1939 National New Yorker

At the start of the 1930s, nobody was yet making electric musical instruments. By the end of 1936, Gibson, Vega, Volu-Tone, Epiphone and National-Dobro all had some form of electrified lap steel  on the market. By the end of the decade, Regal, Harmony, Kay, Dickerson and others had joined the competition. The Hawaiian guitar was popular, and so was electric amplification; the combination made for one of the best-selling instruments of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

However, in 1935 there was almost no precedent for how an electric lap steel should look. Rickenbacker’s aluminum models introduced a simple industrial look which provided little charm (the “frying pan” nickname wasn’t always affectionate). Gibson stuck with a traditionalist (and beautiful) approach for their EH-150. Other makers, including National-Dobro, struck out in bold new directions inspired by the dominant fashion of the day: art deco.

National introduced two lap steel models in 1935; both of which showed strong art deco elements. One was an aluminum-bodied instrument; this would be manufactured for several years but never attain much lasting renown. The other model, however, became one of the classic lap steel models of the next 30 years. Initially introduced simply as the National Hawaiian Electric Guitar, its name was changed by 1938 to the New Yorker. It would retain that name, usually in addition to one model or another, through many changes until it was discontinued in 1967.

The New Yorker introduced a classic stair-step body shape that has been endlessly copied. Implied by the name, but never overtly referenced in advertising literature, was a similarity to the stair-step profile of the great skyscrapers of New York – particularly the Empire State Building, completed in 1931. Roman numeral fret markers inside parallelogram boxes vaguely recalled the same style of architecture, while black and white stripes accented the instrument’s long dimension (or height, to carry the metaphor further). These stripes were achieved not by paint or inlay, but by a multi-layered veneer; white plastic was bonded to black plastic on top, and the black plastic was cut away to reveal the white stripes. A similar technique was used to create the fretboard markers and headstock logo. The sides and back were painted black so that they blended seamlessly with the covering on top.

On these early New Yorkers (those built before 1940), the top covering was a bit misleading. Rows of screws in the top belie a removable cover, under which the pickups could be accessed. Yes, pickups, plural. The New Yorker was the first instrument to contain more than one pickup; the first versions had three hidden underneath the fretboard, but by 1938 the bridge unit was visible under the hand rest. The other two remained hidden underneath the board around the 17th and 28th frets. Each of these pickups had two coils, enabling them to cancel out hum. The tone control wasn’t a conventional potentiometer – it was a pickup selector switch. It was labeled “Hawaiian-Chimes-Harp”, which represented three different pickup combinations. Incidentally, National also built the first Spanish-style guitar with multiple pickups – the rare Sonora had two different pickups when it was introduced in 1940.

Earlier versions of the New Yorker/Hawaiian Electric had more complicated electronics and from 1940 onward a more conventional single-pickup design was used. The guitar was offered with 6, 7 or 8 strings in the early years, but after World War II it was only offered with 6. There was also the double-necked Electric Grand Console, which followed the New Yorker’s styling through each change until the late 1940s. This had the same great sounds as the New Yorker, but the separate output from each neck could be cumbersome and was dropped by the late ‘40s.

My 7-stringer is in very clean condition, with just one chip in the finish by a back corner. It’s all original and in perfect working order; the tweed-covered case is frayed but works well. These early New Yorkers have a very mellow, bassy tone; the three pickup settings make surprisingly little difference, though the “Harp” setting has much stronger volume on mine. They make fantastic guitars for Hawaiian music, and later models with different pickups supply enough cutting power for country and rock and roll.