One of the most innovative companies of the pre-World-War-II era, National found out quickly that innovation was a double-edged sword. Just as their resonator guitars of the late 1920s made the acoustic Hawaiian guitars of Hermann Weissenborn obsolete, electric guitars of the mid 1930s – some of them made of National’s own making – threatened to deal a similar fate to National’s resonator guitars within a decade of their introduction.
This National Silvo guitar represents not only an effort to present a beautiful, upscale electric Hawaiian model, it also features an innovative feature designed to salvage a waning demand for National’s acoustic resonator guitars.
Though the electric guitar era was barely five years old when National introduced the Silvo in 1937, this guitar would have been seen as a throwback to an earlier time. From the beginning of the electric era – Rickenbacker’s cast aluminum “Frying Pan” of 1932 – electric Hawaiian guitars had been functionally, if not literally, solidbody instruments. The Silvo’s fully hollow metal body was more closely related to the acoustic tri-cone resonator guitars National introduced in ’27 and the single-cone, nickel-plated Style N of 1930 than to any of the electric Hawaiians on the market in the mid ’30s. In fact, the Silvo body appears to be the same as that of a National Style 1 tenor guitar, so one of the reasons for the design may have been to use up surplus tenor bodies.
National was an early player in the electric-guitar market, introducing an electrified Dobro in ’33. But despite the popularity of National’s metalbody tri-cone and single-cone models, when it came to electrics under the National brand, the company opted for more -traditional wood-bodied instruments (furnished by other makers), in which National installed its electronics. Consequently, the Silvo didn’t look like any electric guitar – Spanish or Hawaiian – in the National lineup or anywhere else in the market.
From metal guitar bodies in the late ’20s to molded fiberglass solidbody guitars in the early ’60s, National was always trying new materials. In the ’30s, it was “ebonoid” – black-colored celluloid that company literature referred to as “National’s exclusive beautifier.” National used ebonoid as a substitute for ebony fingerboards (on Hawaiian models) and headstock veneers. On the Silvo, the ebonoid trim extended to the circular plate that held the bridge, pickup, and control knobs. The Roman numeral fingerboard markers, headstock logo, and the designs in the circular plate were achieved by etching through a top layer of ebonoid to reveal a light-colored celluloid layer underneath.
The Silvo, according to catalog copy, “offers everything to a conservative buyer,” but the only conservative aspect of the model was its price. Though it looks as if it would be the top model, it was really mid-line – at $60, it was between the flashy black-and-white New Yorker at $75 and the plain wood-body Supro Hawaiian at $35. It occupied middle ground in the market, as well; Gibson’s EH-150 was available (without the matching amp) for $70, and Gibson’s EH-100 was $44. Rickenbacker’s Bakelite Model B was $62.50, and their chrome-plated, stamped-steel Silver Hawaiian model was $37.50 (these prices are for six-string models without case).
Along with the Hawaiian Silvo, National offered a metalbody tenor guitar and a metalbody mandolin fitted with the Silvo control plate. Both were priced same as the Hawaiian, $60. Curiously, National did not offer a standard six-string Spanish-neck Silvo.
The circular plate on the body was the Silvo’s most innovative feature, but ironically, it did nothing to advance the design of electric Hawaiian guitars, because it was intended for a different purpose on an entirely different guitar – to convert National’s single-cone acoustic resonators to electrics. The plate fit National’s single-cone models such as the Duolian, Triolian, and Style O, and National offered the unit, with the “res-o-lectric” pickup, for just that purpose. The price of $25 included installation. In fact, National would not deliver the unit alone; the buyer had to send his guitar to the factory for installation by National technicians (National also offered to convert any of its tri-cone model to electric for the same price, but on those, the pickup would be mounted directly to the original metal coverplate).
Judging by the rarity of Silvo Hawaiian models and the even greater rarity of converted Duolians, Triolians, Style O’s, etc., the innovative conversion module was a commercial failure. The inconvenience and risk of mailing a guitar to the factory for what appeared to be a simple do-it-yourself retrofit – remove and replace the coverplate, drill a hole in the rim for the jack – was no doubt a factor. National’s pickup design, which by the late ’30s was falling behind those of Gibson and Epiphone, may have been a factor, too. And as the electric guitar began to gain acceptance in the market, players showed a preference for more-traditional-looking archtop models; a converted metalbody National may have played and sounded just fine, but in the context of a Gibson ES-250 with its fancy inlays or an Epiphone Zephyr with its blond finish, a converted National looked like a hybrid from a bygone era.
The Silvo Hawaiian had a beautiful look and a reasonable price – a combination that typically meant success – but it lasted in production for only three years, from 1937 to ’39. Today, it stands as one of the least successful innovations from one of the most innovative guitar companies of the pre-war years.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.