1958 National Town and Country 1104

The National brand has one of the most complex histories of any 20th century instrument maker. The National Stringed Instrument Corporation merged with its sibling company in 1935 to become the National-Dobro Corporation, which was reorganized in 1942 into Valco (named for its owners initials – Victor Smith, Al Frost and Louis Dopyera). This time period also included a move from California to Chicago, the manufacture of the first resonator guitars and some of the first electrics, and a host of other firsts. After World War II, Valco completely abandoned resophonic amplification and focused increasingly on electric guitars and amps. It sold them under its own National and Supro brands, but also supplied myriad other companies with gear whose labels hid their products’ true manufacturer.

Valco’s 1950s and 1960s products are often regarded as second-tier, beginner-level instruments whose flashy looks hide a fundamentally cheap construction, poor playability and mediocre sound. This is a terribly unfair assessment, and I believe it is rooted in guitarists’ common conception that if it’s not a Gibson/Fender, it’s not up to par. Valco’s guitars are unique in many areas; some of these innovations were not altogether successful, but many were – as demonstrated by this 1958 National Town and Country.

National had produced a few solidbody guitars before the Town and Country, but they were simpler, less expensive and generally half-hearted attempts to hop onto the solidbody wagon. Their necks had huge magnesium cores that prevented warping and also increased the neck’s mass – and therefore resonance – enormously. I have never seen a Valco neck with a warp in it, except for their last guitars (1967-1968) which contained more conventional but poorly-executed adjustable truss rods. The guitars also had bolt-on necks, though they’re not easily removable like Fender’s designs (that would appear on Valco’s 1960s guitars).

The Town and Country, introduced probably in 1955, retained these features but added a good deal more. The maple body is slightly larger than the earlier guitars, and even with a flat top it resembles a Gibson Les Paul. The pickups, looking like late ‘50s Gibson humbuckers, add to this resemblance; it’s only skin-deep, though – these are single-coil pickups, though they’re remarkably resistant to hum. With their wide coils, these pickups have a rich, deep sound but still maintain plenty of twang and hot output thanks to the Alnico V magnets. The back of the guitar is covered with a layer of plastic that resists scratching better than most guitar finishes. The bridge is a height-adjustable, floating unit that is compensated for good intonation. The hardware is all nickel plated; the Town and Country’s upscale (and extremely rare) sibling the Glenwood had gold hardware.

The neck has a narrow profile that National called “super slim” – 1 5/8” at the nut, and not much wider towards the bridge, with a very soft V-shape and deep contours; this is off-putting to some who are used to the wide necks found on 1950s Gibsons, but it’s excellent for those of us with small hands. The frets are small but not microscopic, and the ends are hidden behind the neck binding; around 1959, Valco started slicing fret ends through the binding as an economy. The parallelogram fret markers harken back to the New Yorker steels of the 1930s, and an abalone square at the 12th fret ingeniously masks the screw that holds the neck to the body.

Of course, there are also the seven knobs punctuating the lower pickguard; these seem to intrigue guitarists more than any other feature. Along the bass side are volume and tone controls for the neck pickup, bridge pickup, and blended pickup position. The lever knob near the jack is the pickup selector; in typical National fashion, it goes neck-bridge-both. National was always fascinated by extra controls, and excessive numbers of knobs can be found on their instruments from the ‘30s through the ‘60s.

My guitar is mostly original; one row of tuners has been replaced, as has the pickup selector lever. The electronics are all original and function fine. There are a few dings in the finish which are somewhat obscured by the grain of the maple underneath, though some wear to the neck is visible on the back. The guitar is very playable and sounds wonderful; it has lots of attack and can easily drive an amplifier into distortion, though the clean tones sound just as good. I have the original case, which offers as much protection as any of Valco’s cases – meaning that I keep the guitar in a modern Les Paul case.