1936 National New Yorker

National-Dobro ran a very flexible operation in the 1930s; their instruments frequently changed specifications without warning as the company sought better (and usually cheaper) ways of building instruments. While the company would produce many guitars throughout its history that differed from catalog descriptions, in its first two decades it was particularly amenable to customization at the request of musicians and retailers. The most famous examples are the custom-engraved resonator guitars, but the same philosophy also applied to electrics. Rarely, however, did the company advertise custom features in its catalogs.

One exception was the New Yorker lap steels built around 1936-1937, such as the example seen above. The vast majority of these were built with 23” scales, but according to some catalogs they were available with 25” scales upon request. These long-scale New Yorkers appear to be exceedingly rare – I have found a picture of one other – but at least a couple were built. This particular option was not uncommon at the time; for example, Rickenbacker built their Model A “Frying Pans” with both 22.5” and 25” scales.

These early steels have no fewer than four controls for three pickups hidden under the fretboard. Each pickup consists of two coils side by side, and they are wired independently so that there are effectively six pickups. There is a master volume control and separate “Full Treble” and “Full Bass” controls that actually affect the upper and lower strings, respectively, for the neck and middle pickups. The “Natural Haw[aiian]” control blends in the bridge pickup, though the bridge pickup is relatively weak and doesn’t make much difference to the tone. Like all New Yorkers with hidden pickups, this guitar has a dark, mellow tone and low output regardless of the control settings.

The rarity of the long-scale New Yorkers can be explained by a change in the control layout. With nothing above the fretboard to get in the way, all that was required to convert a 23” instrument to 25” was to move the bridge and re-draw the fretboard. When the controls were changed to a rotary pickup selector at the end of the body (see my 1939 New Yorker for comparison), there was no longer room to move the bridge back. The 25” scale option disappeared around 1937 when this change was made, so musicians only had a year or two to order long-scale instruments.

While National’s adaptation to a longer scale allowed them to use the same size bodies, it also meant that the fretboard was changed in relation to the rest of the instrument. The pickups were not moved, so they sit at lower frets than on the 23” New Yorkers. Additionally, the logo at the base of the fretboard is partially obscured by the bridge cover. The extra scale might be expected to provide some additional “snap” to the tone, but it isn’t obvious through dark-sounding pickups.

My steel is mostly original and in pretty clean condition. The only damage is a hairline crack in the fretboard that was incurred when fixing a wiring problem. The knobs are replacements (I have two originals but they aren’t identical to the new ones, so I’ve replaced all four for the sake of aesthetics). Interestingly, this is the only New Yorker I have seen bearing these tuners, which were normally used on the cast aluminum National steels. I have the original case, which is identical to other New Yorker cases except that it’s covered in a mustard-yellow tolex instead of the usual tweed.