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The Current Guitar Collection

The Current's Guitar Collection: Kaleo's JJ Julius Son, 1935 National Guitar

Kaleo's JJ Julius Son and his 1935 National Guitar
Kaleo's JJ Julius Son and his 1935 National GuitarMPR photo/Nate Ryan
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by Luke Taylor

March 08, 2016

In the opening line of his song "Graceland," Paul Simon sings, "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National Guitar." Set eyes on JJ Julius Son's all-steel, vintage National, and the shininess that Simon sings about comes vividly to life.

When the Austin, Texas-by-way-of-Reykjavik band Kaleo visited The Current's studio for a session hosted by Mark Wheat, frontman JJ performed on a newer resonator. At the session's conclusion, however, JJ was eager to show off his recent find: a 1935 National Guitar.

JJ's instrument is the first resonator we've put in the collection. A resonator is an acoustic guitar that produces sound by carrying string vibration through one or more metal cones, aka resonators. Prior to electric guitars and electric amplification, resonators were designed to be louder than regular acoustic guitars, particularly in dance orchestras where guitars had to compete with horn sections. After electric amplification, the distinctive sound of resonators remained popular, especially in bluegrass and in the blues. It's that blues connection that really captures JJ's ear.

Here's what he had to say about his vintage resonator.

You said this National Guitar is from 1935. Where did you find it?

I just got it in Nashville. It was obviously very pretty, but it actually sounds — it's such a big sound. I was trying out a few resonators, and this one just has such a big sound. And then I had this humbucker installed. They did that for me at Carter Vintage Guitars back in Nashville.

Had you gone to Carter's specifically to see a resonator?

I was kind of looking for a resonator, and I don't know if I was planning to buy one that day, but I couldn't let this one slip through my hands. It would probably have been gone the next day, so I was fortunate enough to pick it up.

Have you always been attracted to the sound of the resonator?

Yes, I'm very inspired by blues. And as much as I love the sound of an acoustic guitar, there's something different about a resonator. My other resonator is obviously wood; this one is all steel.

I think from an early age, I started collecting guitars, and I think it's something you just do for the rest of your life: you collect guitars, and they give you different sounds, and what you're looking for for each tune.

How long ago did you get this one?

It was only a month ago; maybe three or four weeks.

Have you played it live yet?

Yes, I have — I have! I'm still struggling a little bit with the tuning. I have to give it some love. But it's pretty great; the humbucker really sounds great, too. They did a great job installing that. And it doesn't look too modern, either.

Does it give you the vintage sound that you want?

Yes, you can crank it up pretty good or just kind of go for the original sound, you know? It works both ways.

Do you tend to write songs on a resonator?

Sure, but it kind of depends on what I'm working on. The songs are very different, but yeah, I like the resonator, especially for the bluesy stuff.

Who are some of your inspirations?

Son House I like a lot, as well as all the oldies: Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker. Mainly I've been listening to Son House lately. It kind of depends. It shifts.

What was your first introduction to this sound?

It's quite hard to find resonators in Reykjavik. They have some new ones; Gretsch and others are making new ones nowadays, but they don't quite sound the same as the old ones.

So I was kind of waiting on coming to the States. Obviously, Nashville's a great place to look for some great guitars. So yeah, I keep my eye out still. It's just the beginning of the collection, I hope.

Did the people at Carter's know anything of the story behind this one?

They did know quite a bit; it was a seller they were selling it for. There also happened to be a few Australians looking there, and they all had their eyes on it for quite a while. They were a little disappointed when they found out I was going to take it. But yeah, it's in great shape, so I'm really, really happy with it.

Had the people at Carter's known who used it before?

Actually, no. I don't think there was like a name or a famous musician who used to have it, but it was obviously someone who took great care of it. The neck is in really good shape and everything. I'm lucky enough to have found it.