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A Tone Like a River, Part 5 of 6: The National Lineup

Adam Leaver: July 12, 2022

The “golden years” of National’s production are regarded as 1928 – 1933, during which time the company produced a staggering array of instruments. I detail instruments from the entirety of National’s catalogue – 1927 through 1943 –  below, with the information taken straight from Brozman’s aforementioned book:

Tricone Models

  1. Style 1 Tricone
  • No engraving
  • German silver body
  • Pearl-dot fretboard markers
  • National decal on headstock
  • Ebony fingerboard (apart from #380, which had a rosewood fingerboard)
  • Mahogany neck on Spanish guitars, maple on ukuleles, mandolins, etc 
  • Integral square metal neck on Hawaiian models

 2. Style 2 Tricone

  • Hand engraved with a wild rose design
  • Pearl-dot fretboard markers
  • Additional roses carved on cover plate, 1927-1928
  • Ebony fingerboard (apart from #400, which had a rosewood fingerboard)
  • German silver body, with engraved 2-line borders
  • Mahogany neck on Spanish guitars, maple on all other instruments
  • National decal on guitar headstock
  • Integral square metal neck on Hawaiian models

3. Style 3 Tricone

  • Elaborate “lily-of-the-valley” engraving, designed by John and his wife Elizabeth
  • German silver body with engraved 2-line borders
  • Ebony fingerboard with decorative square pearl inlays
  • Engraved pearl National logo in ebony overlay on headstock
  • Integral square metal neck on Hawaiian models

4. Style 4 Tricone

  • Highly elaborate chrysanthemum engraving, designed by George, which John contested was detrimental to the tone of the instrument (though this may be more a reflection of his bitter feelings toward George than of reality). Two main pattern variations
  • German silver body with engraved 2-line borders
  • Ebony fingerboard with fancy square pearl inlays
  • Engraved pearloid headstock overlay 
  • Integral square metal neck on Hawaiian models

5. Style 97 Tricone

  • Brass, nickel-plated body 
  • Dark mahogany neck on Spanish models
  • Slotted headstock on earliest models; solid on later examples
  • “Ebonoid”  fingerboard on Hawaiian models; ebony on all others
  • Pearl-dot fretboard markers
  • Hawaiian models have square wooden neck, rather than metal 
  • Dark stained maple neck on Hawaiian models
  • Black and white celluloid headstock overlay 
  • Sandblasted scene of female surfer in Hawaiian setting, etched portions and coloured with airbrushed enamel 

6. Style 35 Tricone

  • Maple neck on Spanish model
  • Ebony fingerboard on Spanish model
  • Brass, nickel-plated body
  • Engraved “wiggle” borders
  • “Ebonoid” fingerboard on Hawaiian models
  • Integral square metal neck on Hawaiian models
  • Black and white celluloid headstock overlay 
  • Sandblasted “minstrel” motif, etched portions and color with airbrushed enamel

Single Cone Models

  1. Style O
  • Bell brass (nickel plated) single cone body – apart from the first several hundred which were made from steel
  • Sandblasted Hawaiian scenes on body
  • Maple neck in black-to-clear sunburst finish (some mahogany necks after 1936)
  • Maple fingerboard dyed black (“ebonized”)
  • Pear-dot fretboard markers. Number of these varies over the years of production
  • Slotted parallellogram fretboard markers after 1938
  • Headstock:
    • National decal, 1930-1935
    • Arced National logo in wood overlay, 1936-1937
    • Black and white overlay, 1939-1940
    • Larger headstock, black overlay, metal logo, 1940-1941
  • 12 fret guitars made 1930-1934; 14 fret guitars made 1935-1941
  • Flat-cut F-holes on guitars made 1930-1933; rolled-in F-holes 1933-1941
  • Square wooden neck on Hawaiian models

2. “Don” Single Cone Resonators

  • German silver single cone bodies
  • 14 frets
  • Ebony fingerboard
  • Coverplate handrest engraved with “Don”
  • Three styles made, 1934-1936:
    • 1. Plain, with engraved border 
    • 2. Art deco design, with modernistic geometric engraving
    • 3. Floral engraving
  • Priced almost as highly as National’s tricones
  • The origin of the name is believed to have been a evocation of the Spanish theme common to several mid-to-late 1930s National model names

3. Style N

  • Essentially a 12-fret ancestor of the Don
  • Scarce: only appeared in one 1930 and one 1934 catalogue
  • Plain German silver body, constructed out of three pieces like a tricone
  • Scarcity explained by the more decorative and cheaper Style O being made shorty after the Style N’s introduction 

Triolian Models

  • 1928: a prototype model of an inexpensive tricone. 12-fret wooden body; round cover plate; three-cone setup (the only version of the Triolian to have three cones). Only twelve of these guitars were made
  • 1928-1929: 
    • 12-fret wooden single cone bodies
    • Multi-hued finish – often pink, tan, and purple
    • Decal on back ranges from anemone bouquets, hula girls, and stencilled palm trees. 
  • 1929-1930:
    • 12 fret steel body
    • Multi-hued paint with stencilled scenes
    • Clear finish on neck and fingerboard with faint red and blue highlights
  • 1930-1934:
    • 12 fret steel body
    • Painted sunset brown or pea green finish with Hawaiian scene stencilled in black paint
    • Maple neck and “ebonized” maple fingerboard
    • Pearl-dot fret markers
    • Rolled F holes after 1933
  • 1935-1936:
    • Same as above, bar 14 fret body and change to solid from slotted headstock after 1936
  • 1937-1941:
    • Same as above, aside from finish changed to simulated rosewood grain 
    • Cream and brown celluloid pickguard added
    • Final batch had extra large headstock

Duolian Models

  • Steel body
  • Unbound dyed maple fretboard
  • Pearl or ivoroid fret markers
  • Thinner gauge steel body
  • “Frosted duco” paint finish 1931-1937. The paint would dry in crystal formations unique to every guitar, ranging in colour from silver, to gold, to green, to brown, to black
  • Mahogany grain paint finish 1938-1940
  • 12-fret body with flat-cut f-holes 1931-1933
  • 12 fret body with rolled-in f-holes 1933-1934 (the rarest kind of Duolian)
  • 14-fret body 1935-1940, all with rolled-in f-holes
  • Pickguard added 1938-1940
  • Necks mostly made from mahogany 1931-1935, though some maple
  • Necks mostly made from basswood, 1936-1940
  • Hawaiian necks on 14-fret body Duolians are mahogany
  • 12-fret headstocks usually have a stamp of “National Duolian,” though this a decal on some later 12-frets
  • 14-fret headstock usually has “National Duolian” decal; though this is a stamp on some earlier 14 frets

Wooden-Bodied Resonators

Perhaps inspired by the success of John’s Dobros and certainly forced by the Depression to seek cheaper materials with which to make their guitars, National in the mid-30s began to produce a series of wooden bodied resonators. This worked by National having arrangements with other companies, whereby National would buy the guitar bodies and go on to fit the resonating cone, tuners, and final details. These arrangements existed with Kay, Harmony, and even Gibson by the late 30s. Since they were cheaper to make and more affordable for the customer, these guitars sold well –  For the sake of completeness and out of interest, I detail these guitars below:

  1. The El Trovador, 1932-1933
  • Highest quality wood-body single-cone guitar made by National
  • 12-fret body made by Kay – slightly larger than the standard Grand Concert (00) 
  • Slim, slight-V profile Mahogany necks
  • Slotted headstock overlaid with rosewood
  • Maple fingerboards dyed black 
  • Thick ivoroid binding around top and back edges
  • Standard nickelled cover plate, as found on a Style O or Triolian 
  • Unique decal: “El Trovador” and “made in the USA” inscription 

2. Trojan, Estrallita, and Rosita Models

  • Bodies made by Harmony
  • Made from lower quality woods: typically birch or basswood plywood
  • Rosita models have “cathedral” openings rather than the characteristic f-holes 

3. Havana, late 1930s

  • Larger flat-top model with single resonator
  • Spruce top 
  • Body made by Kay
  • Pressed arch back
  • Very rare

4. Aragon, late 1930s

  • Thin arched top
  • Largest-bodied National ever made: 18” width as opposed to standard 14” National width 
  • Bodies made by Harmony or Kay 
  • Arched spruce top
  • Maple sides and back
  • Sunburst finish
  • Edges bound in black and white celluloid
  • White binding around f-holes
  • White parallelogram fretboard inlays, made of white pearl and colourful Japan pearl 
  • Headstock inlay with white pearl and colourful Japan pearl with art deco National logo

I encourage those interested to seek out a copy of Brozman’s book for player’s notes and comparisons of these different guitars.

Click here for the final instalment of the series, Part 6


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