While guitar magazine writers are quick to quote Paul Simon’s memorable “Graceland” lyric, “shining like a National guitar,” when referencing these nickel-plated icons of the industrial Art Deco era, they won’t be talking about anything resembling the duo seen here. What these very early National Style 1 tricones lack in mirror-like finishes, they make up for in unrestored mojo and historical significance, being among the earliest instruments in National’s production. Both guitars belonged to the late Jim Dunlop Sr., founder of Dunlop Manufacturing, the instrument accessories company.
The Dopyera brothers’ National Stringed Instrument Co. began production of the squareneck guitars used in Hawaiian-style playing in June or July 1927 with serial number 100. The Style 1 squareneck (main image, left) is number 183. It shows many of the distinctive features of the first hundred or so tricones, including waffle-patterned soundholes on the upper bouts made from hand-soldered strips of nickel-silver, rather than the later one-piece stamped grills; a flat back instead of the later stamped arched back; and a wooden soundwell (the part that holds the guitar’s three spun aluminum cones).
According to Dunlop’s Scott Shiraki, the round-neck guitar has no serial number stamped in the normal location on the top of the headstock and is rumored to be a prototype. National’s production of “Spanish” guitars began later, in December 1927 or January 1928, and these round-neck guitars are considerably rarer than the squarenecks. The purported prototype’s grill shows the later stamped style that is seen on most of the production guitars.
Far from showing signs of neglect, these two Nationals display age and use in a way that museum curators treasure. These guitars were meant to be used, and their accumulated wear and patina reveal a lot about the lives they have led and the people who have played them.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.