Gear Review: National T-14 Cutaway
From the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PETE MADSEN
Prior to the advent of electrified instruments, guitarists struggled to be heard in ensemble settings. So in 1927, when John Dopyera first introduced the National Tricone—a guitar with three internal resonating cones to project its sound—blues and Hawaiian lap-steel players, especially, quickly adopted these 12-fret instruments (14-fret guitars did appear several years later, but only in single-cone models) for their volume and tone.
Since Don Young and McGregor Gaines revived the National brand in the late 1980s, National Reso-Phonic Guitars has provided musicians with that sought-after tone, while also evolving the playability of its instruments to accommodate the modern musician. The M-1 Tricone, introduced a few years back, provided a much lighter-weight option with a body made from mahogany, rather than brass or steel. Cutaways have also become common to National’s stable of guitars in the past two decades. Now we have National’s first 14-fret cutaway tricone, the T-14, which should have resonator enthusiasts’ interests piqued.
STEAMPUNK GOOD LOOKS
Maybe it’s the fact that I attended the Bay Area Maker Faire recently, with its steampunk-flavored gadgetry on full display, but with its latticework sound ports and Art Deco resonator cone cover, the National T-14 looks like a sci-fi dream of what a guitar should be. The aged, “weathered steel” finish also adds to the feeling that this instrument was meant to be played by a top-hat-wearing, bifocaled mad professor from a Jules Verne story. And just as steampunk blends the ideas of the past with future-looking awareness, so does this National.
Popular culture references aside, this guitar looks way cool! The antiqued steel body is gray and brooding, and the rock maple neck has a darker tint than most National necks—my Style O, for instance, has a yellowish, tobacco sunburst tint. The open-geared black butterbean tuners give just the right accent to the ebony-veneered headstock.
I own a National Style O, have played many other Nationals, and like it or not, the feel of the necks on these guitars is fairly consistent: chunky, made for the fingerstyle player who demands some room at the bridge in order to dig his or her fingers in—fingerpicks or no fingerpicks. The T-14 has a similar neck girth as other Nationals, but with a slightly more rounded (i.e. “modern”) profile and a nut width of 1.82 inches that gives even bigger hands ample room to maneuver. The satin finish on the neck also makes for a smooth feel from the nut on up to the 16th fret on the treble strings.
As a biscuit bridge single-cone resonator player, I found the tricone’s cover over the T-bar bridge a bit cumbersome; it placed my picking hand a little farther away from the strings and made it a bit difficult for me to adjust the amount of string dampening. In addition, the T-14 was set up with slightly lower action than I am accustomed to on Nationals, which made bottleneck slide playing a bit more challenging. However, it feels great to be able to navigate beyond the 12th fret on my slide without lifting my entire hand above the fretboard. If this were my main slide guitar, though, I would consider raising the action a bit.
Compared to my single-cone Style O, the T-14 has a darker tone, a slightly muted yet warm sound that pulls you in and makes you want to dig deeper. Many players relish the sound of bottleneck slide on Nationals and that works very well here, but this guitar is as comfortable in standard tuning playing jazz standards as it is in open G tuning (D G D G B D).
Within its own dark dynamic range, it has a good balance between the bass and treble strings, and I found myself losing track of time when playing. I was having a grand time improvising my way around the neck in open G with my slide, until I realized I was supposed to pick up my son from school in five minutes! Yikes!
Thirty minutes later, I was back at it, this time in standard tuning. I tried out some fast-paced ragtime and what was cause for minor concern for bottleneck (low action) was a blessing for Joplin-esque excursions around the fretboard. It was very easy moving up and down the neck.
As a blues-oriented player who flirts with jazz, I can see how the T-14 would appeal to jazzers: the lower action, neck feel, and access to the higher frets give players more freedom to improvise and explore. Twelve frets to the body definitely limits your options, but to the blues player, this limitation helps to define the sound.
Before it ended up in my hands, the T-14 got passed around a bit, with a few other players chiming in with feedback. Senior editor Greg Olwell brought it to a few gigs with a guitarist who usually plays a brass-bodied tricone for an all-acoustic restaurant gig. Though he said that he missed some of the low-end sweetness of his 12-fret guitar, he kept gravitating back to the T-14 for numerous sets, because he loved the feel of the neck as well as the access to the high end of the fingerboard. Likewise, Hot Club of San Francisco guitarist Paul Mehling also preferred the feel of the neck and ease of play over the custom 12-fret brass-bodied tricone he owns.
If you have ever played a guitar from National, you won’t be surprised by the quality of the workmanship on the T-14—it’s excellent. But, if you only think of them as blues guitars, you might be surprised how this guitar feels and plays and how it might be a good match for many different playing situations. National also offers an optional pickup system that will increase your performance flexibility. For a bit more you can also order the T-14 in brass or German silver. The provided hardshell case is of good quality and should protect your instrument for years to come.
BODY 14-fret steel cutaway body with weathered steel finish; three 5-15/16″-wide aluminum cones; aluminum T-bridge
NECK 25-21/32″-scale hard-rock maple neck with satin polyester-resin finish;
19 fret ebony fingerboard with mother-of-pearl dot inlays; 16″ radius; 1.82″-wide bone nut; National tuners with black buttons; ebony headstock veneer
OTHER 7 pounds, 15 ounces; John Pearse 600L phosphor-bronze light strings (.012–.053); hardshell case; National Slimline pickup (optional)
PRICE $3,295 (MAP)
MADE IN USA
Resonator Concerns and Considerations
Before you dive into the world of resonator guitars, there are some things you should consider. If you are shopping for a resonator and are not already familiar with the various options—tricone vs. single cone, brass vs. steel or wood, cutaway vs. non-cutaway—you should do some research and play as many of the different configurations as possible to see which one fits your style. I find the tricone bridge cover a bit cumbersome for my style of playing, but then I’m used to the biscuit bridge and could probably adapt to the tricone over time. If your style demands access to the higher reaches of the fretboard, you’ll definitely want a cutaway.
Tone-wise, wood, brass, and steel have distinct characteristics that you should consider. Brass has a bell-like chime; steel has a darker, more direct sound; wood has warmth, but a little less volume.
Another consideration is how the guitar blends with other instruments. If you play your resonator with a band, you may want your solos to stand out, but also want your rhythm sound to blend well with the other musicians. If you play mainly solo then you have more latitude.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.