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National Reso-Phonic 14-fret Style “O” Guitar

What a difference two frets make. With 14 frets to a typical resonator’s 12, the new 14-fret Style “O” guitar exists as something of a hybrid, a split between a gutbucket slide tool and an expansive, strum-friendly dreadnought. It’s a crossbreed that could easily pass as innovation; surprisingly, it’s an innovation first introduced in the 1930s.

During that time National Reso-Phonic’s mechanically amplified instruments were a guitarist’s first choice when rocking blues jook houses and pummeling rhythm parts in hot-jazz bands. These steel- and brass-bodied instruments are forever linked to the Delta and Piedmont blues styles, being famously played by seminal bluesmen like Blind Boy Fuller (who fingerpicked gently tumbling rags and East Coast blues) and Son House (who banged and slid on his National like a man possessed). The ’60s saw a group of youthful blues revivalists like John Hammond, Jr. and Taj Mahal exhume the National and today a simmering cult of obsessives collect these instruments and lift bass lines from virtuosos like Catfish Keith, Roy Rogers (not the cowboy), boogie-master Del Ray and Bob Brozman.

Introduced in 1934, the initial line of 14-fret Os featured a slotted headstock and accommodated a longer neck by decreasing the guitar’s body size, ensuring that National’s standard 25-inch scale length would remain intact. In late 1935/early ’36, the 14-fret was modified to feature a peghead (the new 14-fret O’s peghead is even wider, another example of the guitar’s dreadnought tendencies). The company continued producing the 14-fret Style O until 1942, when WWII’s stranglehold on American manufacturing decided resonator guitars were a frivolous use of metal. The model remained an heirloom until recently, when National reintroduced it after years of taking customer requests and watching rival manufacturers own this niche-within-a-niche market. What a welcome comeback it is.

The new millenium’s 14-fret Style O boasts the flawless craftsmanship and quality control that’s become a trademark of National’s handmade instruments, and the price reflects this meticulous attention to detail: the O lists for almost $3,000. A brass-bodied guitar with nickel plating, two upper f-holes and a single-cone resonator (a “single-cone biscuit”), the instrument comes etched with a gorgeous Hawaiian landscape on its back and top and an attractive “side-stripe.” The body construction now consists of three parts, an improvement that, according to the National Web site, “provides a fuller tone…” This O’s tone is robust, with a peppier, banjo-ish brass sound when laid alongside a steel-bodied’s grimy, down-in-the-Delta moan. The guitar is surprisingly loud for a small-bodied instrument and tonally balanced, two essential components of the resonator sound lacking in inexpensive resonators (in so many words, you can’t cheap out when buying a reso and get away with it). The guitar can’t help but stay in tune (always an advantage of a weather- and humidity-proof metal instrument); its barebones bridge and pegboard headstock make for effortless restringing and the tuning pegs arrived well greased and easy to turn-essential when rolling from one open tuning to the next as classic blues demands.

The longer neck gives the guitar the playability of a flat-top acoustic, although like most resonators, it’s most comfortably played in classical fashion with the body resting on the left thigh rather than the right. The hard rock maple neck has as much width and girth as most players can handle, and those making a transition from electric to resonator will find their chops severely handicapped. The additional two frets, however, allow for single-note lines that simply aren’t possible on 12-fret instruments. Fans of Gypsy jazz, Dixieland, and Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson’s jazz/blues mash-up will be thrilled.

Where those extra frets backfire is in slide playing: On other models, the neck joins the body at the 12th fret, providing an obvious reference point for the full-octave slash that’s one of the most common techniques in open-tuned slide playing. On this new O, it’s difficult to approximate that 12th fret in the midst of furious Charley Patton-style riffing, especially if you’re accustomed to 12-fret Nationals.

Another grumble is the case, which aside from not having a place to store your corn liquor, has a whopping six locks that need to be fastened and unfastened each time you want to pick. Of course, if you owned this prize you’d protect it with a motorcycle chain much less a few extra locks.

Originally Published