National Model 97

Aloha fellow G.A.S. sufferers! I'm not a surfer kinda guy by any means. Personally I prefer a boogie board to make myself look foolish. Although I've sat on the beach at the Jersey shore watching the "surfer dudes" who hang out at the Point Pleasant Beach Surf Taco often waxing philosophic about the east coast waves giving them a pretty decent ride. Okay, so it was when a hurricane was looming offshore but they can dream can't they? Of course the talk turns to trips to the west coast, Australia and Hawaii. Ah.....Hawaii, nani (beautiful) beaches, hula skirts and slack key guitar! Point me in the direction of the luau but I'll pass on the poi thank you.

I have been holding back from buying a vintage tricone waiting for just the right one. I've passed on Style 1, 2 & 3's hoping for something a bit different and I found it in a 1936 National Model 97. As a member of the SGF (Steel Guitar Forum I was always intrigued by the drooling that occured whenever the topic arose. The players place them high on their list of favorites and the collectors covet the more ornate styles. I had to see what all the fuss was about.

When I first laid eyes on her I was just stunned by her beauty. Breathtaking with its air brushed enamel showing little signs of fading after all of these years. The etching of the Surfer Girl on the back is an incredible piece of retro art in itself. The rest of the etching on the top and sides lacks the intense color but still adds to the desired effect. Produced for just a handful of years (1936-40) both tenor guitar and mandolin versions were also offered. During its final year of production it was also referred to as the Marino 97. Production was a scant 29 so it was a perfect fit into my acoustic collection.

With its nickel-plated brass body and three cone design (two on the bass side and one on the treble), it appealed to the hawaiian style players of the era. National's single cone models were preferred by the blues players. The metal provided a much more bell-like tone which was perfect for hawaiian slack key as well as traditional hawaiian lap style. The round neck version of the Model 97 is worth much more than the squareneck as it was produced in even fewer numbers. The few roundnecks that are out there are undoubtedly tightly held in the hands of a few serious collectors.

I've been playing lap style now for close to 10 years and it has become a big part of my musical path as well as the make up of my collection. I believe as music finds its way back to the clarity and organic pureness of acoustic instruments, lap style and other forms of playing will continue to be brought back to life. The Doypera brother's vision to create an instrument that could be heard above the large ensembles and orchestras of the day resulted in their resonator design using either one or three cones. Pretty amazing engineering and basically the same theory behind a speaker inside a cabinet but without any type of electric amplification. It's all about pushing out the air and the cones proved to be very efficient for the task.

Always wanting something a bit unusual even within a model itself, this example has a solid peghead like my 1938 National Silvo (see October 2007 Monthly G.A.S. Attack). The standard slotted headstock is described for this model but like many manufacturers of the day, one offs were common place especially when the parts bin was running low. Twelve frets clear of the body, the bound ebonoid fingerboard is also similar to that of the Silvo and New Yorker lap steel guitar released in 1935. Very interesting indeed! The peghead is covered with ebonoid veneer, three decorative vertical lines and the National shield logo. Roman numerals are used for the fret markers which again is another nod to the New Yorker lap steel. Between the art deco etchings and use of ebonoid, this truly is a vintage treasure!

Take a peek inside!

                   Before                                              After                   

Upon receipt, she was not playable due to the typical collapse of the aging cones. If you've never been inside a tricone, they are much thinner than a pie plate or standard resonator cone so after 72 years of string pressure, they tend to call it quits. It appeared to have never been opened and I took my time even making sure each screw would be returned to its original hole. A call to Elderly for a new set of National cones and Beard ebony topped sadldle was on the way. I then spent hours cleaning out 72 years of crud and spots of light surface rust on the edge of the cone tray using a Dremel with various wire brushes. I won't go into detail but "stuff" builds up inside and especially around the cones -ugh! She cleaned up nicely and was already for her new cones. The rest of the instrument is in excellent condition so she just required lubrication of the tuner gears and a new set of strings.

Once the cones arrived I dropped them in, seated the t-bar and took care of  cutting the new saddle. Of course the original cones and saddle were packed up and will stay with the guitar. Got to maintain that originality! On went a set of Stinky Pete's reso strings and a quick tune......WOW! The volume is more than I had anticipated and its tone was not as sharp as I was expecting. Rather warm but still chimes with gorgeous bell like tones. The projection is quite amazing and being played lap style, straight up of course. This is where the round neck/bottle slide players don't get to fully enjoy the projection of the instrument. I guess that makes us lap style guys a bit selfish, huh?

I took her up to my buddy Bob's studio in north Jersey for a little afternoon jammin'. I barely opened the case when I heard his jaw hit the floor and I hadn't even turned her over yet! He marveled at the air brushed etching and art deco appearance. Not being familiar with tricones, Bob spent quite a bit of time playing her mumbling things like, "she plays herself" and, "oh my god" in between bar pull offs. Neither of us are hawaiian players but blues/progressive bluegrass and she didn't disappoint digging in and crying with each emotion that we put her through. She made it back to her case with Bob asking when would be the next time I'd bring her up. I guess I'll take that as his seal of approval!

As a collector, obtaining an instrument from the original owner or in this case, the widow, is a very special bonus in my opinion. Looking at her sitting with the guitar her husband purchased new in 1936 makes me think of how cherished it must have been. The sentimental value that it undoubtedly held. Sure I paid a butt load for her however I console myself not only with an exceptionally fine playing highly collectible guitar but that I now possess a piece of her husband's legacy. Very heady stuff if you think about it!

As an addition to my collection she fits right in with the Weissenborn, Gibson and Martin hawaiians that grace the pages of the Acoustic G.A.S. Gallery. Being prewar and with very limited production, it is a long term hold just like a blue chip stock. The appreciation of the squareneck has been nothing less than impressive almost doubling in value in the last 5 years. However a round neck version will set you back about $20K, if you can even find one.........

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