A Tone Like a River, Part 2 of 6: The Road to National
The Road to National
John would ultimately build George his Stroh-esque guitar and George would go on to use it for a few months on the vaudeville circuit. The guitar was, by all accounts, certainly louder; however to John’s perfectionist ear and to George’s standards as a performer the tone of the guitar fell far short. For another thing the guitar was a Frankenstein’s monster of an instrument: featuring a walnut body with a large phonograph horn protruding from the base. Unfortunately no pictures of this guitar exist; however one can certainly conjure a vivid image of the instrument!
The next attempt saw George take apart a Victrola phonograph, and presented the reproduction head to John. This mica disc is the component that amplified the sound from 78s, which was then projected from the horn of the phonograph. John began to experiment with the disc, making them out of a variety of materials including tin, paper, glass and pressed fibres. Eventually he found that a conical rather than flat disc served to amplify the sound to the greatest extent, and that a wafer thin aluminium diaphragm was the best conduit for the sound waves. The fragility and thinness of these diaphragms is detailed in the patent application as a significant detail: they are thin enough that they can be “readily flexed or indented by pressure of the finger thereon.” This extreme fragility and choice of aluminium for the resonating diaphragms was a crucial breakthrough made by John, allowing for the greatest transmission of vibrations to the body of the guitar while retaining the rigidity and structural integrity that only much thicker wood would have been able to attain.
From here, the final step to the full metal-bodied resonator was straightforward enough. John chose to attach the conical diaphragms – the resonating cones – to an aluminium bridge, in order that no vibration would be lost in transmission to the body of the guitar. The guitar body was then of course also made of metal. Up to four resonating cones within a single guitar were experimented with; however it was decided that three were optimal. When the so-called “tri-plate” or “tri-cone” resonator was first strung and played by John and his brother Rudy (George was not present for this monumental occasion), the result was overwhelming. John would later recall, “The tone of the tri-plate flowed like a river. I went home and told my wife, ‘Jesus, we got a hell of a something here!’.”
George was equally impressed with the prototype resonator, and immediately suggested that he and John go into business together to manufacture and sell the instruments. After a little tinkering with the original prototype, John was satisfied: from late 1926, John and Rudy began manufacturing the new tricone resonators in the shop. They were emblazoned with the name “National” – the same name that the brothers had used for their banjos.
George’s concern immediately was for expansion of the business. Rudy and John could only make so many National resonators alone in their small shop – indeed, it is thought that only around 40 were made before the business expanded – and so George began the search for potential investors. A cousin-in-law, Ted E. Kleinmeyer, seemed a healthy candidate: in his early twenties, he had just inherited one million dollars – the equivalent of around $15,000,000 today – and had become known for hosting lavish parties. In many respects Ted was emblematic of the excess and exuberance of the roaring twenties. Indeed, his political connections at City Hall gifted him a police siren for his Lincoln so that he could speed around Los Angeles without fear of reprisal, and he spent vast sums on gifts for friends: automobiles, radios, phonographs and the like. The future ultimately would not be good to Ted: squandering his first million, he would be jailed before the age of thirty for writing bad checks and severed from his association with the National corporation for hounding George for money. He would inherit another million at the age of thirty, however would lose it all in part to his rapacious lifestyle and in part to a polo ranch he purchased in Los Angeles that he could not make profitable. He would divorce his wife and ultimately take a job as a school custodian in Temple City, California; dying a penniless alcoholic a short time thereafter. At this point in the story, however, Ted was at the height of his socialite prowess.
With Ted firmly in his sights as a potential investor, George turned up to one of his famed parties armed with a new tricone resonator and an up-and-coming Hawaiian musician named Sol Hoopii in tow. Sol would go on to become one of the most influential Hawaiian guitarists of all time – pioneering the blend of blues and jazz into the Hawaiian style so common in Western swing and later country music, for example – and make his name playing Nationals, but for now his task was to so impress Ted with the sound of John’s new guitar. This move by George proved a prudential one: the party lasted for an alleged three days, with free-flowing bootleg liquor, dancing girls, and gambling tables that swallowed up Sol’s $500 payment within the first day. By the time the last guest had left, George had secured an investment from Ted for $12,500. This investment was enough to begin factory production, and to officially form the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927.
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