Retro-Rama 1962 National Val-Pro 85

THE NATIONAL COMPANY WAS founded in 1926, and its core business was making guitars and resonator instruments especially favored by blues and roots artists.

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!


Retro-Rama : 1973 Hagstrom Swede

HAGSTROM WAS FOUNDED IN ALVDALEN, SWEDEN IN THE 1920S by 19-year-old Albin Hagstrom. The company initially specialized in making accordions, and business grew steadily through the ’30s and ’40s, despite the economic turmoil of World War II. In addition to building musical instruments, the company also operated a large chain of music stores throughout Scandinavia. By the late 1950s, Hagstrom jumped into the burgeoning guitar market in a big way and successfully marketed their instruments world wide through various distributors, including Selmer in the U.S. 

Retro-Rama 1968 Univox U1835 Coily

FIRST KNOWN AS A BRAND NAME FOR amplifiers in the early ’60s, Univox made tube amps that were endorsed by the Doors and Led Zeppelin, and the brand’s Super Fuzz and Univibe effects pedals were favored by Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix.

Retro-Rama 1989 Washburn AB-45 Prototype

THIS MONTH’S FLASHBACK COMES STRAIGHT out of the late-’90s “MTV Unplugged” era, when acoustic bass guitars were all the rage. While this style of bass has its roots back hundreds of years ago in Spain, later emerging as the Mexican guitarron and being reinvented in the Ernie Ball Earthwood bass, Washburn was the company that really put the ABG on the map in the 1980s. Since then there have been many variations on this theme, but the AB-45 was definitely state of the art for the time.

Retro-Rama: 1984 Steinberger XL25 5-string

HARD AS IT MAY BE FOR SOME OF US to believe, it’s been almost 30 years since the Steinberger bass turned the electric bass world upside down with its unique look and hi-tech tone. Coming to the bass world from a design background, Ned Steinberger arrived armed with a vision to reinvent the basic concepts of creating an electric bass. The first Steinberger bass hit the scene in 1980, and was an immediate sensation—and subject of debate— among bass players worldwide. Appearing at the dawn of the MTV era, the first wave of Steinbergers seemed to be everywhere throughout the ’80s. The Dixie Dregs’ Andy West and reggae bassist/producer Robbie Shakespeare were two early players of this innovative instrument, giving some indication of its global reach.


Retro-Rama: 1980 G and L L1000

AFTER SELLING THE FENDER company to CBS in 1965, and co founding Music Man in the ’70s, Leo Fender’s next business venture was the creation of G&L in 1980. Originally named for the partnership between Leo and his longtime collaborator