49. National Resophonic “Black Rust” Duolian 12-fret
I FELL in love with this guitar last summer as I sat outside a cafe, just around the corner from Modena Cathedral drinking a rather fine Italian latte (as you do). I was waiting for my girlfriend to return from an adventure in a nearby clothes shop and leafing through Facebook guitar ads when I spotted it.
The sunlit piazzas of Northern Italy may be a world away from the Northamptonshire village where this stunning National steel guitar was sitting, but the pictures alone were enough to get me all hot under the collar from a distance!
It’s not one of those flashy brass-bodied, palm-tree-engraved, nickel-plated jobs much beloved of Mr Knopfler and his acolytes, but finely crafted from thin steel and finished in a kind of grey, speckly paint-job that, apparently, is called “Black Rust”. From a distance, it looks really old and battered…not unlike the one a poncho-clad Stevie Ray Vaughan is pictured playing, head down, on the front of the “In Step” album.
The price was right. Very right. These are classic, hand-built American guitars and it was never going to be cheap – this is easily the most expensive guitar I’ve ever bought. But I have a rule of thumb with musical gear: Is it cheap enough that I could sell it again and not lose out if I don’t like it, or need the money?
In this case, the answer was a big, fat yes! The National was a mere couple of years old, the seller having personally imported it from the USA in the original case (a work of art in itself) and had not only all the purchase and import documentation, but the original, heavily-padded National shipping box.
The thing about resonator guitars is that they are designed to be louder, acoustically, than a traditional wooden-bodied acoustic. By the 1920s, the sound of traditional guitars was no longer cutting through in the noisy dancehalls and juke joints of the day and guitar-makers tried various ways to make louder guitars. Doubling up the number of strings to make 12-string guitars was one innovation with the same aim in mind.
Passing the strings over a wooden bridge sitting on a thin metal resonator cone – rather like a speaker cone – was another way, with three main variants, each of which has a slightly different and distinctive tone. There’s the Dobro-type, favoured by country and bluegrass players, in which the cone of the speaker faces outwards, with the bridge sitting on a metal “spider”, structure, spanning the edges of the cone.
There is the tricone, where three smaller metal cones are set in the body, facing inwards, with the bridge and strings sitting on a T-shaped bar connected to the middle of the three cones.
Then there is this type of reso, where the strings pass over a bridge sitting on a wooden disc (called a biscuit) in the middle of an inverted spun-aluminium cone. In each case the cone amplifies the vibrations from the strings. For what is still, essentially, an acoustic guitar, these metal-bodied Nationals are LOUD – ask my neighbours!
However, nowadays, even National loud isn’t loud enough for most gigging purposes. The majority of modern players either point a mic at the cone, or use a pickup of some kind. The clincher here was that this National was fitted with £300 worth of Highlander pickup – reputedly the only system that really works properly. (It works incredibly well.)
Messages flew between Northern Italy and Northants that week and when Sian and I got home at the weekend, guess where I was headed. tapered brass slide in hand? As soon as I played it, I knew I had to have it!
I’d been pretty happy with my heavily-modified £260 Chinese Vintage ( No 29 in this series). It sounded OK and did the job well enough. But NOTHING sounds quite like a real National! It’s a magical thing on which to play slide guitar – and just as wonderful to pass over to somebody else while you sit in front of them listen to what it really sounds like!
I’ve gigged the National a few times now, recorded with it, too, as well as playing it in recent front-room lockdown live-streams, and I’m just as smitten as I was last July. I can’t wait for the lockdown to be over so I can take it out and gig it again.
It was expensive, but it’s bloody fabulous! Money well spent…