National, New Yorker Spanish Electric, 1939


New Yorker Spanish Electric
The Story Behind

In the 1930s a handful of American guitar companies invented the modern electric guitar. It’s true that Rickenbacher, Gibson, National, among a few others, were making solid-body Hawaiian guitars since the early 1930s. And Rickenbacher even made a few guitars where they fitted standard necks to small Hawaiian guitar bodies, but those proved to be too difficult to play and they never caught on with players. 

While primitive by today’s standards, National’s first electric guitar, the Electric Spanish (renamed the New Yorker three years later), must have appeared positively futuristic by 1935 standards, when it made its premiere. Nothing more than a modestly appointed, laminated maple arch-top outfitted with a rudimentary bridge pickup located near the bridge, it was nonetheless one of the first commercially available electric guitars. 

In the 1930s, Valco was formed by three business partners and former owners of the National Dobro Company; Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera. The company name was a combination of the three partner's first initials (V.A.L.) plus the common abbreviation for company (Co.)

Valco manufactured Spanish acoustic guitars, metal-bodied resonator guitars, electric lap steel guitars, and vacuum tube amplifiers under a variety of brand names including Supro, Airline, Oahu, and National. They also made amplifiers under contract for several other companies such as Gretsch, Harmony, and Kay. In the 1950s they began producing solid body electric guitars.

As was the case for all subsequent Valco electric hollow-bodies, the body itself was sourced out from another Chicago manufacturer; in this case, Regal. The following year, a lower-priced Supro-branded version was introduced (renamed Avalon in 1938). This would set the pattern for Valco’s multi-tiered guitar lines; National-branded instruments usually had a corresponding instrument in the lower-priced Supro line, usually differing only in cosmetic appointments and headstock shape. Subsequently Valco would contract Kay, Harmony, and Gibson to build their arch-top electric bodies, eventually introducing a proprietary bolt-on neck design and using their own necks and electronics. 

By 1937 the Electric Spanish guitar’s body was being manufactured by Kay and Valco were supplying their own bolt-on necks. A seldom-seen 4-string tenor guitar version was also offered. By 1939 National had introduced a fancier, short-lived two-pickup model, the Sonora. Discontinued by 1941, it was one of the earliest multi-pickup electrics available.

National’s New Yorker Electric Spanish, is one of those guitars that came close to being the first modern electric guitar.

At first glance, this looks like a standard electric arch-top guitar, much like Gibson’s ES-150. But if you look closely you’ll see that the New Yorker has no sound-holes. National made similar guitars with f-holes but those tended to feedback at fairly low volumes. The neck is also attached by a combination of glue and screws. (The screws are under the five pearl dots at the end of the fretboard.). 

One other interesting point, this is the same model of guitar that the great blues musician Memphis Minnie used to play. This type of guitar became known as the "Memphis Minnie" model because she (a blues gal) used one of these pretty much exclusively.

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