1952 National Valco Electric Solidbody

October 1, 2009

BACK IN THE EARLY ’70S, I WAS A KID RUNNING around looking for cool guitars when I spotted this specimen hanging in the window of a pawnshop in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. This was back in the days when pawnshops still asked very reasonable prices for guitars. It had a price tag of $95, but I managed to talk the guy down to $75, because it was missing a normal 1/4" output jack, and was therefore impossible to try out at the store. Instead, it had an old 2-conductor screw-in type microphone jack. I bought it and took it home, and after looking through my box of adaptors, I found one that converted it to a 1/4".

This guitar looks like a lap-steel at first glance, but it is definitely made to be played like a guitar, with very low action. The single pickup is attached to the neck via a small screw going through the fingerboard at the last fret to the pickup mount underneath. The 19-fret neck meets the body at the 14th fret, so playing in E at the twelfth position is about as far as you can go comfortably. The skinny frets are a little worn, but not bad overall. The bridge is an old wooden type, slightly compensated for the B and E strings. The tailpiece is only about one inch from the bridge, so it takes a little getting used to for the right hand because the bridge is so far back. But with a set of .010s on there it intonates pretty good, and the neck is good and straight— which is nice, because there is no trussrod adjustment available on it. The old Kluson Deluxe tuners work well, although the plastic buttons are starting to disintegrate a little.

I plugged it into an amp and … nothing. It was dead as a doornail. So I took it apart, cleaned up the pots and output jack with contact cleaner, re-soldered a loose wire, and voila—it worked great, with a nice, mellow jazz tone that could be easily overdriven into a cool blues thang.

It’s hard to find info on this particular model, but it appears to be a distant cousin of the two-pickup National/Valco Model 1124 Bolero. The serial number seems to indicate around 1952.

What I like about these guitars is that they have a very small footprint, so they can travel easily—the ultimate vintage travel guitar. It’s nice to break it out for the odd recording session or live performance, although I wouldn’t do an entire gig with a single-pickup guitar that only allows clear access to the 14th fret. But it does have a unique tone, with jazz, blues, and country sounds oozing out of it.

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