1927 National Style 1 Ukulele

The National String Instrument Corporation’s first products, released in 1927, were Spanish and Hawaiian guitars. At the time, the guitar was not the most popular stringed instrument: tenor and plectrum banjos reigned supreme, and there was still some competition from mandolins as well. The Dopyera brothers had actually built banjos in the mid ‘20s before founding National. It was a logical business move, then, that in 1928 National expanded its line to encompass mandolins, tenor and plectrum guitars, and ukuleles.

The ukulele was never a major component of jazz bands – its limited volume couldn’t compete with horns and banjos – but Hawaiian music was very popular at the time. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915, introduced Hawaiian music to a wide new audience and sparked a craze for ukuleles and lap-style guitars. The popularity of the genre waned somewhat over the next decade, but its influence remained strong: throughout the 1930s, the electric Hawaiian guitar remained more popular than its Spanish counterpart. National’s first instruments were inspired by George Beauchamp’s desire for a louder acoustic Hawaiian guitar, and John Dopyera developed the tricone system specifically to suit slide playing.

Of course, National found that round-necked tricones produced a beautiful sound when fingerpicked. The first instruments were so successful – in terms of acoustic volume, tone and popularity – that the company’s first mandolins, ukuleles, tenor and plectrum guitars all used the same system. However, the dimensions of the smaller bodies made assembly a complex and difficult procedure; after roughly 60 serial numbers, the tricone mandolins and ukuleles were redesigned with single-cone biscuit-bridge resonators. The tenor and plectrum guitars followed suit within a couple of years.

The single-cone ukuleles were similar to the ones that National would build throughout the 1930s (ignoring subtle changes to the body shape), while the tricone version was actually a variation on the tricone mandolins. According to an advertisement from 1928, the small triangular bodies were available set up with 8-string mandolin headstocks, tailpieces and bridges, or with 4-string components to be strung as ukuleles. The scheme may have allowed National to save money by using the same parts for multiple instruments, but it did not prove popular among musicians: as far as I have been able to determine, this is one of seven tricone ukuleles known to still exist. National switched to a single-cone design so early that no tricone ukuleles were ever mentioned in company catalogs (however, a tricone mandolin was shown in a distributor's catalog as late as 1932 - long after the change was made to a single cone).

This particular instrument features the best attributes of the tricone design: lots of volume, considerable sustain, and a warm, rich sound that accentuates the mid-range without sounding nasal. Tricones tend to be short on bass, but this ukulele has a solid thump on the low strings. I don’t play ukulele, so I keep it tuned as a 4-string mandolin; the neck was built to withstand double the tension, so it has remained perfectly straight and playable up to the body joint. The neck angle has shifted slightly over the years, but not so much that the instrument needs a reset to be playable. That’s a very good thing: assembling these once at the factory was troublesome enough to change production methods, and reassembling them after a neck reset is just as difficult.

The intonation, as with most vintage Nationals, is questionable at best. With light mandolin strings, the saddle is slightly too far forward. The cones sit inside metal lips with fairly tight tolerances, so there is no way to rotate the saddle bridge. I had always dreamed of finding a tricone mandolin, but I’ve concluded that this ukulele is a better substitute because it eliminates the tuning and intonation problems of four extra strings. It’s also easier to play with moderate action than an 8-string instrument would be. While I do miss the chorused effect of a true mandolin, I can still coax more volume out of it than most conventional mandolins.

The original owner obviously thought very highly of it as well: Percy Frazer had the factory engrave his name into the side for posterity.