THE NATIONAL COMPANY WAS founded in 1926, and its core business was making guitars and resonator instruments especially favored by blues and roots artists. National, who also did business under the names Dobro and Supro at various stages, eventually became Valco after World War II, and made instruments, amps, and accessories until going out of business in the late ’60s.
In 1961, Valco/National introduced a new line of guitars that were made of synthetic “Reso-O-Glas,” which was a blend of Fiberglass and polyester resin, filled with high-density foam. This enabled unusually artsy molded shapes to be mass-produced easily and inexpensively. In 1962, National introduced a bass version, dubbing it the Val-Pro 85. A couple years later, the treble cutaway was changed to curve downwards (perhaps to look more like Florida on the “map” that the body resembles) and the name was changed to the National 85.
I found this cream-colored slab of shortscale fantasy—which belongs to Rich Mermer of Mermer Guitars—at this year’s Chet Atkins Festival in Nashville. This ’62 is in near-perfect shape. It may look like a toy, but it’s got enough weight to set you straight when you when you pick it up. The bass seemed almost like an optical illusion; until I started to play it, its outsize body distracted from the fact that its scale length is a mere 25". The wacky paddleshaped headstock sports huge Gibson-style tuners, and the trapeze bridge (which has a nice bit of art-deco flair) shows no sign of wear or strain. The symmetrical thumb and finger rests demonstrate the newness of the electric bass at the time, as some folks played with their thumb and used the lower finger rest, while others used the top rest and played fingerstyle. Clearly, slapping and popping were not yet being taken into account; you could get hurt playing this bass too aggressively!
The two-pickup design features a single- coil magnetic pickup (though the cover mimics a humbucker), and a second pickup is built into the bridge. Interestingly enough, the pickups can’t be isolated from one another. The simple controls, volume and tone, are placed backwards from the norm, but the end result is that turning the tone knob down slightly emphasizes the magnetic pickup, and when you turn it up, the high end of the bridge pickup comes through.
Regardless of its size, the 85’s tone is clear and full, and the supershort scale makes it really fun to play. The intonation on this National is pretty accurate, and the neck has stayed true. With its funky, plunky tone and flatwound strings, this National would sound perfect for blues, R&B, and pretty much any kind of roots music. Good things sometimes come in small packages, and this is definitely one of them. All in all, this bass has no business sounding as good as it looks, but it does!