Glistening in the sun, it’s hard to miss the sheer beauty of a National Reso-phonic guitar. Like fish drawn to a shiny lure, these legendary instruments mesmerise many who pass our shop. Although we have a healthy stock of their guitars today, the brand was once almost forgotten. Luckily, one man injected a new lease of life into National, and they rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
Don Young At The National Factory, San Luis Obispo, California.
Don Young was the man responsible for restoring National Reso-Phonic Guitars to their former glory. Young, who sadly passed away just over a year ago, and his business partner, McGregor Gaines, formed “National Reso-Phonic Guitars” in 1989. Now producing around 1,000 instruments per year, they started off in Don’s garage taking measurements of the real old vintage resos and studying their designs. They began reproducing what now amounts to over 50 different models, such is the legacy that Don Young leaves behind. Young’s first glimpse of a National guitar was in 1964 when he was just 11 years old. He had been bunking off Sunday school and saw the instrument in a pawnshop window. This image stuck with him until years later. Following this, Young’s ears caught the sound of a Delta-blues musician ‘Black Ace’. This was the moment he became hooked to that ‘National Sound’, a sound that he craved to learn, own and recreate. He reached his 20’s and with a little instrument repair work under his belt, he applied for a job with Dobro Guitars in Long Beach, California.
'I Am The Black Ace - Black Ace'
Don Young worked on and off for Dobro for 15 years. His first role was sanding necks and finishing bodies, but he went on to work his way through several departments as time went on, covering all aspects of Reso building. He was almost fired several times due to his standard of work being ‘too high’. Don believed there were guitars leaving the factory that were not up to standard, management disagreed and he was asked to leave. He’d attempted to set himself up manufacturing guitars on his own several times, but came crawling back each time it didn’t work out. Young had reached the position of plant supervisor during his final attempt at working for Dobro... but things were about to change.
“Our polished metal bodies are a perfect palette for some beautiful engraved work,” - Don Young
Young met McGregor Gaines, a graphic designer and skilled woodworker who’d also worked at Dobro. The two partnered up and began producing guitars under the ‘National’ brand in 1989. McGregor had the eye for design, Young the engineering nous. “Our polished metal bodies are a perfect palette for some beautiful engraved work,” Young once said. Young had the passion for sound and quality, for which he had set the bar extremely high. George Gruhn (founder of Gruhn Guitars – Vintage Guitar Mecca) said at the time - “They have actually hurt my market for the originals. I can’t think of anything else like that happening in the guitar business. That’s a real testament to their quality”. Their Californian workshop housed everything they needed to complete all the stamping, assembling, buffing and engraving, all by hand. Young vowed the company would stay in San Luis Obispo, California “forever, as far as I’m concerned”.
Young and McGregor enjoying their reflections in the back of a Resonator
Eric Smith took ownership of National Reso-Phonic Guitars, Inc. in 2014 after purchasing Don’s interest 2 years before Don’s death in June 2016. National continue to produce Reso-phonic guitars to a standard unrivalled by any other. With a waiting list of anything from about a year, and with the likes of James Taylor and Eric Clapton both owning instruments produced by the San Luis factory, it comes as no surprise these instruments are more popular now than they have ever been. Wunjo is proud to be an authorised dealer of these fabulous, hand-made instruments, and hopes to be for many years.
Long live the National Reso-phonic Guitar, indeed shining bright like the Mississippi Delta.