1955 National 1103 Del Mar Hollowbody Jumbo Electric Guitar

Honestly, I'm just about as bad as the lot of you reading the blog! The solder was barely cool on my freshly-bought, freshly-modded 1950 National Aristocrat (also Gibson-bodied -- see here for a more in-depth post on it) when an even fancier variant popped-up on Reverb at a price I could justify. Knowing how things disappear -- especially when you like them -- I had to spring for it... and here she be. While the Aristocrat uses a non-cutaway, ES-300 Gibson body with a National "Stylist" neck, this model -- the Del Mar -- uses an ES-350, soft cutaway body with the same 17" width.

This one had been modified sometime in the 60s to use a set of three "gold foil" pickups, but its original equipment would've been two metal-cased National single coils with the look of humbuckers but a sound more like mellower P90s. The pickguard was also recut a little when that mod was done to fit the third pickup in the middle. I'm not sure how the controls were laid-out, but I'm pretty sure the switches on the pickguard are not original and the array of controls on the lower bout are probably replacements, though they certainly look cool.

I'm a fan of gold foil pickups -- but not so much on something that's essentially a rockabilly or jazz guitar -- so after receiving this I yanked the pickups that were on it and replaced them with a pair of Alnico P90s and an Alnico mini-humbucker in a P90 cover. This gives the guitar an "ES-5" or "modded ES-350" look, which is easier on my eyes and more expected by my ears. After swapping those in, my only other work was to give it a fret level/dress, a set of Thomastik flatwound strings, and a setup. Because it has a "Stylist" neck, the neck angle is adjustable via a bolt, so setup is a breeze on a guitar like this as there's adjustability at the heel and the bridge.

To me, this thing is the epitome of 50s wild, outsized, and wonderful -- though mixed with a bit of throwback deco motifs in the pearl on the fretboard. As you can hear in the clip above, too, it sounds great as well. The Gibson-made bodies on these are well-made, all ply, and durable as heck. Unlike the Aristocrat, this body also has the typical flamed maple veneer seen on most Gibsons.

I think I'll have to rewire it, though, at some point. The controls are strange: the white knobs are master volume/tone, the three red are volume for individual pickups, and the silver one is a switch that engages all three pickups or just the neck pickup. The three switches on the pickguard do nothing and I'll bet that I get more output and a better tone simply by ripping the yards of cable that seem to be rolled-up inside. Getting the on/off switches on the pickguard would be pretty convenient, too!

One nice bit about the National-made necks is that they retained the 24 3/4" Gibson scale length and generally have a Gibson-esque feel, too, on the nicer-grade models. This one has a medium, round C neck shape and a fast, 1 5/8" nut width.

The rosewood-veneered headstock proudly displays the National brand.

The "butterfly" pearl inlay is fancy and the neck binding is thick stuff.

While I have P90 pickups in the neck and bridge positions for a more vintage-appropriate tone, I have a mini-humbucker in the middle position and it's hiding in a P90 cover. I mostly added this to replace a "tone knob" as adding it to either the neck or bridge pickup mellows-up the tone and also removes a bit of volume as it has less output than the P90s on their own.

There's scant evidence that the Del Mar model even existed. A writeup about the more-known National Bel Aire model (with its ES-175 body) gives a rare description: 

"In 1954, National introduced the 1109 Bel Aire, an ES-175 body with two Valco pickups, block inlays, a symmetrical headstock, and other mid-level appointments; it sold for $225. The same year also saw the introduction of the 1103 Del Mar, an ES-350 body with two pickups, a bound, rosewood-veneered headstock and “butterfly” inlays that sold for $350 (in the same range as a L-7CESN). For whatever reason, National changed their minds by 1956 when both models were dropped from the catalog."

So, like the Aristocrat, it was placed at the top of National's hollowbody electric line.

The f-hole tailpiece is, of course, too cool.

Here's the P90 in the bridge location and also the cool, deco-style National adjustable bridge. I always liked the sharp "lightning-bolt" intonation slots on these.

"Waffleback" Klusons with fancy buttons give it an upscale look.

That's a very decisive belt buckle!

1 comment:

Robert Gardner said...

Jake, you get the coolest creatures in your menagerie. Except for the buckle rash and the honest hand wear on the scratchplate, it is really if great shape too (at least by these pix). Is that real abalone in the fingerboard inlay? Nice script on the scratchplate too. And of course it sounds great with those pickups. Great find, congratulations! If I wasn't down here in Baltimore I'c come by and take a look.