1934 National Steel Duolin

 

All guitar players dream about their dream guitar; for some it is a vintage 1958 Les Paul, others a 59 Fender Broadcaster, still others a 1960 Fender Stratocastor. But these guitars are earthly chattels; given enough cash you can attend the trade fairs in America or you can go to Tokyo, pass the money over the counter and you will be able to take one home. But there are some guitars you only see in pictures, guitars you can only examine on LP covers and admire in old black and white photos. You do not even wonder through the day dreaming of possessing one because some things in life just cannot be had. If you are a guitar collector or a Blues fanatic, a vintage National Steel guitar is simply the jewel on the crown. But who can have a vintage National? They were made in the 30’s and you don’t even find them second guitar shops even at 48th Street in New York. You see Tempa Red using one, you see Bukka White cuddling one and Son House stroking one but that’s about it all, how on earth are you going to get hold of a vintage National Steel?

 

In 1991, in my room at my law offices, I opened the hard case which contained a vintage 1934 National Duolin. After I opened the hard case, I instinctively locked the solid mahogany door of my room as if I was now privy to a holy secret. I sat and looked the guitar for a long time, I tried to study its hidden history, I pondered over the places to which the guitar had been, the music that had been played on it and the fate of its previous owners. I took it out of the case and strummed a chord. I immediately put the guitar back in the case and told my secretary to cancel all my appointments for the whole week. For a whole month, the guitar was never out of my sight apart from when I was at work. When I was eating breakfast, when I reading a book, the guitar was always somewhere where I catch it at the corner of my eye. For over a year, the guitar stood against the wall in my bedroom so that the first thing when I opened my eyes I could see it. I was never a happier man, I was a man in a dream hoping never to wake up. I longed for the day at the office to end so I could touch and play the guitar. No earthly possession has ever stirred up some much emotion in my life, never had I been so overwhelmed and disturbed by a musical instrument that I woke up at night in cold sweat and had to turn on the lights to inspect it just to assure myself that I was not in a dream. I played the guitar every day for over a year, I learnt a lot of Country Blues tunes in the guitar, I made myself sit down to learn bottleneck acoustic Blues. For a long time I never touched any other guitar nor could I take my mind and eyes off that guitar.

My 1934 National Duolin is my most precious musical instrument in this life and the next. I cannot but feel the fact that the guitar found its way to me in Hong Kong was no coincidence but some intricate design in life had destined the guitar to fall into my hands. You may think I am a sentimental fool, but had you had the experience of holding in your hands a National Steel made in the 1930’s you may not think I am such a fool after all.

My National Duolin was made in 1934 and the instrument is over 70 years old. National guitars are resonator guitars. In the body of the guitar there is a diaphragm, a “spider web”, which helps to amplifier the sound the guitar. In essence this is guitar with a built in acoustic amplifier. The spider web amplifies the sound and the guitar is twice as loud as a conventional acoustic guitar. The National guitars are heavily associated with the Blues. Before the age of electric amplifiers, guitar players have difficulties to be heard in a juke joint on a Saturday night over often drunken and rowdy crowds. The resonator guitar is the answer.

The National Duolin has a hollow steel body with two symmetrical f holes. The body joins the neck at the 12th fret. A wooden bridge is attached to the diaphragm and transmits the sound to the diaphragm then to the metal body which serves as an acoustic amplifer. In the 1930’s National apply what they call a ‘chrystalline finish” to the body. The guitar was hand painted with a special paint and when it dried on the guitar, patterns emerged and the patterns varied from guitar to guitar. The shape of the guitar is strangely beautiful, the sound is stunning. The sound of a Duolin has a lot of middle range and is can also be bright if you hit hard at the treble strings. You can feel the whole guitar vibrate in when you slide a bottleneck over the 12 fret on a Open G tuning. It is hard to describe the sound and feel of the guitar, it is so special and unique you have to experience it to understand. For a Bluesman, a vintage National Steel is like the holy grail.

Whilst the guitar sounds unique and is a wonder to marvel, its usages in a musical context is strangely limited. Even if you are a Blues player, the guitar is not much use to you and unless you are a Country Blues player. The guitar doesn’t sound right if you play folk music on it, it doesn’t sound right if you play Country music on it (you want a Dobro in that case). But if you tune it to Open G or Open D and slide the bottleneck over the strings, you will never hear a more magical sound; it conjures up instantly the feel and atmosphere of a long gone era, the crossroads, the Mississippi Delta, the sad history of an enslaved people instantly fill the room with a reality so real and poignant you almost shiver to your bone.

I should mention that I also have a National Tricone. The guitar is nickel plated and instead of one cone, it has three cones to act as resonator. The effect is almost like a guitar put through a reverb unit. This is a re-issue Tricone. The engravings on the body of the guitar is sheer art.

To own a National Steel vintage guitar like the 1934 Duolin is not just a question of money, it is a question of fate. To me, fate is a question of meeting the right person at the right time. Since I am sure you are not interested in the circumstances under which I acquire the Duolin, I shall say no more. All I can say is, if you see vintage National, buy it even if you have to sell your house. I almost did.