I have been fascinated with National guitars since I first saw one in the late 1980s. The strange blend of wood and shiny metal, the speaker-like round cone, the sand-blasted Hawaiian scenes or floral engraving - above all the strangeness of the era before electric amplification - when a metal bodied guitar with an aluminium diaphragm was the loudest guitar on the planet.
Over the years I fell in love with the sound of resonator guitars - a kind of metallic, bell-like, slightly nasal, almost electric guitar tone but undeniably still an acoustic instrument. This particular tone suits certain styles of music better than others - it also encourages musicians to play in a particular style.
Although initially popular with, and marketed to, Hawaiian musicians, the National guitar really found it's enduring home with blues musicians - the single cone National guitars have become become synonymous with the blues - on album covers, movies, advertisements - nothing says "blues" like a single cone National guitar.
As a lover of early acoustic blues I was drawn to the resonator guitar and have spent the last 16 years playing them - I love the sound, the unique feel (the strings are much closer to the body than a regular acoustic and the cover strap necessitates a particular right-hand position different to other acoustic guitars) and of course they look fantastic.
Also the extra volume of a resonator guitar is still useful today - even with microphones and PA systems. I don't like the sound of electric pickups in my guitars so I always use a microphone. With a normal acoustic guitar, you can never get enough volume without feedback - a National guitar's extra volume allows this - 89 years after it was invented it's still a useful tool.
The success of the National guitar was due to brilliant engineering, a brilliantly designed aesthetic and above all, the timing of it's introduction.
In 1912, Hawaiian music was introduced to the U.S. in a Broadway show called "The Bird Of Paradise" and in 1915, 17 million Americans visited the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco seeing exhibitions of Hawaiian music and dance. In 1916, Hawaiian music outsold all other styles of recorded music in the U.S.
The mid 1920s was also the peak of the "Jazz Age", when bands were getting bigger and music was getting louder. Both these styles of music were in need of a louder guitar and Hawaiian slide guitarists particularly wanted a guitar with a longer sustain and a clear tone.
At this exact moment in history the National guitar was invented by John Dopyera (around 1925). The large Dopyera family emigrated to California from Slovakia in 1908 and set up a cabinet maker's shop where they also built violins and banjos they branded "National".
There is some debate about the origins of the resonator guitar but the generally accepted story is that George Beauchamp, a vaudeville entertainer came into the Dopyera's shop and ordered a custom made guitar featuring a Gramophone style horn to increase it's volume.
The idea derived from the English-made Stroh violin - indeed it was perhaps an exact copy of the Stroh violin principle applied to a guitar.
John Stroh patented his idea in 1900 - essentially the bridge of the violin sits on a mica diaphragm which vibrates and is amplified by a conical horn - exactly the way a gramophone works. Unfortunately his patent (for violins and other string instruments) only covered the U.K. and John Dopyera was able to apply it to a guitar in the U.S.
George Beuchamp used this Stroh-like guitar on stage but the tone was reportedly not great. Also it could only be played Hawaiian style on a stand.
In order to improve on this first resonator design, John experimented with other materials and sizes of diaphragms, eventually settling on a 6" diameter cone shaped disc, rather like a shallow bowl which was spun on a lathe to around 0.17mm thick.
Instead of using one cone, he used three 6" cones and made a T-shaped, cast aluminium bridge with each leg of the T resting on the apex of a cone. This arrangement was chosen as it had the most complex tone with the longest sustain.
The asymmetrical arrangement of the three cones gave the guitar a unique, modern, art-deco industrial look - not to mention the strange decision (the inspiration for which has never adequately been explained) to make the bodies out of "German Silver"! These "tricones" were an extremely revolutionary looking and sounding instrument!
German Silver (also known as nickel silver or white brass) is a mixture of around 60% copper, 20% zinc, and 20% nickel and is what fret-wire is made of. Many flutes, and brass family instruments are made of German Silver - it is harder and more corrosion resistant than brass and receives a very high polish but is also more expensive due to it's nickel content. Before the widespread use of stainless steel, German silver was much more commonly used - today it is much more expensive than brass because it is less mass-produced.
In engineering terms a very rigid metal body will direct almost all the string vibration to the cones, where a wooden body would absorb some of these vibrations, producing a duller, quieter tone. Also, if you were going to use a metal, you would want something that won't tarnish like steel, brass or copper...
The prototype guitars looked and sounded so good George and John decided to go into business building them. George drummed up some investors and secured the talents of Sol Ho'opii to promote the instruments and the first tricone guitars went on sale in 1927.
The metal bodies were built by local company The Rickenbacher Manufacturing Company. Adolph Rickenbacher (who later changed the spelling of his name to Rickenbacker) became a member of the board at National. After his time at National he went on to produce the famous Rickenbacker guitars.
The tricones bodies were made of three pieces (front, back and sides) brazed together. The single cone guitars were two pieces - the back and sides were stamped out of one piece and the top was brazed on.
The tricones were available in four styles - Style 1 ($125.00) was mirror-like nickel plated German Silver finish. Style 2 ($145.00) was beautifully hand engraved with a "wild rose" design. Style 3 ($165.00) had a more elaborate "lily-of-the-valley" engraving and Style 4 ($195.00) had the most elaborate "chrysanthemum" engraving. To put these prices in perspective it was possible to buy a cheap wooden guitar for $1.50 but a Gibson Nick Lucas model was the same price as the Style 1 tricone - they were top of the line, expensive instruments but not outrageously priced.
As well as the tricone guitars the company also made 4 string (tricone) "tenor guitars" and German Silver mandolins and ukuleles with a single cone topped with a disc of wood (known as a "biscuit") into which a maple bridge is slotted. Almost as soon as the National String Instrument Corporation began however, the personalities of George Beauchamp and John Dopyera began to clash. Just a year after starting the company John Dopyera resigned and signed all his patents over to the company.
With his brothers Rudy and Emil, John formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company. "Dobro" means "good" in Slavic languages and is also an abbreviation of DOpyera BROthers.
Meanwhile George Beauchamp was awarded a patent for the single cone resonator guitar - somewhat sneakily as National had already made single cone mandolins and ukuleles (and what is a guitar if not a big ukulele?). However there is no doubt that the single cone guitar helped National survive the Great Depression and became much more common and well known than the original tricone model.
Early in National's history it was realised that a cheaper model was required and, while John Dopyera had initially experimented with and discarded the single cone concept - George Beauchamp championed it.
The first single cone National guitar was introduced in 1928 and was somewhat confusingly called the "Triolian". The name was due to the fact that the initial prototypes were actually wood-bodied tricone guitars - an early attempt to produce a cheaper tricone.
This wood bodied tricone idea was abandoned in favour of a wood bodied single cone. A 59.5mm diameter maple "biscuit" with a maple, blade-like bridge slotted into it sits on top of a 9.5" (241.3mm) aluminium cone. After around 600 Triolians were made, the wood body was abandoned in favour of a steel (not German Silver) body. The triolian was priced at $45.00.
The aesthetics of the Triolian were quite "daring" or perhaps bizarre! They were painted all over (including the headstock and fingerboard!) in pink or yellow with blotches of greyish blue and darker pink. Various Hawaiian themed decals were then applied front and back. In the change to steel bodies, the garish colour scheme was continued but the decals were replaced by quite messy black stencils of palm trees.
The steel bodied single cone guitars are actually louder than the tricone guitars but the tricones have a richer, more complex tone and a longer sustain. The steel bodied single cones have a strident, nasal, banjo-like tone with a very cutting, clear attack which is generally more suited to blues than Hawaiian music.
In 1930, a new, fancier single cone guitar model was introduced - the "Style O" (the letter O, not the number zero). Unlike the German Silver tricones or the steel Triolian, the Style O was made of brass and had a unique aesthetic.
From the beginning the Style O was highly polished brass, nickel plated, with Hawaiian scenes sandblasted on to the front and back and a solid band sandblasted around the sides. The sandblasted scenes are much more subtle than the Triolian stencils as the sandblasted areas are non-reflective on the mirror-like background.
Between 1930 and 1941 there were five slightly different Hawaiian scenes used but they were all much neater than the messy stencils on the Triolians (indeed over the years the Style O sandblasting got neater with more sharply defined edges). The Style O was initially priced at $62.50 compared to the Triolian at $45.00 and the Style 1 tricone at $125.00.
In 1931, as the effects of Great Depression began to take hold, the cheapest National model yet was introduced. The Duolian was priced at $32.50 and was similar to the Triolian except the body was slightly thinner gauge steel and the fingerboard was unbound.
From 1931-1937, the Duolian had a unique finish which is usually described as a "frosted duco". This finish is a beautiful green, grey, brown or gold colour with random chrystalline pattens - similar to the patterns of frost on a window pane.
At $32.50 the Duolian became the biggest selling model and was particularly popular with blues musicians for it's volume, price and ruggedness.
In 1932 National introduced the "El Trovador" a wood bodied single cone guitar priced at $50.00. The mahogany ply bodies were purchased from Kay Musical Instruments in Chicago for $7.00 each and fitted with resonators in the National factory. In 1934 a cheaper wood-bodied model - the "Trojan" - was introduced at $35.00 with a cheaper birch or basswood play body made by The Harmony Company in Chicago. Other cheap wood-bodied models were the "Rosita", Havana, and "Estralita". There was also a large wooden archtop resonator guitar called the "Aragon" which didn't sell well at $175.00!
While many wood-bodied guitars were sold it is easy to see that the Duolian was the better deal - a steel bodied guitar $2.50 cheaper than the cheapest wooden guitar...
There were a couple of anomalous and rare single cone models as well - the "Style N" was available from 1930-1934 and was a plain German Silver single cone which looks like a Style O without the Hawaiian scenes. Due to the cost of German Silver the Style N sold for $85.00 as opposed to the fancier looking brass Style O at $62.50. For this reason they were not a big seller.
In 1934 the Style N was replaced by the fancier "Don" model. The Don was an engraved German Silver single cone priced at $85.00 for the Style 1 (mostly plain but with an engraved border and the word "Don" on the cover strap), $110.00 for the Style 2 with Art Deco engraving and $125.00 for the Style 3 with a stylized floral engraving. These also didn't sell well as the single coned Style 3 Don was the same price as a Style 1 tricone...
In 1936 two new tricone models were introduced - Styles 35 and 97. They were the only two tricone models made of brass instead of German Silver and, like the Style O, featured sandblasted scenes on the front, back and sides. Unlike the Style O however, the designs on these models were in colour!
Style 97 had palm trees and waves on the front, a tropical coastal scene around the sides and an interesting scene on the back. As well as the standard National palm tree, sun and volcano, there is a female surfer on a somewhat unusual board - the front is turned up like a toboggan with two strings attached which the surfer is holding onto and leaning back. I don't know if this was a type of surf board or the artist was making it up? (I welcome opinions from surf historians!)
Style 35 is even stranger! The front and sides feature some droopy Dr Seuss style trees while the back has two large droopy trees and a sort of renaissance era minstrel sitting on a curved bridge, playing a small-bodied, long-necked, four string resonator instrument! Unlike the 97, Style 35 also has an engraved border around every edge - making it the only National model which is both engraved and sandblasted.
Due to the slightly cheaper brass, the Style 97 was priced at $97.50. The engraved Style 35 was somewhat less of a bargain at $135.00.
All these guitar models (except the Duolian) were also available as ukeleles, mandolins, and tenor guitars - that is you could buy a Style 3 tricone tenor, a Style O ukelele or a Triolian mandolin etc.
All the guitar models were available with a Spanish (round) neck or a Hawaiian (square) neck. The square necks are for playing lap style slide and the reason for the square neck is that lap style players often use much heavier strings and/or tune to a higher pitch - a square neck is much stronger and can handle the extra string tension. Also the extra mass of the thicker neck provides more sustain.
All the square necked tricones (except styles 35 and 97) had metal square necks (that is they were made from different dies to the round necked guitars) whereas all the square necked single cones had wooden necks.
This rounds out the history of the National resonator guitar models - there were some oddball guitars I haven't covered but these were the main catalogue instruments.
After John Dopyera resigned from National, he formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company around his latest invention - the wood-bodied Dobro guitar.
The Dobro features a single cone but in a very different configuration to the National style. The Dobro cone not only faces in the opposite direction but also has a large inverted centre section. The bridge sits on an aluminium "spider" which transmits the string vibrations to the rim of the cone instead of the centre.
This arrangement not only avoids infringing George Beauchamp's dubious patent on the single cone National, but also produces a sweeter, richer tone - somewhat reminiscent of the tone of a tricone. While the company also made metal bodied Dobros - the wood bodied models became as ubiquitous to Country and Western music as the single cone National had been to the blues. By 1934 the Dobro and National companies merged and George Beauchamp was shuffled out and went on to produce the first solid bodied electric guitar for Rickenbacker.
The historical circumstances that enabled the success of the resonator guitar also doomed it to obsolescence. There was a brief window in time when the whole world needed a louder acoustic guitar - and then the electric guitar came along. The professional musicians who had leaped at the resonator guitar jumped for the electric just as quickly and the resonator retreated to rural areas without electricity or down-home musicians who couldn't afford to switch to the electric. The electric guitar had all the clarity, harmonics and sustain that slide players wanted plus more volume than they'd ever dreamt of!
The market for high end tricones had been dwindling since the 1930s - now the low end single cone began to struggle. By 1941 National ceased all metal bodied guitar production. As well as the lack of demand caused by the electric guitar, the U.S. entry into WWII restricted brass, nickel and steel to "essential industries". After the war there was no point restarting the metal body guitar line.
The National company itself moved into cheap electric guitars and eventually became more a distribution company than a manufacturer.
Tampa Red (Hudson Woodbridge) was the first blues guitarist to record with a National guitar in 1928 but was soon followed by many others. Other blues artists who played National guitars include Son House, Booker White, Blind Boy Fuller, Bo Carter, Walter Vincent, Bumble Bee Slim, Scrapper Blackwell, Black Ace, "Kansas" Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie, Peetie Wheatstraw, Brownie McGhee, Ernest "Whiskey Red" Brown, Henry Townsend, Henry Johnson, Archie Edwards, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Robert Petway, Hammie Nixon, Tarheel Slim, Blind Arvella Grey, Oscar "Buddy" Woods, Reverend Gary Davis, Babe Stovall, Kokomo Arnold, Gus Gibson, Doug Quattlebaum, and reportedly Robert Johnson (though no photos exist of him with one).