National Bel-Air

National Bel-Air
National Bel-Air, Photo courtesy George Gruhn, Vintage Guitar magazine
Photo courtesy George Gruhn.

The idea of Gibson providing guitar parts to another prominent guitar maker is laughable today, but in the 1940s and ’50s, relationships were cozier between some of the major instrument companies. The evidence lies in this 1960 National Bel-Aire, one of several Nationals of the postwar era to feature a body made by Gibson.

Outsourcing in one form or another was as commonplace in the early years of National as it is in today’s guitar industry, but the sources were closer to home. National was founded in 1926 in California to exploit the Dopyera brothers’ designs for resonator instruments, and they outsourced the metal bodies for their new guitars from a tool-and-die shop owned by Adolph Rickenbacker. When one of National’s principals, George Beauchamp, left the company to concentrate on developing electric guitars, he teamed up with Rickenbacker to form Ro-Pat-In (later Electro String and eventually the Rickenbacker company). Rickenbacker made his own metal bodies for the company’s groundbreaking “Frying Pan” electric Hawaiians of 1932, but for their wood-body archtop, the company outsourced from the Chicago-based Harmony.

Meanwhile, back at National, John Dopyera had split to form Dobro and then returned in 1932 to merge Dobro with National, and National-Dobro quickly took outsourcing to a new level by licensing the Regal company of Chicago to make Dobros – under its own brand as well as under the Dobro brand.

National-Dobro, no doubt stung by Beauchamp’s success with Rickenbacker, tested the electric guitar market in 1933 with the Dobro All-Electric, which featured a pickup supplied by a competitor, albeit an obscure one – Audiovox, of Seattle.

National-Dobro moved to Chicago in 1936 or ’37, at which time a change in the principal ownership group was reflected in a new corporate name – Valco. Through the remainder of the ’30s and until World War II, Valco concentrated on electric guitars.

Valco was especially hard hit by the onset of the war and subsequent restrictions on the use of metal, since almost all of its models had either a metal resonator cone or an electric pickup.

After the war, Valco got back on its feet with a little help from some friends in Chicago – the Chicago Musical Instrument company (CMI), which distributed and/or owned a wide array of brands. Valco entered into a distribution agreement with CMI and immediately reaped the benefits of being in the CMI family. Valco revamped the National line of electrics and added a line of acoustics, but the company had no manufacturing base of its own for guitar bodies. Rather than starting from scratch, Valco simply bought bodies from Gibson. It seems to have been one big, happy family; Gibson ledgers from the early ’50s show not only shipments of bodies to National, but also pickups to Harmony! National also used bodies from Kay.

National’s 1947 acoustics looked a lot like Gibsons. The National N-150 started life in the Gibson factory with an L-7 body and neck, the N-100 was basically an L-50, the N-111 a J-200, the N-66 a J-45 and the N-33 an LG-1. Even those with Gibson necks, however, had National’s distinctive asymmetrical peghead shape. These guitars were no doubt shipped to National “in the white” because they had National’s finish, ornamentation, and serial number plate, but the Gibson “stamp” was still visible – literally – in the form of a factory order number stamped on the inside back of the body. The Gibson necks weren’t used for long, as National developed a heel-less, adjustable-angle neck called the Stylist and implemented it by the end of the ’40s. Still, the Gibson bodies lingered on. In the electric line, National’s Aristocrat model, which featured a conventional pickup and a bridge pickup as early as 1947, sported the L-7 body in 1950 before going to a Kay body.

In ’53, National debuted a new model using the 16″ Florentine-cutaway body from one of Gibson’s most successful post-war electrics. In the Gibson factory, the body had belonged to the ES-175, but in the hands of National it was transformed into the Bel-Aire. National’s flair for the dramatic, which would peak in the early ’60s with a series of fiberglas map-shaped models, was already evident in the early ’50s. The Bel-Aire had electronic controls everywhere – three knobs on the bass side, a lever switch on the cutaway bout, and a master tone control on the lower treble bout.

The Bel-Aire was upgraded in ’58 with a third pickup and more controls. The three bass-side knobs were relocated closer to the neck; the lever-style selector switch on the cutaway bout was replaced with a slotted switch; and the lower treble bout now had four knobs. The block inlays on the fingerboard were upgraded to diamonds enclosed in blocks. At least one owner of a Bel-Aire (the one pictured here) wanted more Gibson than just the body, and added an early-’50s ES-175-style tailpiece and a Gibson Tune-O-Matic bridge (which became standard on the ES-175 in the late 1970s). The original equipment on this model was a rosewood height-adjustable bridge and a stamped tailpiece.

By ’61, Valco was focusing almost entirely on solidbody models, in the National line and the lower-priced Supro line, as well, and the Bel-Aire was discontinued. Valco didn’t last much longer. In a bizarre move, in ’67 Valco acquired Kay, which had always been a much larger company but had fallen on hard times with the onslaught of cheap imports in the ’60s. One year later, Valco went bankrupt.

Although the Bel-Aire is not as flashy as National’s map-shaped guitars of the early ’60s, and not as famous as the cheap early-’50s solidbodies played by blues legends Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, it may be a sleeper among post-war Nationals. Though its electronics and neck are National’s design, the Gibson body gives the Bel-Aire an edge over the Kay-body models in terms of basic quality, and a Bel-Aire can be had for far less than a Gibson ES-175. And on top of that, this National with a Gibson body is a good conversation starter about the collaboration between two of the industry’s top competitors.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s January 2006 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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