1940 National New Yorker Mandolin

 

Like a number of other companies in the early years of electrification, National produced a line of instruments under the same name: New Yorker. While the lap steels were produced in the largest numbers and consequently remain the best known, the Spanish electric New Yorkers are still seen regularly in the vintage market. At the bottom of the popularity ladder is the New Yorker electric tenor banjo, of which few were built and even fewer survive. Almost as obscure was the New Yorker electric mandolin.

This was National’s third electric mandolin. The earliest model featured a Regal-built body and neck, with a 3-point pickup cover concealing a pickup similar to those used on National’s cast aluminum lap steels. Next came the Silvo mandolin, which featured the same triangular body and 15” neck as National’s resonators but with a pickup mounted next to the bridge. The New Yorker probably replaced the Silvo, but it is possible that they were simultaneously in production for a short time around 1939.

In some ways, the New Yorker mandolin was a marked improvement over its predecessors. It had a laminated spruce and maple body courtesy of Kay, who also built the neck. The neck was finished to look like maple, but examination of worn spots on this example reveals the grain of mahogany. It had a standard mandolin scale, which made it feel more natural to acoustic players, and it was considerably lighter than the Silvo as well. Its enormous pickup – also found on the New Yorker and Sonora guitars in a six-pole version – produced higher output than any pickup National had previously designed. More importantly, the poles were individually adjustable to balance the volume between strings. The pickup was also highly resistant to hum; combined with the good string balance, that makes this one of the best sounding pre-War electric mandolins I’ve played. No wonder National’s description referred to its “unusual tonal beauty”.

The mandolin is no slouch in terms of aesthetics, either. At least one early one was finished in a bright sunburst burst, but most feature a subtler brown burst. The striking black and white headstock veneer was complemented by a matching pickguard. The laminated top contained no f-holes, which were unnecessary on an electric and might have contributed to feedback. The mandolin’s striking appearance helped to justify its price, which was in the same range as top-quality models from Gibson and Vega: $75 in 1940, rising to $85 the following year. Catalogs referred to “the rapid return of the mandolin to top popularity” – wishful thinking indeed in 1940; no production figures are available, but I would not be surprised if they totaled somewhere in the low double digits.

This particular instrument has been restored, but it remains mostly original. The neck has been reset and the frets have been replaced, and it now plays surprisingly well for a thin neck without metal reinforcement. The tailpiece shown is a replica; I have the original, but I am skeptical of its ability to still hold the string tension. The pots have been replaced as well, but the pickup remains loud and clear.

 

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