Gibson is widely known for its guitars, mandolins, and banjos, but many are unaware the company built instruments for nearly 30 brands for several distributors and music store chains, primarily from the 1920s through the early ’40s.
Some of the best-known names include Kalamazoo, distributed by Gibson, and Recording King, which was distributed by Montgomery Ward. Most of these instruments were budget models offered at prices much less than the standard Gibson, with features similarly scaled down. However, a few models, such as the Recording King electric guitars, had cutting-edge designs and were, in fact, a great influence in prompting Gibson to compete in the arena of electric guitars. One feature typical of all Gibson alternative brands, regardless of their level of ornamentation, was the lack of an adjustable neck rod.
The National instruments made by Gibson are of special interest, since other than a continuation of the Kalamazoo brand into the ’60s, they were the only guitars made under an alternative brand name by Gibson after World War II. Gibson had been purchased by Chicago Musical Instrument company (CMI) in 1944, when the latter had distribution rights for Valco instruments, and which produced the National, Supro, Airline, and other related brands. Since Gibson and Valco were both controlled by CMI, it is reasonable to assume the cooperative venture was instigated by the management of CMI. In July of 1944, Gibson records indicate the first prototype guitars made by Gibson with the National brand were shipped to CMI. These are extremely scarce and of interest to collectors, but so few exist that very few dealers or collectors have encountered one.
The earliest Gibson-made Nationals had necks and bodies made by Gibson with dovetail neck joints virtually the same as Gibson models, a distinctive National peghead shape, and no truss rod in the neck. The bodies were of the same quality as standard Gibsons, but sometimes with different binding and finish colors. After 1949, Gibson supplied unfinished bodies to Valco and National lacquered the bodies and installed their own magnesium-core bolt-on necks with tilt adjustment to adjust the neck set and Valco-style bridges and tailpieces. By ’52, National started purchasing bodies from Kay, in Chicago, and installing their own necks, however, Gibson continued to make bodies for the National model 1155 acoustic flat-top as well as the Bel-Aire hollowbody electric until 1961. The National instruments with Gibson neck and body, which were made at the Gibson factory, are today viewed as some of the finest Gibson alternative-brand instruments ever made.
By far the most deluxe and expensive Gibson-made National was the N-275. An early price list titled “National, Tentative Postwar List of National Instruments, Amplifiers and Cases” lists it with case at $275. At that time, a Gibson L-7 listed at only $165, the more deluxe L-12 at $225, the L-5, Gibson’s top of the line 17″ archtop, at $375, and a Martin D-28 at $144. Thus, the N-275 was a deluxe, professional-grade instrument, built to full Gibson standards, but with significant ornamental differences. The maple neck with dark center lamination is of similar quality to an L-5, but lacks an adjustable truss rod. The fingerboard is Brazilian rosewood with triple-parallelogram inlays, and the peghead has a large pearl National shield and a scroll-shaped inlay engraved separately with the National logo. The neck, body, and pickguard are bound with grained ivoroid with a middle lamination of nitrocellulose tortoiseshell grain plastic followed by another ivoroid layer. Standard Gibson brand guitars at this time featured plain white celluloid rather than grained ivoroid. The tuners are Kluson Sealfast gears of the style used on the L-5 and the tailpiece was also used on the mid-/late-’30s L-12 (undoubtedly leftover pre-war components). The f-shaped sound holes are bound in the same manner as an L-5.
The L-5 was the most deluxe and finest quality 17″ archtop offered by Gibson prior to World War II through the late ’60s. Though Gibson made 17″ f-hole guitars under a variety of other brand names prior to World War II, none approached the cost or quality of the L-5.
The National N-275 compares very favorably to an L-5 in sound and playability, as well as ornamentation and aesthetic appeal. From a collector’s point of view, it is intriguing not only for its extreme rarity, but for its very fine quality, attractive ornamentation, and extremely good tone and volume.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.