Ca. 1967 National Prototype Guitar

One of my interests as a guitar historian is the National brand and its parent company, Valco. Like many other guitar manufacturers of the 1920s-1960s, Valco seemed to regard catalog specs as flexible; plenty of their guitars deviate from them in one way or another, and it’s very common for their amps to deviate from “official” schematics. However, it’s rare to find a completely unique National guitar from the 1960s.

 Although National had been building electric archtops since 1935, they never actually built a conventional hollow body out of wood. Archtop bodies were sourced from Harmony, Gibson, Regal and Kay, while Valco produced its own solid bodies and the semi-hollow res-o-glas bodies of the 1960s. Thus, Valco and Kay had a long-established relationship before Valco purchased Kay in 1967 and it’s not surprising to find a National guitar with a Kay-built body. However, it’s not just the body that came from Kay - in fact, the neck was built by Kay as well. While the headstock shape, the Grover Rotomatic tuners, the zero fret and the fretboard inlays were clearly taken directly from Valco, other features such as the checkered binding and head-access truss rod are clearly the work of Kay. Plus, the neck doesn’t feel like a Valco neck: the nut is 1 11/16” across, giving the neck a wider and shallower feel than any Valco neck. All of this indicates that the guitar was built after the merger of the two companies, which narrows down the date of construction to 1967-1968. There are a few other features that could only come from this period: the rocker switches, for example were introduced by Valco in 1966 – shortly before the merger, but consistent with a 1967-8 assembly date. The 3-switch assembly is actually taken from the (also very rare) Supro S677 Stratford, which was first catalogued in 1966.

A few features, such as the tailpiece and bridge, appear to be older than the rest of the guitar. Kay and Valco used similar Kluson tailpieces on their high-end archtops, but Kay’s had three f-hole cutouts while Valco’s had one. However, Valco stopped using this tailpiece in the mid 1950s, so it must have been old stock when the guitar was assembled. National’s Silver-Sound bridge pickup had also changed by 1967, appearing with a larger wooden base than on this guitar. The knobs almost certainly came from Kay. The pickguard is also unique, though the coloration and mounting system is similar to that used on other Valco archtops of the time. The checkered binding was probably retrofitted to an existing body, as evidenced by the unusually narrow f-holes (which were cut for thinner binding, or none at all). The combination of a bolt-on neck with a 4-inch-thick body was new to either company, and it makes for a strikingly unusual heel geometry.

In other ways, the guitar shows a classic Valco design philosophy. There is an overabundance of controls: each pickup has an on-off rocker switch plus a volume and tone knob, and there’s a master volume to boot. The “butterfly” fretboard inlays were characteristic of high-end Nationals going back to the 1940s. The two Vista-Sonic pickups with centered poles had been used since the late 1950s, as had the Grover tuners. Actually, the pickups are unusual in one respect: they have different screws for pole pieces than normal Vista-Sonics – screws that came from Kay’s own “Barney Kessel” pickups, no less.

The controls are certainly characteristic of Valco. The volume knobs for each pickup (and the master volume) work as you’d expect. So does the tone control for the neck pickup. The tone control for the bridge pickup is actually a bass roll-off wired backwards, so that turning the knob clockwise makes the sound brighter but lessens the output. The tone knob for the Silver-Sound pickup in the bridge is actually a blend knob that lets through a bit of the neck pickup, giving the otherwise tinny-sounding unit a little girth. All of these strange wiring decisions have precedents on prior Valco guitars.