1940 Supro Electric Hawaiian Guitar

The period between the two World Wars saw a proliferation of musical instrument brand names, many of which were new names created by existing manufacturers. In many cases, manufacturers used their own name on higher-priced products while attaching a subsidiary brand on cheaper ones. It was usually obvious who built the instrument (for example, banjos were labeled “Washburn by Lyon & Healy”) but the superfluous branding was intended to give buyers a sense of greater choice. This practice picked up with electrification; many companies created a whole new name just for their electric instruments, as Epiphone did with Electar.

The National-Dobro Corporation already owned its two eponymous brands, but in 1935 it introduced a third name for its first electric lap steel: Supro. The Supro name would last until its parent company went bankrupt in 1968, but while the National line sported some acoustic models throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Supro instruments were almost all electrics. In the late 1930s, National-Dobro created a three-tiered system for its brands: National electrics were priced the highest, Dobro was in the middle, and Supro was at the bottom. Thus, there was only one single-neck electric lap steel available under each brand in 1939, priced at $75, $45 and $35, respectively.

When the Supro cast-aluminum lap steel was retired about 1936, it was replaced by a wood-bodied steel bearing the same bridge pickup as the National New Yorker. However, the Supro lacked the National’s two other pickups hidden under the fretboard. It also lacked the glossy finish and celluloid trim of the middling Dobro steel. Instead, the Supro sported a matte sunburst finish and “binding” that was actually painted on. The physical design of this model changed several times. The body sported a double Florentine cutaway, though the contour of the points was softened late in its production run. The first version featured a wooden pickguard that was dropped after a year or two. The pickup/bridge/control assembly changed a couple of times, and only the last version featured a tone control. These changes were probably made to reduce costs, since the catalog price dropped from $45 to $35 sometime around 1938.

This particular steel has features of the last version; there’s no serial number, but it dates to about 1940. However, this steel is unique in one respect: it’s a factory-original 7-string. While the National New Yorker was available in this period with 6, 7 or 8 strings, the Dobro and Supro equivalents were only catalogued with 6. While it is clear that National-Dobro only thought of catalog specifications as loose guidelines, this is the only 7-string version I have ever seen of this particular model. Since the New Yorker dropped this pickup design about the time this steel was made, it’s possible that the factory completed this steel as a 7-string to use up remaining parts. It’s much less likely that they would have accommodated a custom order on such a cheap instrument.

This steel shows plenty of wear, which is typical for this model; the thin finish and painted binding offer minimal protection against bumps and scrapes. All the parts appear to be original, including the 4-tuner strip that was trimmed to fit.