1934 National Style O 

National guitars are renowned for their unique sound and extraordinary volume, but their striking appearance played a substantial part in creating their reputation. Previous instruments had shiny metal hardware, sometimes engraved or stamped with decorative designs, but the high-end National models were finished entirely in nickel plate and sometimes engraved with elaborate patterns. Even the cheaper wood-bodied models had large coverplates stamped with myriad soundholes, features that separated them from every other guitar on the market. As with every other brand, National built a lot more of the low-end models than the high-end ones. The steel-bodied Duolian and Triolian models proliferate the vintage guitar market to the point that they are barely more expensive than the current reissues, while an engraved round-neck tricone will set you back several times as much.

In the middle sits the Style O, a design so classic that it has spawned no fewer than five concurrent reissue models. Originally retailing for $62.50, the O was first produced with a steel body but quickly changed to brass. The brass gave it more bass than the steel Duolian/Triolian, but not quite the refined highs of the German silver tricones or Style N.  The nickel plate was considerably more durable than the paint applied to the Duolian/Triolian, but the price point was too low for the hand engraving found on the tricones.

A compromise form of decoration was sandblasting, described in the National catalog as “a modernistic two-tone effect”. While this technique would be used on a few lesser-known National models (and a few wood-body Dobro models), it is mainly associated with the Style O. Palm trees and clouds spring from the volcanos and beaches near the guitar’s tail, and in some versions a person canoes under what might be either the sun or the moon. Clearly the association of National guitars and Hawaiian music took hold very early in the company’s existence. There were a few variations on this design; early guitars had a solid sandblasted border around the body, while later ones like mine have just a wide stripe along the sides.

The sandblasting design was modified a number of times; in 1934 it was redrawn to fit the Style O’s new 14-fret body. There were a few other changes over the years as well. The radiating lines in the coverplate were introduced in 1932 to add stiffness. To the same end, the stamped f-holes were rolled over at the edges starting in 1933. Later in the decade, the fretboard was changed from dyed maple to real ebony and the inlays made more elaborate. The last examples of the model had the paddle-shaped headstock and pickguard that would dominate National’s post-War guitars.

There is no true consensus over which version of the Style O is the best, but the features of my guitar are among the most desirable to many players. The larger 12-fret body projects slightly more bass, though the difference is subtle in comparison to a later 14-fret body. The rolled f-holes are desired mainly because they add to the structural integrity of the guitar, but some claim that there is a small effect on tone. Given the extent to which the setup affects the sound of a resonator guitar, you could argue that these points are really splitting hairs. There are a few definite downsides: the dyed maple board doesn’t wear as well as ebony, and the 12-fret neck has relatively poor fret access.

On the upside, my guitar is entirely original and in excellent condition. The neck has been reset, though the problem was marginal and I nearly didn’t have the work done. Fortunately, a neck reset a National is less labor-intensive and therefore cheaper than a reset on a conventional acoustic guitar. The neck is perfectly straight, suggesting that this is one of the few original Nationals whose non-adjustible truss rod is still functional. The cone is original and mostly free from crumpling, and it still sounds excellent. The logo has flaked off the headstock, but the rest of the guitar is free from all but the slightest wear.

 

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