Friday, 22 November 2013

The Golden Guitar of Tampa Red - guest post by Kevin Clinton

Despite the change in popular music over the last 100 years, one thing remains constant: we all crave a loud and flashy guitar. In the 1920s the loudest and flashiest guitars on earth came from the National String Instrument Corporation. National pioneered what is known as a ‘resonator guitar’, which utilizes a metal cone that sits under the strings and acts very much like a stereo speaker. The strings connect to the cone via a bridge. When the strings are played, the metal cone vibrates, moving air and amplifying the sound. The result is more volume, but also a completely distinct tone and timbre. In the days before amplifiers, the resonator was the only way for a guitarist to compete with horns and drums in a jazz or brass band and get a piece of the spotlight.

National made not only the loudest, but the most beautiful and elegant guitars of the day. Their metal body guitars were plated in brilliant chrome and nickel and inlaid with extravagant scrolls and floral patterns. Amongst these visual juggurants, one guitar stood out above all the rest: the Gold Plated Style 4 Spanish Tricone made for blues guitarist Tampa Red.

Tampa Red was one of the most prolific early blues artists of the 20s and 30s, recording over 300 tracks throughout his career. In 1928, the first year that Nationals were available, he bought the gold plated guitar. He soon became known as ‘The Man with the Golden Guitar’. The Style 4 was the most intricate and elaborate model that National produced, hand engraved with chrysanthemum carvings, a celluloid mother-of-pearl headstock and diamond shaped fret markers.
photo credit: Oklahoma Gazette
The tri-cone design featured three smaller resonator cones that were linked by a ‘T’ shaped bar, rather than the more popular and lower priced single cone models. The tri-cone was more difficult and expensive to build, but produced a more sophisticated tone with richer sustain. Apparently only one other golden Style 4 National was ever produced.

Unfortunately, Tampa Red’s career slowed down in the 1950s, he turned to drinking, and died destitute in Chicago in 1981. Rumor has it the guitar was stolen decades before and resided for half a century in a chicken coop. One day, in 1994, a woman walked into a Ray Clemon’s guitar store in Belleville, Illinois looking to sell a beat up and corroded old metal guitar that had the words ‘Tampa Red’ legible on it. After a cleanup and confirmation of its authenticity, the guitar eventually sold to the Experience Music Project in Seattle for $85,000.

While today resonator guitars are synonymous with the blues, in the 1920s and 30s they were the province of sophisticated big bands and far beyond the reach of most African American musicians. Tampa Red became the first black artist to record with a National guitar, and more or less invented the style of ‘bottleneck’ slide guitar that has shaped modern rock and roll. His Style 4 National has been called one of the most influential guitars in American history.

About the Author: Kevin Clinton writes for, an online hub run by musicians that covers information, reviews and tips and tricks for purchasing and playing a National, Dobro, Regal or other resonator guitars.

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  1. nice for a backing track

  2. nice article, good presentation,but it kills me, that no matter how many times ive told the story of unearthing tampas non gold guitar,writers and other ,tend to want to put their own slant on a story,ha, even if its not acurate,and i was to learn often have a personal agenda and it seems the higher up,the worse they are.... i dont know about other unasuming naive honest people who fall upon the mixed blessing of finding such an instrument,but mine was a pretty rough ride, its amazing that any artists legacy lives beyond the tribal mafia, ha, unless it puts a schekel in their pocket, i would love to tell the story no one wants to hear. living with tampas guitar, playin out and recording with it ,was pure joy. ive had , and played lot of other same style fours, but his was different much more dynamic ,realy, i could almost directionaly fire off a note at a fly on the wall and knock it off without anyone else hearin a thing,ha, almost. but in wanted to perform,it literaly breathed, and id have to put it in the case every night cos it threw off so much vibe,you can imagine ha, good times bad times, thats my favorite tampa foto,thanks

    1. Randy, I'd love to hear your story. Also would like to see some pictures of Tampa's guitar if you'd like to share any. Would it be possible to speak to you about your time of ownership. Let me know how we can connect. Thanks Kevin



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