Following the development of the electric guitar, National started to produce electric lap steel guitars, as the Electric Hawaiian (1935), the New Yorker (1935) and the Silvo (1937).
In 1935, the year this lap steel model was launched, there was almost no precedent for how an electric lap steel should look. Rickenbacher’s aluminum model the “Frying Pan” introduced a simple industrial look which provided little charm. Gibson stuck with a traditionalist approach for their EH-150, even if their earlier models were also in cast aluminium and not in wood. The first electric model from National, the Electric Hawaiian was a cast aluminium instrument but displayed already a more distinctive design. Indeed it struck out in bold new directions inspired by the dominant fashion of the day: art deco.
The New Yorker follows this trend and became one of the classic lap steel models of the next 30 years. Named simply Electric Hawaiian it got it’s name in 1937: the New Yorker.
Designed by Victor Smith, the New Yorker introduced a classic stair-step body shape that has been endlessly copied (for example the Epiphone Electar Model M). Implied by the name, but never overtly referenced in advertising literature, was a similarity to the stair-step profile of the great skyscrapers of New York – particularly the Empire State Building, completed in 1931. Roman numeral fret markers inside parallelogram boxes vaguely recalled the same style of architecture, while black and white stripes accented the instrument’s long dimension (or height, to carry the metaphor further). These stripes were achieved not by paint or inlay, but by a multi-layered veneer; white plastic was bonded to black plastic on top, and the black plastic was cut away to reveal the white stripes. A similar technique was used to create the fretboard markers and headstock logo. The sides and back were painted black so that they blended seamlessly with the covering on top.
What was unique in this guitar was that 3 pickups were used in the guitar building. This was a very unique concept for the 1930's.
The New Yorker was the first instrument to contain more than one pickup; the first versions had three hidden underneath the fretboard, but by 1938 the bridge unit was visible under the hand rest. The other two remained hidden underneath the board around the 17th and 28th frets. Each of these pickups had two coils, enabling them to cancel out hum. From the 6th variant of the model (starting 1936) the guitar had a tone control that wasn’t a conventional potentiometer – it was a pickup selector switch, labeled “Hawaiian-Chimes-Harp”, which represented three different pickup combinations.
These early New Yorkers have a very mellow, bassy tone; the three pickup settings make surprisingly little difference.