1939 National Sonora


Electric guitars diversified after World War II at a rate resembling a musical Cambrian explosion. The half decade between 1947 and 1952 saw the popularization of cutaways, the introduction of the first commercially successful solidbodies, and the creation of several of the most popular pickup designs. It also saw the popularization of multiple pickups: on Gibsons in 1948, Epiphones in 1949, Fenders in 1950, Gretsches in 1951 and Kays in 1952. However, like most of those other trends, multiple pickups were not actually a new idea at the time.

The first multi-pickup instrument was the National New Yorker lap steel, built from 1935 to 1939 with three sets of pickups hidden beneath the fretboard and hand rest. National was always experimenting with unusual control layouts and wiring schemes, and their penchant for unique schematics would endure until the company's demise. When the New Yorker steel was redesigned with a single pickup in 1939, National continued its electrical quirkiness by introducing the first Spanish-style guitar with multiple pickups: the Sonora.

To modern eyes, there is nothing particularly unsual about the Sonora. We are used to seeing guitars of all types featuring two or more pickups, and we're also used to seeing one pickup type in the bridge position and another at the neck. However, the in 1939, the Sonora was unique: the first guitar with two pickups, and simultaneously the first guitar with two different pickups. The catalog claimed that the "tandem" units provided "depth of tone". In addition, its $175 price tag made it the most expensive electric guitar on the market until Gibson introduced the ES-300 the following year.

The pickups themselves were not very unusual; both were found on other National models. The laminated 17" body was purchased from Kay and married to a National-built neck. Aside from the top of the body, the guitar was similar to the hybrid archtop-resonator Aragon model, down to the fret marker inlays and the massive tailpiece. The serial on this guitar's headstock appears to date from 1938, before the Sonora was introduced; most likely, the neck was built for an Aragon in '38 and sat around for a while before they attached it to this body. The most notable feature, at least when compared to modern guitars, is the blend knob in place of a tone control. Curiously, the pickups are wired out of phase, which gives a thin, weak sound when they are blended. The guitar originally came with a clear plastic pickguard bordered with multi-ply binding; like most others, the pickguard from this guitar has disappeared, probably due to the disintegration of the plastic. The rest of this guitar is original except for the bridge.

The Sonora didn't sell well and was discontinued in 1941; its place was taken by several new models, the most expensive of which was considerably cheaper than the Sonora. National resumed building multiple-pickup guitars in the late '40s as a result of the popularity of new Gibson and Epiphone models. Very few Sonoras survive today.