Ca. 1935 National Electric Hawaiian Prototype

National-Dobro built aluminum-bodied lap steels from 1935 to 1937 under several brands including National, Dobro, Supro and Bronson. They’re not especially rare today, especially the Nationals, but they are excellent-sounding steels with a long scale, mellow voice, and lots of sustain. This one is substantially different from any other I’ve seen, to the point that it could only be prototype. Here are the major differences between it and production versions: 

·       The body has two “horns” that transform it from the usual teardrop into the National “shield” logo.

·       The headstock, which is an open A-frame on production steels, does not have a cutout. There is an indentation in the middle, probably to save on aluminum, but the point at the bottom suggests that it’s decorative and was never intended to be cut out.

·       The volume pot is located in an unprecedented position. While the pots did move several times between 1935 and 1937, they were never located north of the pickup. Interestingly, there are two bumps near the tail where the pots would eventually be located; these are probably unavoidable casting marks and National eventually moved the pots there as an easy way of covering them up.

·       The jack is located on the side of the body. The first Dobro versions had it near the tail, but this one is located on the bass side – roughly where National would place it on their Spanish guitars. All production National steels had the jack located on the top of the body.

·       There is no serial number.

Along with the early-style fretboard, a few additional discrepancies suggest that this steel is not a later whim but predates all production versions:

·       “Pat pend” is embossed into the body below the bridge. The design patent was applied for in September of 1935 and granted in January of 1936, so it’s highly unlikely that National would bother to add this text after they had built many steels without it. This same marking can be seen (barely) in a 1935 advertisement, but I have not located any other steels with it; most likely, it only appeared on a couple of prototypes before being removed.

·       The pickup is quite different from any production model, and it could be considered a more primitive design. Production steels had a conventional coil located at the ends of a horseshoe magnet, while this steel’s coil is wound like an early radio antenna – without a bobbin and wrapped in paper. This suggests that it was built before the merger of National and Dobro in 1935, since the later National pickup was apparently developed from the Tutmarc/Stimson design used by Dobro as early as 1933.

·       The casting itself is of a lower quality than the production model; the metal is rough and contains numerous voids. This does not affect the sound or playability of the instrument, but it suggests that some changes were made (possibly moving to a different casting house) before going into mass-production. The internal structure is also simpler than later versions, with fewer blocks molded into the top to hold the pickup in place.

Taken together, all these unusual features indicate that this is one of the first electric National steels. In fact, it could easily be the first electric National instrument ever made (excepting the original “frying pan” created by George Beauchamp in 1931), thus making it highly important as a historical piece. It surely post-dates the first Rickenbacher production instruments of 1932, but the pickup design suggests that it pre-dates the merger of National and Dobro in mid-1935.

The steel’s provenance is not proven, but I was told a plausible story about it. It was purchased “from the manufacturers” by a California delivery driver as a present for his son in the 1930s. Perhaps the folks at the National factory, always eager to make a few extra dollars, sold the driver an unused prototype that was lying around. National-Dobro frequently cobbled together whatever instruments they could just to get product out the door, so nothing would surprise me. That delivery driver’s son was killed in World War II, and the steel was passed down through his family in subsequent decades.

By the time I acquired it, the body had been given a coat of red automotive paint, the coil was broken and frayed, and the tuners were a motley assortment of replacements. The paint was subsequently stripped and I painted the “panels” gold to match the earliest production version. A new coil was built that accommodates the original magnet, pole pieces and other components, and the rest of the wiring harness was replaced as well. The steel now functions as intended.