OK, Mark Knopfler's is a 1937, with flat headstock and 14-fret neck. Three years earlier, and these came with open headstock and 12-fret neck. But for that look, that sound, and the experience of playing an absolute icon, this one's hard to beat. A nickel on brass classic!
For such an iconic guitar, these weren't around for very long. The original National Resonators were produced over 14 years, from 1927 to 1941. They were the then-answer to creating a guitar with greater volume and projection that would cut through an increasingly noisy band sound, without amplification. A brilliant idea, even though the writing was on the wall. Ironically, on the wall of National's offices . . . The famous "frying-pan" guitar was first invented by George Beauchamp and Paul Barth, general manager and vice-president of National Guitars, shortly before their departure to join up with a certain Adolph Rickenbacker in Los Angeles. It was only a matter of time. At which point, not all, but a lot of these resonators got consigned to artisanal production, history, or a place under the bed.
Good news is, they're built to last. And as soon as Mark Knopfler picked out those notes to Romeo And Juliet in 1980, and probably more so when he put it on the cover of Brothers In Arms in 1985, everyone wanted to find one and try it out. So much so that, by the 1990, the brand was revived under National Reso-phonic Guitars, replicating and enhancing the designs from these 1930s classics. Long may that last!
This one's an absolute beauty - scarcely believable that it's been around for more than 85 years. Classic nickel on brass build, ebony neck, single-cone resonator - and that sound. Hawaiian, bluegrass, blues, fingerpicking, straight chords, regular or open tunings - it's utterly unique, and utterly magic. Oh, and it's perfect for an Open G tuning, a capo on the third fret, and a young man singing the streets a serenade.
See & Hear It In Action
Guitar Stories: Mark Knopfler (Sky Arts): If you love classic guitars in the hands of a guitar god, then the full-length video is right up your street. John Illsley goes on a trip with Mark Knopfler to share the stories behind 6 guitars that he loves and define him - including his 1937 Style O. "The guitar will always be your friend". And, if it's just the Style O you're after, start at 7:52 for the full story.
A Bit Of Robert Johnson, Thanks To MrSchindlerW: It may be on one of the modern-day National Style O's, but it takes you right back to the crossroads. What playing, what a sound!
Number of Frets
3-on-a-plate open gear
Maple single cone biscuit bridge
Forget any rose-tinted view that things were quieter and slower in the old days. Businesses were apt to change just as quickly as anything we see today. The National String Instrument Corporation was founded in 1927, just 7 years before this Style O was produced. By 1928, they'd already seen the departure of founding member John Dopyera to form his own company, Dobro, with his brother Louis (Do-pyera Bro-thers . . . you see what they did there). And then the merging of the two companies to form the National-Dobro company in 1932. Only two years later, in 1934, the company morphed into Valco . . . which, extended the brands to include the also legendary Airline range (see the Eastwood Airline 2P DLX for more about that other very unique guitar).
Thankfully, through all this change, the underlying brand of National stayed at the top of the headstock. The Style O was first introduced in 1930 and produced with small modifications up until 1941. And this one's a perfect example of the early build.
Style O's came in both round and square neck formats. I've never tried playing a square neck guitar, but it doesn't sound like any fun. Truth is, it was never meant to be played as a normal guitar, but sat on your lap for that classic Hawaiian slide. Interestingly, this one started out as a square neck. But at some point in its early years, someone else thought it wasn't much fun. So, it was professionally reshaped to a D-profile rounded neck, still not the most comfortable neck you're going to find, but perfectly manageable.
Early models, including this one, also came with what's called a 12-fret neck - referring to the point at which the neck joined the body, beyond which it was pretty impossible to play, unless you were playing slide. Mark Knopfler's 1937 Style O has a 14-fret neck.
Despite their age, these guitars were built to last. The wear of the years has affected only the "softer" components. Andrew Scrimshaw at Richmond Guitar Workshop has done a wonderful job of hand-lathing a new bridge for this one, where repeated wear of the original was leading to too much buzzing on the upper fretboard - and replacing the butterbean tuners. Plastic may not decompose that well, but it does get brittle and break. Apart from that, this is just the way it's been for 90 years.
And it sounds great! Big, resonant, with that touch of metallic tone that sets the resonator apart from any other acoustic. If you've never played a resonator before, this is a great place to start!
For a guitar that's been on this planet for 90 years, I've been stumped for any special provenance. Bought at auction from a collection built over many years, the seller was sadly suffering from ill-health. There is one thing: a previous owner's initials hand-scratched into the body-back: "J M". And I don't think Johnny Marr or John Mayer made a habit of scratching their initials into their guitars . . . set aside their comparative youth. But what I can be sure of is that this guitar has been treasured over the years and still sounds as clear and resonant today as it did when first put together in 1934. An absolute classic.
Sources & Links
Everything You Need To Know About Nationals on Guitar HQ: Guitar HQ is an absolute bible when it comes to vintage guitar information. Utterly indebted to the wonderful research that they share about the history, styles, specs, all in fantastic detail, not just about Nationals, but all the major brands.
National Guitars Today: The current Style O (and many other beauties) produced by National Reso-Phonic for the past 30 years.