manufacturer in the world. Slingerland drums were a favorite of jazz musicians, notably the bombastic Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. The company was founded in 1913 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but enjoyed its glory years in Chicago and Niles, Illinois. Slingerland also produced banjos and ukuleles.
Silvertone and Airline Guitars
In the Cultural tumbleweed before the internet, people bought guitars through Sears, Roebuck and Co. department store catalogs. Staple Singers guitarist-patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples was even named after the store. The Silvertone guitar was created—but not manufactured—by Sears in the 1930s. the brand was discontinued in 1972. Airline Guitars were made in Chicago between 1958 and 1968 by the Valco Manufacturing Company and distributed by the Montgomery Ward department store. P.J. Harvey and Jack White are fans of the plastic Valco/Airline, but the avatar is the bright red Airline deployed by 1960s Chicago bluesman J.B. Hutto.
Kay and Harmony Guitars
The Kay Musical Instrument Company was established in 1931 in Chicago and debuted its first electric guitar in 1936. Kay was a mid-line brand that also manufactured instruments for other Chicago-based instrument companies and department stores. Jimmy Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, and Buddy Guy (on the 1964 Muddy Waters acoustic record) are among those who played a Kay back in the day. Between 1945 and 1975 the Chicago-based Harmony guitar company mass-produced about ten million guitars, cutting deals with the Sears, Roebuck and Co., and J.C. Penney department stores. Also making ukuleles and violins, at one-point Harmony was the largest musical instrument manufacture in America. Harmony was founded in 1892 at the site of the future Civic Opera House in Chicago.
Naperville is an upscale suburb about 45miles southwest of Chicago. Most locals don’t know the quiet city is the headquarters of Victoria Amplifiers. Former stockbroker Mark Baier founded the company in 1993 to honor the late 1950s clean-sounding amplifiers of Leo Fender. Today, the powerful amps used by Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and many others come straight out of Naperville.
Heil Microphones and Talk Box
Bob Heil is an amateur radio devotee, tinkerer, and theater organist who invented Heil Sound microphones on 1966 in Fairview Heights in southern Illinois. But in 1973 the free spirit became known for creating his high-powered “Talk Box.” The Talk Box was popularized by peter Frampton and Joe Walsh. Heil Sound is the only manufacturer to be invited to exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Strings were the thing when George Washburn Lyon started his guitar company in 1883 in Chicago. Washburn became a manufacturer and importer of guitars, banjoes, mandolins, and other string instruments. The string division was an offshoot of the popular Lyon & Healy organ company, established in 1864 in Chicago. Noted Washburn guitarists include Bootsy Colins’ funky “Space Bass” and Govt. Mule’s Warrens Haynes. Hynes plays an acoustic guitar modeled after the original 1937 Washburn Solo Deluxe.
For those who like to shred, the solid-body Dean electric and bass guitars are a popular choice. The effervescent Dean Zelinsky started his guitar company in 1976 in Evanston, Illinois. His earliest clients were Heart, ZZ Top, and the Cars. The late Dimebag Darrell Abbott of Pantera graduated from a Washburn guitar to play “The Dean from Hell.” Zelinsky sold the brand in 1986. By the late 1990s owner Elliott “Dean” Rubinson, former bassist with the Michael Schenker Group was able to grow the company through the grunge movement.
Vintage guitar shop owners Paul Hamer and Jol Dantzig established the Hamer electric guitar company in 1973 in Wilmette, a north suburb of Chicago. Dantzig had studied guitar under the late Mike Bloomfield. In its nascent years, Hamer was known for hand-made craftsmanship with keen blends of wood. Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen popularized the brand with his custom-made guitars. Other key players were Pearl Jam, Pete Townshend, and the Rolling Stones. Hamer was sold in 1988 and in 2008 it was purchased by the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.