1928 National Style 4

 

Given the extraordinary unconventionality of their instruments, it’s remarkable that National guitars were an instant success. Many innovations (such as solid bodies, hum-cancelling pickups and steel strings) took decades to catch on after their initial introduction, but National fielded so many orders in their early years that the factory could not keep up with demand. Others had built instruments out of metal as early as the late 19th century, but none sold in enormous numbers. The Merrill brand even engraved their aluminum instruments to provide decoration on the more expensive models.

However, none of the aluminum guitars attained the visual impact of National tricones. With bodies made of a copper-based alloy (despite being called “German silver” or “nickel silver”, the material is actually a form of brass that contains no silver), a nickel plate was used to prevent unsightly oxidation. It had the secondary effect of producing a brilliant, mirror smooth finish that immediately caught the eyes of musicians and audiences alike. However, conventional methods of decorating guitars – binding, purfling, other inlays – were not possible on such an instrument, so National had to find another way to differentiate between the differently-priced models.

Their solution was the same as Merrill’s: engraving. The relatively cheap Style 1 instruments were left without engraving, while the Styles 2, 3 and 4 were given progressively more complex and costly floral patterns. When National decided to expand their line into more affordable price ranges, they traded costly engraving for a quicker and cheaper sand blasting process (as on the Styles O, 35 and 97). Custom engraving was also available, probably for an added fee, as evidenced by the large number of one-off instruments bearing people’s names or personalized designs.

The pinnacle of National’s engraved guitars was the Style 4. Not only was this the flagship of the tricone line, it was also the most expensive product in the National catalog until its discontinuation in 1942 (that includes electric instruments as well). The Spanish and Hawaiian versions were both advertised at $195, which is interesting because the two have very different constructions: the Spanish tricones have a conventional wooden guitar neck, while the Hawaiian tricones all have a single-piece metal body and neck with just a wooden headstock anchored into the end of the neck. All other instruments – mandolins, ukuleles and tenor guitars – only went up to the Style 3 level of ornamentation.

Because the engravings were done by hand and because National felt no obligation to conform to catalogued specifications, all engraved tricones exhibit wide variations in ornamentation. Fret markers, headstock logos and engraving patterns are all highly variable. Early Style 4s often had decal logos, while mine sports a pearl inlay. In the early 1930s the headstocks were given pearloid veneers with the logo engraved into the top, and the bodies occasionally sported clear pickguards. Some examples have a floral pattern all the way around the cover plate, while many (like mine) have an empty space between the bridge and the end of the fretboard. Some later examples were given pearloid fretboards, while early ones sport a variety of markers at the 12th fret.

My guitar is as typical of a late 1920s tricone as it is possible to generalize. It is entirely original, and though it has a few dents in the body the guitar is overall structurally excellent. A previous owner added to the decoration by recording his service in the US navy during World War II; there are a few ships listed on the back and side of the neck. The instrument is extremely loud even when played with bare fingers (as I do), and it sustains a sweet tone long after the strings are plucked.

 

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