1930s Slingerland Songster 401

Just so we’re clear: Leo Fender did not invent the solidbody guitar. Through-neck construction was not an innovation of the ‘50s or ‘60s. Seth Lover at Gibson did not invent the humbucking pickup.

Many, many musicians will tell you otherwise. Certainly the solidbody guitar, through-neck construction and humbucking pickups were first popularized in the 1950s, but their invention goes back at least two decades prior. This guitar was built in the late 1930s, and it contains all three innovations.

The Slingerland company is best known for its drums, which it has built since 1912 (it has gone through multiple owners since the 1970s and the brand is currently owned by Gibson). The name is also well-known to vintage banjo enthusiasts (a banjo is essentially just a drum with a neck), but Slingerland made a variety of stringed instruments before World War II. Their flat-top and archtop guitars, mandolins and ukuleles ranged from cheap student-level to professional-quality instruments. I wouldn’t say that they competed with the best of Gibson, Epiphone or Vega, but Slingerland’s highest-priced guitars were solidly-built and quite toneful.

Slingerland only built two electric models, and they were variants on the same basic plan. The Songster 400 Hawaiian competed visually with the Gibson EH-150, though the body was larger and there were a number of other small differences. It’s a fairly rare lap steel, and is prized for its great tone as well as its looks. However, the model 401 Spanish was a major step forward for the electric guitar – it rounded the 400’s square neck and lowered the action, thus creating a solidbody Spanish electric guitar.

There are a few earlier candidates for the title of first solidbody guitar. The Vivitone company, founded by Lloyd Loar after he left Gibson, introduced an electric model in 1933 that was effectively a flat-top acoustic without back or sides and with a pickup suspended from the top. The construction and the electronics were far removed from today’s, but the instrument did rely solely on electronics to produce sound. The second candidate is the Rickenbacher Electro Spanish model, introduced in 1935. It was essentially a bakelite lap steel with a bolt-on Spanish-style neck (there was also a tenor version).

However, the Slingerland 401 was the first Spanish-style electric guitar with a solid wood body – much closer than its predecessors to a modern guitar. It was also the first to be built with a through-neck design; the maple neck was joined to two maple wings, and flamed maple veneers covered the top and back. The pickup (identical to the lap steel) is a strong humbucker with one coil for each string; tone and volume controls are located on either side. The rosewood bridge is clearly descended from flat-top acoustic bridges. The headstock matches the Songster guitar and mandolin line, with diamonds of sparkle-infused plastic inlayed into the veneer. There is debate over whether Slingerland made their own guitars; their cheap models might be from the Regal factory, but the sparkle inlays were clearly produced by a company that made drums (see the Gretsch Sparkle Jet for another example of this).

As with other solidbody contenders in the ‘30s, the Slingerland didn’t catch on and few were built. It was introduced around 1936 and was probably discontinued by 1939. A matching amp was offered and seems to be equally rare. The guitar was sold for $75 plus $15 for the case and $75 for the amp, but you could purchase the guitar, amp and case together for $150. The guitar had a hard-wired cord, as was common on ‘30s steels.

I obtained my 401 as a project; I almost never buy guitars needing significant repairs, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a very rare instrument. The bridge and pickup cover were missing and the neck was bowed, so I had the neck straightened and a replacement bridge built. I am currently trying to find a way to build a replacement for the bridge cover, which was beautifully engraved with the brand name. The pots were both replaced (I kept the originals, of course), but the pickup is loud and clear. I have the original case, which was clearly built specifically for this guitar.

The guitar has a huge, chunky neck that resembles that of a 1930s archtop. The lack of a cutaway restricts upper fret access, but this guitar could never be a real rock and roll instrument. It’s comfortable to play and sits nicely in the player’s lap. The sound is bright and cutting but not shrill, and somewhat resembles a Strat on the bridge pickup. As you might expect from a steel-turned-guitar, the sustain is nearly endless. The six-coil pickup has one drawback – bending strings reduces volume dramatically because the strings move away from the coils. For chords, clean or overdriven, it can’t be beat.

For more information on Slingerland guitars and stringed instruments, check out this excellent page.


Update, July 2015:

More work has been done to restore this guitar. I managed to acquire an original bridge cover, and the first replacement bridge was succeeded by one which is closer to an original (though with a compensated saddle for the sake of intonation). Two of the pickup coils needed to be rewound, but the guitar now sounds and looks like it did in the 1930s.