1967 National N850
The bass guitar took a while to gain traction. The first were probably built by Paul Tutmarc under his Audiovox brand in the early 1930s; evolving from an upright electric bass, they were designed to give increased portability to bass players who had long been saddled with enormous instruments. Introduced at a time when electric instruments (and their market among musicians) were almost unknown, only a few were built. Leo Fender had greater success when his company introduced the first Precision Basses in 1951. By this time, musicians were long acquainted with the basic principles of electric instruments and how they could be used; all that was needed was a practical instrument to replace the upright bass. Throughout the 1950s, it was common for charts to specify “Fender bass” regardless of the brand being played.
While a few manufacturers were quick to introduce bass guitars of their own – Gibson released its Electric Bass in 1953, thus inaugurating the era of the violin-shaped bass – many were surprisingly slow to provide competition. The only budget-level bass introduced in the early 1950s was the Kay Electronic Bass, which appears to have been the first hollow-bodied bass guitar on the market. Competition heated up toward the end of the decade: Rickenbacker introduced the 4000 in 1957, Danelectro introduced its 6-string basses in 1958, and Magnatone and Gibson saw in the next decade with new offerings.
Tutmarc and Fender brought the double bass’s 42” scale down to a more manageable and portable 30-34”; today, 30” is considered a short scale on a bass guitar. In the 1960s, a few builders experimented with ultra-short-scale basses, using guitar necks fitted with four tuners to create oddities roughly 25” in scale. The most obvious advantage was that little new tooling was required to create a new product, so Danelectro, Mosrite and others were able to introduce basses with minimal development time and expense. However, the downsides of such an arrangement ensured that the concept wouldn’t outlast the decade. Big bass strings have very low tension at such short scales, causing them to buzz against the frets. Intonation is a nightmare, and players effectively have to choose which section of the fretboard they want to play in tune.
The most famous 25” bass guitar is surely the Pocket Bass created by Valco and sold under the Supro and Airline brands. Introduced in 1960, it was one of the first instruments to feature the “Silver-Sound” bridge pickup that simulated the sound of an acoustic bass. A National-branded equivalent soon followed with the same short scale, the Val-Pro 85 bass with a res-o-glas body and fancier appointments. This would be the last bass introduced by Valco for seven years; meanwhile, the company remained the last major manufacturer without a full-scale bass.
That changed in 1967, probably right after Valco purchased Kay. Suddenly, a host of full 34”-scale basses appeared: the Supro and Airline lines featured solidbodies with one or two pickups, and National, Custom Kraft and Kay all featured double-pickup hollowbodies. These latter three models were nearly identical, the differences being cosmetic: the shape of the f-holes, the presence or absence of binding on the neck, pickguards, the shape of the headstock, and the finish varied between brands, though the Kay version featured rocker switches instead of knobs. The National N850 and Custom Kraft Bone Buzzer were the most expensive basses ever made by Valco, each retailing for $200.
This specimen is a superbly-preserved example of the National N850, cunningly named the “Electric Bass Guitar” in the 1968 National catalog. The body was built at the Kay factory (along with all other late ‘60s Valco hollowbodied instruments) and the neck was built at the Valco factory, where assembly probably took place. The body and neck are both maple, with a rosewood fingerboard and finger rests. While the body has a similar shape to the Gibson EB-2, its fully hollow construction (there is no center block) and bolt-on neck make for a better comparison with the Fender Coronado.
In keeping with the last generation of National guitars, it has separate volume and tone controls for each pickup plus a master volume control and pickup selector switch. However, the wiring is not as conventional as it sounds. The tone control for the bridge pickup is actually a bass roll-off knob, wired backwards so that the pickup is least bassy when the knob is turned clockwise. This wiring was occasionally found in Valco-built guitars, but the effect is much better in this bass: when the bass frequencies are dialed back in, the sound is hugely rich and loud. Regardless of the control settings, the single-coil pickups ensure that the sound has excellent clarity.