Although it has never been the favorite guitar of Hawaiian players, National’s Style O, with its shining metal body and tropical imagery, stands today as one of the strongest icons for the Hawaiian music that was the foundation of the resonator guitar’s popularity in the early 1930s.
Introduced in 1930, the Style O was the endpoint of several years of rapid evolution of the resonator guitar. As a brass-bodied guitar, it occupied a unique spot between National’s inexpensive single-cone steelbodies and the high-end “German silver” tri-cone models (though there were a few single-cone models with German silver bodies). It offered plenty of visual flash at just over half the cost of the cheapest National tri-cone, and its brass body gave it a sound all its own.
National introduced the resonator guitar to the world in 1927, and it reflected the opulence of the Jazz Age, with not just one, but three resonator cones in a body of shining nickel-plated “German silver” (a.k.a. “white brass,” an alloy of copper and zinc – the basic elements of brass – with nickel added). Style 1 was plain, and Styles 2, 3, and 4 sported progressively fancier engraved floral patterns. They produced a sweet tone and higher volume than wood-body guitars, and with the endorsement of Sol Hoopii, the biggest Hawaiian guitarist of the day, they quickly made obsolete the hollow-neck Hawaiian guitars of Weissenborn as well as the modified conventional-style Hawaiians (with raised nut and straight saddle) of Martin and other makers.
The resonator guitar was destined for a short period in the spotlight, as Hawaiian players would abandon acoustic guitars of all types by the mid 1930s in favor of electrics (with Hoopii again leading the exodus). National’s tri-cone was so well-designed – functionally and cosmetically – that it might have remained the only style of resonator guitar through the entire period, had there not been a rift among the owners of National. John Dopyera, a founding partner and the creative force behind the tri-cone design, left National and formed the Dobro company, which introduced a single-cone woodbody resonator guitar in 1928. With a simpler design and less expensive material (plywood), Dobro undercut the price of the cheapest National by almost 65 percent – $45 versus $125.
Before the year was out, National responded with its own single-cone woodbody, the Triolian. While Dobro continued to primarily make woodbodied guitars, National moved forward with more metalbodies. In 1929, the Triolian was changed to a metal body, and a year later a less-expensive version, the Duolian, appeared. Unlike the German silver tri-cones, these single-cone models had bodies of steel.
The Triolian and Duolian competed with Dobro’s lower-priced models, but there was still a vast middle-ground, in pricing as well as sound quality, between the $45 Triolian and the $125 Style 1 tri-cone.
That’s where the Style O fit in…
Debuting in 1930 at a price of $65, the first Style O had a nickel-plated steel body, but it was quickly changed to brass. The brass body combined with the single cone made a subtle but significant difference in tone, reaching a nice compromise between the harsh, cutting sound of the Triolian/Duolian and the sweet, flowing sound of the tri-cones.
Despite the fact that most of the players who bought Nationals were Hawaiian-style guitarists, National had only briefly acknowledged Hawaiian music on the woodbody Triolians, with decals of an island volcano on the front and a hula dancer on the back. Style O corrected that slight – visually, at least – with images of palm trees on the front and a canoe in a lagoon on the back. Ironically, this most-Hawaiian themed model in the National line was not offered in a Hawaiian version, with a square wooden neck, until 1933.
The Hawaiian scenes were etched (sandblasted) into the Style O’s body, rather than engraved like the tri-cones, which gave it a more ethereal quality – coming and going depending on the angle to a light source. It also made it more affordable.
Evidence of the Style O’s popularity lies in the constant tweaking of the imagery as, presumably, the sandblasting templates wore out. Bob Brozman, in The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments, details five variations on the original body size (designed for 12-fret necks) and two more after the change in late 1934 to 14-fret necks. Palm trees come and go and move from one side to the other. Clouds begin to fade, as do the stars in the sky. Ripples in the lagoon change. The canoe (along with the entire image) reverses direction.
And that’s just the imagery. Other specs changed constantly, too. The “sieve hole” coverplate grew four radiating ribs in ’32 and then began switching to a “diamonds and arrows” pattern around ’35. The f-holes in the upper body were straight-cut initially, but beginning in ’33 the edges were rolled for a smoother appearance. The fingerboard went from “ebonized” (dyed black) maple to real ebony in ’36. The cosmetic makeover continued in ’37, when parallelogram fretboard inlays replaced pearl dots and the headstock received an ebonoid (black celluloid) veneer.
The occasional square-neck Style O turns up, but the great majority were round-necks. That’s not surprising, considering that 1) Hawaiian players started switching to electrics as soon as soon as electrics were available, and 2) National’s single-cone models were not as well-suited for Hawaiian music as the sweeter-toned tri-cones (or for that matter, the woodbody Dobros). Consequently, it was standard-style guitarists – particularly bluesmen who had no relationship whatsoever to Hawaiian music – who chose a Style O.
Price, as always, was an issue, and the typical musician struggling through the Depression in the early ’30s could barely afford a Duolian, at $37.50. Nevertheless, the number of Style O guitars still around today indicates that many musicians thought the flash and sound of the Style O was well worth the $65 price tag. Exactly how many is not known, but serial numbers suggest well over 5,000. All of the 12-fret models and the early 14-fret models have numbers with an S prefix, and the only other Nationals with an S prefix are the rare round-neck tri-cones; the S-prefix numbers go as high as 6205. Later Style O numbers, with no prefix, are probably mixed in with other models, but they go into the 7000 range.
Style O’s can be seen in photos of bluesmen Son House and Bukka White but the model’s greatest exposure came in 1985, when the British rock band Dire Straits released Brothers in Arms. The album cover pictured nothing but a National Style O floating in the sky. The record went to Number 1 on the strength of the single “Money For Nothing,” and suddenly, vintage dealers were putting a premium on the 14-fret version of the Style O with diamond-and-arrows coverplate – previously not as desirable as a 12-fret version, but now famous as the “Dire Straits model.”
Today, the National Style O still has a unique appeal. It’s not as elegant as a tri-cone, not as workmanlike as a Duolian. But for the ultimate combination of tone, volume, versatility, aesthetics, and affordability, the Style O may well be National’s greatest achievement.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May 2006 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.