Workshop: Inside a Nat'l "Memphis Minnie" Guitar

Folks don't usually get a peek under the hood of early electric guitars and this one is certainly "very cool" under the hood as well as externally. This is a 1941 National New Yorker "electric Spanish" model with a humbucking (yes, humbucking!) bridge pickup, full-depth (4") archtop body and in a bold move, no soundholes. This type of guitar became known as the "Memphis Minnie" model because she (a blues gal) used one of these pretty much exclusively after a point. Hers was sunburst, this one is a gorgeous buttery blonde.

Here I've removed the mounting screws for the pickup and you can see it up close. 6 polepieces, split across two magnets with reverse polarity -- so, a true, silent-operating humbucker! This sounds so friggin' nice through a small tube amp. It's very clean and clear and crisp which is quite different from the fairly bass-heavy pickups I'm used to from the day. If you were to close your eyes and listen to this clean you might think it was some new custom-job creation.

This has an 8.4k ohm output.

So, when I bought this guitar it was sold as "no issues" but I always expect issues. I've not handled an old instrument that hasn't had work done very recently that doesn't have something funky. In this case the neck joint was loose and the frets needed some reseating, leveling, and dressing.

I had picked out my tools for steaming the joint out this morning in preparation for a neck reset job but was (pleasantly) surprised when I removed the pickup and found this big old National metal-body-style dowel hanging out in there! I quickly removed the bolt, found a shim of the appropriate height, then wedged it under the already-extant shim and tightened it up. Hey presto! Instant neck reset and the heel is back to a correct position and very tight to the body.

The internal construction is fascinating -- it has a big block glued to the (laminate flamed maple) back to support the neck's extension dowel and also has these two "soundposts" rising from the block to support the top. The top itself is solid, press-arched spruce and appears to be unbraced! I'll bet the extra thickness of the top combined with those soundposts has kept it pretty healthy over the years. The soundposts also help to cut down on feedback as well, a plague for these hollowbody guitars at high volume.

As expected, the acoustic tone is like a semi-hollow guitar but with a lot more bass and midrange. Having no soundhole, it's fairly quiet, but enough to pen songs and practice on.

Here's the underside of that pickup.

Here's the bridge -- a rosewood adjustable type and definitely made by Gibson. I've seen this type in use on both mid-grade Kalamazoo products and also lower-end Gibson archtops once in a while. I'm wondering if it just happened to be in the Nat'l shop's parts bin when the guitar was fitted together for final assembly as it's obviously (from the imprint n the top) the original bridge.

The rest of the body (and neck) were probably higher-end Regal work though I've seen this sort of binding on some late-40s Gibson-made National archtops as well, so it's not exclusive to Regal-made Nat'l products.

For comparison, here's a bridge on a same-period Gibson-made FDH special hanging on the wall in front of me.

...and here's Minnie herself!

As of this moment the guitar itself is finished but I'm waiting for a repro Nat'l pickguard to arrive before I do the photo shoot. And... this guitar has its original hard tweed case. How cool is that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have some photos of my disassembled '37 National broadway in a file. It's pickup is a pickup/bridge combination. VERY different. if you would like me to send them to you for comparison of the 2 different pickups, please instruct on how to send you the file. Bill Graham-Nashville, TN.