1951 Aloha Lap Steel

An enormous number of old lap steels are branded with names that don’t actually reflect who built the instruments. The sheer number of names affixed to instruments by Valco, Harmony or Magnatone alone is staggering, and new ones keep popping up all the time. It’s usually easy to identify the maker of a vintage lap steel by a combination of the body shape and the pickup, as there was little crossover in these areas between the major mass-producers.

Often, the brands on the headstocks are those of publishing houses. Companies like Oahu and Bronson sold instruments as a side line to encourage sales of sheet music, instruction books, and sometimes complete courses. Another such company was the Aloha Conservatory of Music, which sold guitars, lap steels, banjos and ukuleles along with a series of lessons for each. There may actually have been several Aloha companies with the same business plan, as advertisements and other documents survive from several decades with corporate addresses in multiple states. One lap steel headstock indicates that Aloha manufactured the instrument even though the Magnatone serial number plaque on the back reveals the true builder.

For some period, probably at the end of the 1940s through the mid 1950s, a series of Aloha-branded lap steels were produced featuring bodies built around cast Aluminum frames. Copious amounts of colorful Lucite completed the top and felt-covered particle board hid the electronics from the back. Remarkably, none of the major features resemble instruments by a known manufacturer. Several variations exist, including different headstock shapes, different colored body tops, and 8-string varieties, but none seem to exist under any other brand name. The only known builder of cast lap steels at the time was Rickenbacker, but this is clearly not one of their products.

It has been suggested that there is a connection to Magnatone, mainly due to the use of translucent Lucite knobs on the tuners. There certainly are Aloha-branded steels made by Magnatone with conventional wooden bodies, but other manufacturers used Lucite tuner knobs (Vega, for example). The pickup/bridge assembly is unprecedented, as is the ultra-thick fretboard with the markings actually cut into the reverse side before painting. I have actually found another possible Magnatone connection: some 1950s Magnatone lap steels did have pickups with vaguely similar construction, if not combined with the bridge. They featured a coil encased in plastic with magnetic slug poles in the center of the coil, and I have even seen some with slightly irregular alignment like this one.

Still, any connection to this Aloha steel is tenuous. It doesn’t sound like any Magnatone I’ve played – more like a contemporary Fender, in fact, with a dry, bright tone and limited bass. The sustain is very good but not quite as long as a Frying Pan, which is not surprising as there is less aluminum in the Aloha’s body. The output is surprisingly hot for a coil buried under an inch of Lucite, though not especially strong for a steel of its era. This steel appears to be all original, including the cast hand rest and pots dating from 1951.

 

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