SJ: My first introduction to you was through your stellar video – The Soap Bubble Tune – which features you playing a restored 1929 National hollowneck Tricone resonator guitar. I’m curious to learn more about how you acquired the guitar, what condition it was in when you purchased it and the details of the restoration process. Did you do the restoration work yourself, and was it difficult to find parts for the restoration of your guitar?
JK: I acquired the guitar back in 2013, but it wasn’t a hasty purchase by any means. I had actually started looking for a proper one couple of years earlier. I wanted a project Tricone – a guitar with original, prewar look, integrated all-metal square neck, but still with a lot of things to be done to make it working. I figured since I had the skills to the restoration myself that seemed to be the best move, as most of the reasonably priced prewar Nationals available on the market require major service anyway. So, when I came across that #1626 for under $1000, I knew that one was meant for me. And oh man, how massacred it was… The solderings were splitting all around the body, sides were off at the neck joint area… fretboard in halves, trims off, loose handrest, ripped coverplate nets, twisted cones platform, cones damaged… But there was one major thing positive about that guitar. No one ever tried to repair it before!
After inspecting the guitar for the first time I decided to convert it into a real hollowneck guitar, as most of the solderings around the neck had to be repaired anyway. For readers who may be not familiar with prewar Nationals I must explain that an original squareneck tricone’s neck is not like a Weissenborn one. It’s fake, looks cool but there is no sound chamber in it. There are wooden blocks wedged inside to support the fretboard, also adding general stability. The funny thing was how sometimes coincidence and good luck supports you, when you put heart into what you do: I knew that repairing the body would take a lot of work and sending it to National, to Mike Levis or even to Amistar for soldering would be really expensive and would put the restoration project into question. This was after two extensive restorations of vintage Volkswagen cars so I said to myself “hell, there must be somebody around who will undertake such a tiny job!”. But jewelers said it’s “too big”, copper pipe joiners said it is “too precise”, and I was close to getting a torch and learning to do it on my own when I came across Adam Maziar, who lives 10 minutes walk from my home (!) [laughs], and who is a master builder of ancient armory and weapons replicas. He just had a quick look at the tricone bodyshell and said “sure, no problem”, so I had the bodywork finished within a month. Apart from restoring the original joints, Adam soldered an extra sheet of steel over the neck. A piece that allowed to resign from the inner woodblocks without losing the neck’s stability.
In the meantime I undertook the fretboard restoration – not difficult but still time consuming. I must say it’s easy to talk about it after it’s all over and the guitar sings like a bird… But these were not easy decisions… how to reinforce the original body joints, how to convert it to hollowneck without losing originality. I wouldn’t have run through that all so easily if it hadn’t been for the priceless help of some of the world’s biggest authorities: Michael Messer, Mike Lewis (of Fine Resophonic) and Jason Workman (of National Reso-Phonic). They provided me with tips about original National soldering methods and details of modern hollow neck replicas. To be honest I’m still curious how this particular guitar would sound if I’d left the neck filled with wood, as original. But anyway, I love it as it is now, with all of that “air” coming out with even gentlest touch.
Finding parts was not difficult, but I can’t imagine processing it all on my own here, in Poland for ex 20 years ago. Without the internet I’d spend months calling and writing in search of proper cones, bridge casting etc. But anyway, I must say I spent long hours searching for optimal, best sounding T-bridge. I experimented with scalloped bridges, bridge taken out of another prewar tricone etc… Finally, after Mike Lewis’s suggestions, Czech-made Amistar bridge did the job. Sounds and looks closest to the original one.
SJ: Are vintage national squareneck Tricone guitars rare? Can you give us an overview of the market for those instruments and whether there are certain models which are more valuable and collectible than others etc.?
JK: The squareneck tricone was a sale hit among hawaiian steel players back in 1927, and its popularity lasted until mid 30’s, when electric lap-steels entered the market. The world’s authorities, basing on serial numbers, concluded that several thousand of squareneck tricones had been made up to WW2 outbreak in the USA in 1941. But as squarenecks are not as desirable as roundnecks, you don’t have to wait long until something interesting appears online. You can get a reasonable Style1 (no engraving, plain) prewar tricone for less than $2000 if you are patient. The amazingly engraved styles 3 and 4 are not so common, and, logically, much more expensive. They also usually appear in much better condition. Maybe, somehow, their beauty stopped their former owners from beating them up? [laughs]. There are also the style 35 and style 97 instruments. Not engraved but only artistically sunblasted, which made them cheaper when they were new. Some of them have various enamel colors added over the blastings, and they are very rare. They look absolutely beautiful!
SJ: How important is the final set up to the sound and playability to a square neck steel body guitar?
The set-up, I may say, is almost the heart of an instrument. A good setup will explore the guitar’s weakness (and will let you know that there is sadly nothing more you can do about it) and, opposite, will also reveal it’s beauty, will let it sing with it’s full voice.
Let me say that there is a very important issue about the set-up in resonator guitars. Something that all reso-players, (especially those who don’t service instruments on their own) should be aware of: the better, more perfect setup is, the more susceptible it is for spoiling. Let’s take, for instance, the bridge slots. Properly cut slot is really shallow (only half of the string’s profile sits in it) but it is also prone to wear. I know reso-players who, having their instrument set-up properly first time ever, had to adjust the right-hand technique again to avoid plucking strings out of the slots! Another example, the cone system: Properly installed, it makes no buzz and projects with full tone and harmonics even with fair strings angle. We all know the tricone is a “bad boy” here, and sometimes it takes several attempts to assemble it successfully. And after that, even a slight impact, or a casual unfamiliar player who “just wanted to touch” or even a sudden temperature change may ruin it all. So in practise, you can keep the “fair enough” set-up for years, having fun with your guitar without really caring too much. But beholding the set-up “absolute perfect” will require your exceptional attention, care, and periodic inspections of the instrument.
You were asking about the set-up’s impact on playability of a squareneck guitar. Certainly, as all the strings action and fretting is no such issue here, the setup nuances won’t have as big influence on manual playability as it would have on the sound of the instrument.
But there is one squareneck guitar set-up issue that is very often ignored, and frankly, I’m surprised how little attention it’s paid to it. This is the strings compensation problem, especially the scale revision between the two neighboring wound and unwound strings (usually G and B). The fact that there are no frets under the strings doesn’t mean that the strings are not being shortened (by placing the bar across them) and bent (by pulling the bar down). We cannot change the basics of physics… The compensation must be there, same as in a standard guitar. Sure, we may influence the intonation problem a bit with proper bar positioning. But for multiple notes (especially in higher positions) – scale compensation between unwound/wound strings really helps to obtain good intonation.
SJ: The video/audio quality on the Soap Bubble Tune is superb! Can you share a little bit about your background as a player? How did you get interested in playing square neck resonator guitar in the first place? Who are your influences and what is the music scene like where you live in Poland?
JK: Thank you for positive words about the video, my pleasure to share it with you. Here in Poland American folk influenced music is still, I may say, unpopular. Poland may be proud of it’s classical music icons like Chopin, Paderewski, or jazz heroes like Komeda. But we never had famous bluegrass, Americana or Hawaiian musicians, there are almost no festivals where American folk could be heard. So I’ll tell you a funny story: In late 1990’s, as a teenager, I was fascinated with the blues. Free, Eric Clapton, Canned Heat etc. Slightly later I discovered slide guitar heroes like Robert Johnson, Bukka White, and a modern one, Catfish Keith… And, one mighty day I was given a copy of Jerry Douglas’s “Under The Wire” LP. That sound and music was absolutely new for me, and I simply mastered Jerry’s “Time Gone By” using open D tuning on upright slide metalbody guitar! Being fully convinced that I had done it properly, I went to meet a man who I had only heard of before, Jacek Wąsowski, respected dobro, banjo and mandolin player. Ooh, how amazed I was when he showed me that the tune was recorded in open G with guitar held on the lap! And that was a breakthrough moment for me. Immediately I wanted to be a REAL dobro player. Shortly after I introduced lap-style guitar to the Polish blues acoustic scene, winning most of native festivals. For the audience, in many cases it was the first time they had seen a lap-style guitar played live. The same year 2000 I was invited to perform at Trnava DobroFest in Slovakia. That was where I met Mike Auldridge, Bob Brozman, Steve Dawson and all the Czech and Slovak dobro masters. For you, who live in the bitrthplace of that culture it’s nothing special. But for me, down there in those days, it was traveling to another universe! From that time onwards, I knew there was no way back for me, and playing music was destined to be a major part of my life.
SJ: Any closing comments for our readers?
JK: Hmm. Let me think…. Maybe about that first Dobrofest, back in 2000, again. That festival convinced me that the real music ends nowhere and it has no limits. I believe if you feel the music and it lives within you – in fact you don’t play your instrument, you just play your brain. The guitar becomes just a tool to help the music to go out. I think the single word: “imagination” is more important here than all of the “key, tempo, genre, tuning” music terms etc. taken altogether. We may have dozens of Scheerhorns, Loars and Mastertones… But without your imagination – it’s just all a pile of wood and metal.