1928 National Style 1 Tenor

The tenor guitar is one of the more enigmatic instruments you’re likely to find in a vintage store. While the banjo, mandolin and lap steel occupy well-known niches in various genres of music, it’s hard to see at first glance where the tenor guitar fits. It never gained popularity on the scale of those other instruments even when its cousin the tenor banjo became the backbone of jazz and pop bands.

To understand the purpose of the tenor guitar, it’s necessary to trace its roots back to the mandolin craze of the late 19th century. Mandolins were popular because they were loud enough to be heard from the back of a concert hall in the days before electric amplification. Even louder was the banjo, which gradually surpassed the mandolin in popularity during the early 20th century. The 5-string banjo, with different tunings and picking styles, wasn’t an obvious next step for mandolin players. A few mandolin-banjo hybrids were developed such as the banjolin (mandolin scale, 8 strings) and the tango or melody banjo (mandolin scale, 4 strings), but these didn’t possess the 5-string banjo’s lower range or the rich bass frequencies of a full-size rim. The answer was the tenor banjo, which is usually tuned either as a 4-string mandola or octave mandolin.

Always keen to find new marketing niches, instrument manufacturers realized that there was a significant market for such hybrid instruments. As early as the 1880s, August Pollman produced banjo-necked instruments with small guitar bodies. After World War I, just about every conceivable hybrid of guitar, mandolin and banjo was produced (with varying success), and National followed suit. Mandolinists and tenor banjo players took up the tenor guitar in an attempt to sound like a 6-string; while the chord voicings were distinctly different, the tenors could achieve the same rich tone. As guitars evolved into new forms, the tenor variants followed suit. By the late 1930s there were flat-top, archtop and electric tenor for sale by a variety of brands.

Thanks to the National and Dobro companies, there were also resonator tenor guitars. The two brands produced tenors (and longer-scale plectrum guitars) in a variety of models using every type of resophonic system. They tended not to be quite as loud as the best tenor banjos, but they replicated the unique sonic signature of 6-string resonators and lap steels. This 1928 National Style 1 uses the earliest form of resophonic amplification: three aluminum cones with a T-shaped bridge. Later Style 1 tenors would have bodies that resembled pears and later a conventional (but scaled-down) guitar shape. While the small, triangular body is completely different from its 6-string cousins, the insides are identical to any contemporary National tricone. I presume that National designed this small body because it was closer in size to a tenor banjo and is easy to play while sitting down.

This particular instrument is the 84th tenor guitar built by National; it originally sold for $75. There have been some minor changes, but the bulk of the instrument is original. The original Grover banjo tuners have been replaced with other geared units of similar vintage; I haven’t been able to identify them, but they work surprisingly well for their age. The frets were replaced, and while the work is otherwise acceptable, they sadly now cut through the binding on the neck. The neck itself has been reset, and the wooden supports inside the body were reinstalled where they were no longer making contact with the top and back. The instrument is in clean condition, with no major repairs and just a light patina on the nickel finish.

The sound is surprisingly warm from a tricone; this resophonic system (at least in the original Nationals) is notorious for weak bass, but I can’t complain about the bass from this tenor. As you would expect, it has excellent sustain and makes for a great slide instrument. With the recent neck set, though, I prefer it for fingerpicking. The neck itself is almost perfectly straight – surprising for a thin one-piece neck without a truss rod – making for a great player.

 

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