Most acoustic guitar players will likely show disdain for any instrument with a bolt-on neck. Even though there have been many great guitars – from Maccaferri (and before) to Seagull – sporting respectable versions.
In my more naïve younger years, I used to attribute such ungainly guitars to Japanese manufacturers, or maybe the Italians, as in EKO. But the more I learned, the more I realized that early Japanese acoustics almost always had glued-in necks, like EKOs, though by the mid-’60s EKO had produced some of the worst bolt-neck acoustics in history. No, the culprit wasn’t really imports. It was mainly American mass manufacturers who foisted this form on baby boomers anxious to impress chicks with licks. And the principal purveyor of bolt-neck acoustics in the ’60s was the Valco company, maker of National, Supro, and, at the end, Kay guitars, including this end-of-the-line model N-720.
For National, the notion of bolting on an acoustic neck no doubt derived from its origins, the metal-bodied resonator guitars that began circa 1926. Pretty hard to affix a neck with a dovetail and hide glue on a piece of nickel or plated brass. After World War II, when Valco shifted its emphasis to electric guitars, the predilection for bolt-on necks continued. Even most of Valco’s National and Supro jazz boxes had necks bolted on the inside of the body. Sometimes necks, neck parts, and even bodies came from Gibson. Harmony and Kay were also body sources. Then in 1949 Valco came up with its own neck that bolted on without a heel. These were used on its fairly limited line of acoustic guitars, offering the advantages of cheaper, faster production and, oh by the way – you could put them on electric guitars, too!
By ’67, the guitar boom was slackening, and competition from imports was taking its toll. The Kay Musical Instrument Company, which had recently built a new factory, was on the ropes. Valco saw an opportunity and purchased Kay. One year later, both were out of business.
The National Model N-720 shown here dates from the short-lived Valco-Kay era. In 1967, National introduced a line of acoustic guitars that were – surprise, surprise – made by Kay, which had also switched to bolt-neck acoustics by that time. Indeed, except for the Valco necks, these were identical to Kay models, down to the bridge, pickguard and trim. This particular guitar (SN#2-3825) was built in early 1968, just before the end.
The body shape, a fat 151/2″ dreadnought, is pure Kay. The top is of select white spruce, knowing Kay, probably laminated. You can’t tell because the soundhole is bound on the inside. The body is a nice, light mahogany. Celluloid binding all around. The humongous bridge, a style popular at the time, is at least 3/8″ thick to accommodate the height of the bolt-on neck, not unlike an archtop. What looks like a fancy rose is a decal.
The neck is pure Valco – a mid-thickness finished chunk with a Gumby head, binding, and celluloid blocks. It’s adjustable. Curiously enough, the frets seem to have been laid in after the binding, so the tangs cut into the celluloid (but well trimmed)! Note the zero fret. The tuners are proprietary Valco Klusons with the large “butterfly” plastic buttons and work well.
So how does it play? Believe it or not, this guitar isn’t bad, despite the laminated top and bolt-on neck. Between 14 clear frets and no heel, the access is great. The neck is bolted on from the back with long screws through a massive wood block, which probably helps the sound transfer that would ordinarily be lost. And like an electric, you can shim the neck to adjust action, though it doesn’t need it. The distance of the strings off the body takes some getting used to, but really invites banging out chords… with no fear of scratching the top! Treble and bass are better balanced than on most dreads, but that’s probably an accident.
In ’68, the National N-720 sold for $99.50. There was a comparable jumbo companion, plus two upscale curly maple siblings with the fancy diamond-in-a-block National inlays that cost a couple bills. It’s not known how common these guitars are. Between reduced demand and the one-year tenure of the Valco-Kay alliance, they’re probably not rare, but not plentiful. In any case, the N-720 offers a snapshot of the end of an era when American mass manufacturers ruled the market. Imports were perched to take over… with glued-in necks.
Above Photo: Michael Wright
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.