1939 National New Yorker Electric Tenor-Banjo


By 1939, the reign of the tenor banjo atop the stringed instrument market had been over by nearly a decade. Nonetheless, manufacturers tried to sell anything they could, and Gibson, Epiphone, and Vega could all boast electric banjos in their respective catalogs. Players simply weren’t interested, and none were sold in large numbers – but if one company offered a product, all their competitors felt the need to keep up. Thus began the brief history of one of National’s rarest production models, the New Yorker Electric Tenor-Banjo. Much like the hyphen in its name, it was unnecessary but a product of the times.

The Dopyera brothers were well-acquainted with banjos; John and Rudy had built National-branded tenors and banjo ukuleles for a few years before their pivotal encounter with George Beauchamp and the invention of the resonator guitar. They would build a few dozen more in 1968, when the banjo market was far less lucrative. By 1939 it should have been obvious that electric banjos were not a winning proposition; the competition weren’t selling many at all, and National didn’t even have a significant record with acoustic banjos the way that Gibson, Epiphone and Vega did. Not surprisingly, National’s electric tenor tanked and disappeared after barely a year.

I have only found pictures of two other examples – one recent and the one shown in catalogs. All three are slightly different, which is the norm for a rare National model. The catalog pictures shows a neck joint at the 21st fret, which my banjo shares; the other recent picture shows a joint at the 22nd fret, and the bridge moved northward accordingly. The catalog and the recent picture show the controls located closer to the center of the top than my banjo. The recent picture also shows guitar-style geared tuners and a rosewood bridge which appear to be original.

I assume that Kay built the body simply because they built the bodies for the New Yorker mandolin and guitar. I am not aware of any similar product that Kay built for themselves or another brand, but they remain the likeliest culprits. Like similar offerings from Vega, Gibson and Epiphone, the National’s body is fully hollow. Like the other New Yorker instruments, it has a complex internal bracing not far removed from a conventional banjo.