MISSING LINK: The 1939 Slingerland Songster Model 400

December 22nd, 2016

This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on the majestic guitars of Prince, virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more., and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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PHOTO: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

MISSING LINK: 1939 Slingerland Songster Model 400

By Alan di Perna

No one knows for sure how many Songster Model 400 electric guitars the Slingerland company made in the mid to late Thirties, but it probably wasn’t very many. The electric guitar was still a brand-new phenomenon at the time, sales of guitars weren’t particularly robust because of the Great Depression, and manufacturers were testing the waters carefully and conservatively.

But rarity alone is not what makes this Songster from the National Museum of American History’s collection in Washington D.C. unusually fascinating. The Model 400 Songster is somewhat of an unsung hero in early electric guitar history, as it very likely could be the first-ever solidbody electric Spanish guitar to hit the market.

“It’s an instrument that doesn’t seem to get mentioned much when people discuss early electrics,” says Monica Smith, head of exhibitions and interpretation at the museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. “The Songster electric Spanish has been more of a recent discovery. Some people argue that it’s the missing link between earlier electrics and more well-known solidbodies, such as Leo Fender’s designs from the late Forties and early Fifties.”

Rickenbacker’s Bakelite Electro Spanish Model B from the mid Thirties was essentially a solidbody Spanish guitar. So were Lloyd Loar’s ES designs for ViViTone, even if the solid body was just a narrow plank of wood. But the Songster, which Slingerland produced between 1936 and 1939, is the first production model that looks more or less like what we now think of as an electric Spanish solidbody guitar.

Several features, however, are unusual by today’s standards. The pickup assembly is attached to a plate that screws into the body, and the pickup itself is made of six small, individual coils, which essentially makes it a six-coil humbucker. The coils are attached to a large horseshoe magnet which rests beneath the surface of the mounting plate. The metal piece, engraved with the Slingerland logo, that arches over the pickup is a hand rest—not part of the pickup itself. Among other interesting features, note that the volume and tone knobs are mounted on either side of the pickup, and the patch cord is hardwired to the instrument itself.

“The body is on the smaller side,” Smith notes. “So a lot of people look at the guitar and think, ‘Oh, it’s a lap steel.’ But no, it’s a Spanish-style guitar.”

Actually, Slingerland also offered a very similar lap-steel version of the Songster, the Model 401. But like the Model 400, there aren’t a whole lot of them extant.

“Clearly, the focus on electric guitars wasn’t there for Slingerland,” Smith says. “They were principally a drum manufacturer, so this likely wasn’t going to ever become their main business. But there’s probably more of a story there than we realize today.”

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This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on the majestic guitars of Prince, virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more., and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

GA-july-august-2016-issue-cover

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