1934 National Style O Electric

National was among the most innovative of the early electric instrument builders. The company had some very interesting ideas, many of which worked well but were ahead of their time. They built the first instruments with multiple pickups, the first pickup mounted inside a guitar’s bridge, and they were early proponents of hum-cancelling pickups – all before World War II. They also created a multitude of one-offs, custom builds and prototypes which are a delight to collectors and historians alike. National offered a retrofit electrification kit for resonators in the late ‘30s, but there are also factory-conversion instruments out there dating from around 1935-7. Some of these conversions may have been ordered by customers who sent back their guitars for refit, but others were almost certainly experiments instigated within the company itself.

This Style O appears to be one such experiment; everything indicates that it left the factory for the first time as an electric. It uses the same pickup and some of the same mounting hardware as the National Electric Hawaiian, built 1935-7. The cast-aluminum plate supporting the pickup and bridge is identical to one found in an electric tenor from roughly the same time, though this part was never mass-produced. The serial dates to late 1934, which is likely the period when National was prototyping the Electric Hawaiian. An aluminum plate housing the pickup and bridge is supported by a wooden ring, which in turn is supported from the back of the body by the four “feet” and brace bar normally found in this model. For some reason, the plate was crudely painted silver, apparently at the factory. The extra screws through the tailpiece are a later repair due to the part cracking at the bend, as often occurs.

The cover plate on this guitar is unique, and not just for the pickup cutout – the “chicken foot” pattern is stamped 18 times around the rim compared to the usual 16. This is the only known cover plated decorated this way, and the patterns themselves were compressed to fit. There is nickel plating inside the pickup cutout, indicating that this cover was specially-constructed for this electric guitar right from the start. It is curious that National would experiment with electronics on a relatively expensive model made from brass. Perhaps they feared that the steel bodies of the cheaper Duolian or Triolian would have some negative effect on the pickup, but by 1934 National already had inexpensive wood-boded models in production as well. My best guess is that National briefly intended the electric pickup to be an option on the higher-priced models.

It's likely that this was a prototype built to test the pickup in a Spanish guitar. A few similar electrics are known to exist in tenor and Hawiian forms, though no two are exactly alike. This design has its drawbacks, particularly the weight: this Style O clocks in at a whopping 10.6 lbs, which is extraordinary even for a metal-bodied guitar. The pickup is quite hot and bright – quite different, actually, from the sound of the Electric Hawaiian. National ultimately left the “electric resonator” concept behind; their first catalogued Spanish guitar was built around an archtop body and neck from Regal.