Slingerland Songster Model 401 Solid Body Electric Guitar , c. 1936

Slingerland  Songster Model 401 Solid Body Electric Guitar ,  c. 1936

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Item # 7840
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Slingerland Songster Model 401 Model Solid Body Electric Guitar, c. 1936, made in Chicago, sunburst lacquer finish, maple body, mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard, original black hard shell case.

This very interesting, if rather diminutive, electric guitar is one of the most obscure yet important of all early electric instruments. Although hardly remembered today, the Model 401 Slingerland Songster was the most forward-looking guitar of its time, and its design actually predicts many of the modern developments in electric guitars of the 1950s and beyond.

The Slingerland name is generally associated with drums, as the company's "Radio King" line of the 1930s essentially codified the layout of the modern drum kit. The name is otherwise mostly familiar to vintage banjo enthusiasts, as they made thousands of the cheaper banjos of the '20s and '30s, but the company actually made a full line of stringed instruments up until World War II. Their flat-top and arch-top guitars, mandolins, and ukuleles ranged from cheap student-level "bangers" to professional-quality instruments; the best were solidly-built and good-sounding.

In the 1930s Slingerland built two unique electric models, unique unto themselves but variants on the same plan. The "Songster 400 Hawaiian" appeared broadly similar to the contemporary Gibson EH-150, though there were a number of design differences. This fairly rare steel is prized among connoisseurs for its great tone and stylish Deco look. Its even more obscure sister instrument, the "Model 401 Spanish", was something else altogether. Representing a major historic step forward for amplified instruments, this was the first wood body, solid electric Spanish guitar.

There are a few earlier claimants to the title "earliest solid-body guitar". The Vivitone company introduced an electric in 1933 that was effectively a flat-top acoustic without back or sides and with an inefficient vibration-sensing pickup. Another candidate is the Rickenbacher Electro Spanish model, introduced in 1935. It was essentially a variant of their popular Model B Bakelite lap steel with a round, Spanish-style neck. While the Hawaiian model B went on to great success, the Spanish model was a commercial dud.

The oddly visionary Slingerland 401 is much closer than these predecessors to a modern solid body guitar. Not only is it the first Spanish electric with a solid wood body, it was the first to be built with a through-neck design. The maple center section is joined to two maple wings, and flamed maple veneers cover the top and back. The unique pickup is a quite powerful six-coil design with humbucking properties -- two decades before Gibson claimed that idea. Each string has its own coil beneath it, with a large magnet hidden under the wooden coverplate providing the "juice" to sense the strings above.

Tone and volume controls are located on either side of the metal handrest/pickup cover, daintily engraved with the company's name in flowing script. The black plastic-covered headstock matches the Songster guitar and mandolin line, with diamonds of sparkle-infused plastic inlaid into the veneer; a typical touch for a company that made drums. The guitar connects to the amplifier with a hard-wired cloth-covered cord; this seems awkward to modern players, but was fairly common on 1930s steels.

The Model 401 was introduced around 1936 and was discontinued by 1939. It was offered as a set with a matching amp that seems equally rare. The guitar was priced at $75, plus $15 for the fairly deluxe case and another $75 for the amp. This was exactly in line with Gibson's pricing, and as with the Kalamazoo rival you could purchase the set of guitar, amp, and case together for $150.

In common with the few other attempts at electric solid body designs in the '30s, the very electric-sounding Slingerland 401 was alien to the primarily rhythmic guitar styles of the day. The styles of playing calling for such an instrument simply did not exist yet; players saw no reason to adapt to its quirky feel and VERY few were sold. The Slingerland Songster model 401 may be nearly forgotten except by historians today, but it is one of the most significant of all early amplified guitars, and the most advanced electric fretted concept of its day.
Overall length is 37 in. (94 cm.), 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm.) wide at lower bout, and 2 in. (5.1 cm.) in depth, measured at side of rim. Scale length is 25 in. (635 mm.). Width of nut is 1 3/4 in. (44 mm.).

This Songster is a very nice original piece; there is some wear to the finish, but no major loss or repair. The only alteration to this very historic instrument is one replaced tuner with no extra routing involved, which could be easily reversed. There are dings and scrapes to the finish, most notably to the back of the neck and the neck heel, likely from the jackplug on the hard-wired output cord being loosely packed inside the case over the years.

The glued-on Celluloid pickguard has one tight crack across it just off the waist area, and several smaller cracks partially through. There is a chip out of the celluloid headstock facing on the top edge. The neck does have some forward bow and the instrument is playable, although not to modern standards. Still, this is one of the rarest and most historically important of all early electric guitars, complete in its even rarer original green-lined HSC. Excellent - Condition.