This beastly, 17" wide bruiser is a new toy that will be seeing some band service with me on the quick. I've had two National archtops that I've adored and let go -- one was an electric '41 New Yorker and the other was a '50 L-48 clone -- and this blends the awesome "Stylist" bolt-on National neck that I liked on the latter with the cool, ahead-of-its-time electronics I expect from National electrics -- and then merges that with a Gibson-made ES-300 body. It not only sounds the business, it looks and feels the business, too. Later versions of this guitar used Kay-supplied bodies but the Gibson curves are more delicious, methinks, and provide that classic big band outline.
At the time this was made, the Aristocrat was National's most high-end electric and it certainly seems posh with all the deco pearl inlay in the neck and the "iced tea" sunburst sprayed across its enormous, stage-filling body. That body is fairly thick ply throughout (with maple veneer) -- a material Gibson chose for their own hollowbody electrics at the time to cut down on feedback while at the same time making them extremely rugged.
It came to me in a mostly-original state, but minus a pickguard and with replacement knobs and jack. My work on it commenced in the middle of the night (well, 3 AM) this morning as this had come in the afternoon before and I really wanted to see what it could do. I finished-up around 6 AM and by that point I'd given it a fret level/dress, replaced the wiring harness, repaired the ailing bridge pickup (it needed new leads soldered), and gave it a setup. Later-on I installed the pickguard -- a nice, good quality 1930s one I've had stashed for a while, now and awaiting just the right guitar. The resulting guitar plays perfectly (3/32" E and 1/16" ADGBE action at the 12th fret), has a straight neck, and sounds righteous.
The original wiring scheme had a master volume control and a blend control to mix the two pickups. I could not, for the life of me, figure out where one began and the other ended and none of the positions on the blend control were quite right. Since I had to solder new leads for the bridge pickup, I decided to replace the whole harness with a master volume and 3-way switch, instead. This let me actually hear the pickups individually and come to an assessment of them. The original blend control had several caps stuck on it to alter tone in bizarre ways.
My assessment, though? The standard magnetic neck pickup sounds glorious in an old 40s jazz way -- it's an early humbucker so it has a smooth, even, non-buzzing tonality. National pickups tend towards clarity and note separation and it has that -- though it also has a throbby, sweet bass that sounds absolutely wonderful broken-up just a bit with overdrive and palm-muting effects. String to string balance is pretty good but the D is a little quiet and the B a bit loud.
The bridge pickup is a totally different dish. People on the net talk about these being "piezo" units -- but they're not. They're a humbucking magnetic pickup that senses vibration of rods that are embedded in the saddle unit. In that sense, it works much like a normal pickup but magnetically senses vibrations in a part and not the strings. Alarmingly, on its own it sounds a bit like a 70s transducer. The sweet spots on the 3-way switch are the neck (just the normal electric pickup) and middle (with the two mixed). The neck position serves as a thick/lead voice and the middle position serves as a quieter/rhythm voice. The bridge-only setting is a total drain as it's far too quiet for useful applications. I'm guessing this is why the original blend control had so many gadgets on it to force the two to interact peaceably...!
I had a practice this afternoon with one of my bandmates and we both loved the mix of sounds possible with this -- especially for our retro-flavored sound which has evolved into lacking a bass -- but there's still that back-corner of my mind that wonders: what if I popped a P90 at the neck (ES-300 style), swapped the heavy, metal-laden bridge for a normal wood bridge, and installed some K&K acoustic pickups internally and wired that to my 3-way? That would sound great, too but it would be a very different toy.
There's copious amounts of deco pearl inlay all over the neck. The neck itself is also bound at the board and the headstock and has a slim/medium C-shaped profile with a 12" radius fretboard. This has a 24 3/4" Gibson-style scale length and a 1 11/16" nut width. The nut is bone.
The board and headstock veneer are Brazilian rosewood. The neck itself has a big central core of aluminum but the headstock and neck proper are one-piece mahogany.
The humbucking neck pickup has two coils side-by-side and blade magnets running through them.
Isn't that bridge wild? Excuse the tiny wood shim I forgot to clean-up at the edge past the bass side of the saddle. That bit was rattling and I couldn't find a better way to stop it from doing so.
The white chicken-head knob will be replaced with black as soon as possible!
The f-hole, Gibson-style tailpiece oozes class...
...as do those classic f-holes.
While the top has plain-wrap maple veneer, the back and sides have figured veneer.
The coverplates hide 1950s-style tuners of the ilk I most commonly see on Harmony products.
I also added a vintage-style strap button at the bolt-on, adjustable neck access port.
Under that cover one finds two upper hex-adjustable bolts that adjust side-side motion on the neck, one central "lock" bolt, and one lower up/down back-angle adjuster. All works as it should and I find these gizmos very, very, very stable and practical.