1936 National Electric Hawaiian

There are often no rules when a new technology or product comes along. It takes manufacturers and buyers a while to work out which features work, which need tweaking, and which should be discarded altogether. This applies to instruments as much as any other product. The first electric lap steels are credited to Rickenbacker, which began producing them in 1932. Aside from one wood-bodied prototype, Rickenbacker steels were made of aluminum cast into the now-iconic “frying pan” shape. Since these were the first of their kind, other builders followed suit and constructed cast aluminum lap steels – before the EH-150, Gibson built a few aluminum E-150 steels.

The National-Dobro Corporation, formed in 1932 from the merger of its namesake brands, followed suit in 1935 with a series of aluminum-bodied steels. While they updated the “frying pan” look to a more art-deco sensibility, these were clearly influenced by Rickenbacker’s design. However, they contained a few features which served to set them apart visually.

All the National-Dobro aluminum steels (referred to only as “Hawaiian guitars” in catalogs) had bound rosewood fretboards with actual frets. Most lap steels have plastic or metal fretboards and very few have frets – cost-saving measures that also permit a variety of fancy visual stylings. However, in 1935, it seemed perfectly reasonable to install a regular guitar fretboard even if the frets would never be used. The tops of the bodies were divided by spokes into a series of depressed “basins”; when painted gold or black, they somewhat resembled the panels used to cover air chambers in Rickenbacker bakelite steels. The National or Dobro brand name was embossed in the center. A cheaper version of this aluminum steel design was introduced in 1936 under the Supro and Bronson brands; it had a smaller body without gold basins, and was sold as a cheaper alternative to the National and Dobro steels.

There were at least five variations on both the National and Dobro steels, all of which were introduced in the span of just a few years. My guitar is from the second generation of Nationals, dating from 1936. Unlike the first variation, it has a tone control, an adjustable pickup (the two thumb screws on either side raise and lower the entire pickup), and a plated-brass hand rest over the bridge. On later versions, the tone and volume controls would be moved alongside the bridge. Most National and Dobro steels had a clear coat of finish over the entire body, but a few later ones had black or brown finishes. There were also changes in the pickup’s pole piece, with slots introduced to focus the magnetic field to each individual string.

The Dobro version sold for $67.50 plus $15.00 for a case, and I have to assume that the National was about the same price. There were also matching amplifiers for each; I haven’t heard one, but their resonator-style speaker grills make them very visually appealing. By the late ‘30s, however, it was clear that aluminum steels were on their way out. The material was originally chosen for its sustain-giving density, but it also tended to expand from the heat of stage lights (throwing strings out of tune). All subsequent National-Dobro steels would be made of wood, often with plastic veneers or wraps – something that continued long after the company was renamed Valco in 1942.

My guitar is all original. It’s missing the felt that lined the back, but this way I can remove the cover that allows access to the electronics. The pickup was a fairly conventional design in its day. It is a single-coil unit, but thick aluminum shielding over the coil means that it’s incredibly quiet. The guitar has medium output by today’s standards, at least when the pickup is raised up high. It’s warm and woolly, but has a good deal of clarity when the pickup is lowered. The aluminum body does indeed provide tons of sustain, and the long 25” scale helps that as well. Most National-Dobro aluminum steels had six strings, but seven-stringer like mine isn’t very rare. I have the original case, which is not in the best condition but hasn’t fallen apart yet.

You might notice a spot of dark grey where the gold paint has flaked off the top of the body. This dark spot is a repair where filler material was used to patch a crack caused during casting. I have seen casting blemishes in the same spot on a number of these steels, so I have to conclude that the foundry had persistent problems. The patch doesn’t affect the steel’s sound, playability or durability, so I like to think of it as a unique insight into the making of an early instrument.