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A resonator guitar or resophonic guitar is an acoustic guitar whose sound is produced by one or more spun metal cones (resonators) instead of the wooden sound board (guitar top/face). Resonator guitars were originally designed to be louder than regular acoustic guitars, which were overwhelmed by horns and percussion instruments in dance orchestras. They became prized for their distinctive sound, however, and found life with several musical styles (most notably bluegrass and the blues) well after electric amplification solved the issue of inadequate guitar sound levels.
Resonator guitars are of two styles:
- Square-necked guitars played in steel guitar style
- Round-necked guitars played conventional guitar style or lap steel guitar style
There are three main resonator designs:
- The Tricone, with three metal cones, designed by the first National
- The single cone "biscuit" design of other National instruments
- The single inverted-cone design (aka "spider bridge") of the Dobro
Many variations of all these styles and designs have been produced under many brands. The body of a resonator guitar may be made of wood, metal, or occasionally other materials. Typically there are two main sound holes, positioned on either side of the fingerboard extension. In the case of single cone models, the sound holes are either both circular or both f-shaped, and symmetrical; The older "tricone" design has irregularly shaped sound holes. Cutaway body styles may truncate or omit the lower f-hole.
The resonator guitar was developed by John Dopyera, seeking to produce a guitar that would have sufficient volume to play alongside brass and reed instruments, in response to a request from steel guitar player George Beauchamp. Dopyera experimented with configurations of up to four resonator cones, and cones composed of several different metals.
In 1927, Dopyera and Beauchamp formed the National String Instrument Corporation to manufacture resonator guitars under the brand name National. The first models were metal-bodied, and featured three conical aluminum resonators joined by a T-shaped aluminum bar that supported the bridge—a system called the tricone. National originally produced wooden-bodied tricone models at their factory in Los Angeles, California. They call these models the "Triolian", but only made 12. They changed the bodies meant for tricones to single cone models, but kept the name.
In 1928, Dopyera left National to form the Dobro Manufacturing Company with his brothers Rudy, Emile, Robert, and Louis, Dobro being a contraction of Dopyera Brothers' and also meaning "goodness" in their native Slovak language. Dobro released a competing resonator guitar with a single resonator with its concave surface uppermost, often described as bowl-shaped, under a distinctive circular perforated metal cover plate with the bridge at its centre resting on an eight-legged aluminium spider. This system was cheaper to produce, and produced more volume than National's tricone.
National countered the Dobro with its own single resonator model, which Dopyera had designed before he left the company. They also continued to produce the tricone design, which many players preferred for its tone. Both National single and tricone resonators remained conical, with their convex surfaces uppermost. Single resonator models used a wooden biscuit at the cone apex to support the bridge. At this point, both companies sourced many components from Adolph Rickenbacher, including the aluminium resonators.
National Dobro, Hound Dog, and Gibson
After much legal action, the Dopyera brothers gained control of both National and Dobro in 1932, and subsequently merged them into the National Dobro Corporation. However, they ceased all resonator guitars production following the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941.
Emile Dopyera (also known as Ed Dopera) manufactured Dobros from 1959, before selling the company and trademark to Semie Moseley, who merged it with his Mosrite guitar company and manufactured Dobros for a time.
In 1967, Rudy and Emile Dopyera formed the Original Musical Instrument Company (OMI) to manufacture resonator guitars, first branded Hound Dog. In 1970 they again acquired the Dobro trademark, Mosrite having gone into temporary liquidation.
OMI was acquired by the Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1993, which announced it would defend its right to exclusive use of the Dobro trademark, which had come to be commonly used for any resonator guitar. As of 2006[update], Gibson produces several round sound hole models under the Dobro name, and cheaper f-hole models both under the Hound Dog name and also its Epiphone brand. All have a single resonator, and many are available in either round or square neck.
Other National instruments
After the formation of the National Dobro Corporation, the term 'National' was often used to mean an instrument with a non-inverted cone, to distinguish these designs from the inverted-cone 'Dobro'. Makers particularly used it for single-cone biscuit designs, as the relatively elaborate and expensive tricone was for some time out of production. Players and collectors also used the term for the older tricone instruments, which despite their softer volume and rarity were still preferred by some players.
In 1942, the National Dobro Corporation, which no longer produced Dobros or any other resonator instruments, was reorganized and renamed Valco. Valco produced a large volume and variety of fretted instruments under many names, with National as its premium brand. By the early 1960s, Valco was again producing resonator guitars for mail order under the National brand name. These instruments had biscuit resonators and bodies of wood and fiberglass.
In the late 1980s, the National brand and trademark reappeared with the formation of National Reso-Phonic Guitars. As of 2006[update], it produces six-string resonator guitars of all three traditional resonator types, focusing on reproducing the feel and sound of old instruments. Its other resonator instruments include a 12-string guitar, ukuleles and mandolins.
In the late 90's Amistar, a Czech Republic manufacturer, began marketing tricone resonator guitars.
Wayne Acoustic Guitars produced a spider bridge resonator guitar in the '40s and '50s in Australia. They were crudely made out of what was at the time cheap Australian timber using a tone ring rather than a tone well but their biggest problems were no neck reinforcement and a very different pressed (rather than spun) cone. This is often called a pillow cone due to the shapes pressed into the face to strengthen the cone. Many examples exist today and if the neck is straight and a good cone is used can give a reasonable sound. As of 2010, Don Morrison was producing highly regarded resonators under the Donmo brand name.
Asian brands such as, Regal, Johnson, Recording King, Republic Guitars, Rogue and Royall also produce or import a wide variety of comparatively inexpensive resonator guitars. Johnson has also produced resonator ukuleles and mandolins.
A company called Gallotone in South Africa is also known to have produced resonator guitars in the 1950s and '60s.
Resonator guitars are popularly used in bluegrass music and in blues. Traditionally, bluegrass players used square necked Dobro-style instruments played as a steel guitar while blues players favored round-necked National-style guitars, often played with a bottleneck. However, some contemporary players disregard these stereotypes and use resonator guitars in a wide variety of musical contexts.
Styles and positions
The resonator guitar is most often played as a lap steel guitar, and the more common square-necked version is limited to this playing position. Square neck instruments are always set up with the high action favored by steel guitar players, and tuned to a suitable open tuning.
The round necked version is equally capable in either lap steel or Spanish guitar position. It may be set up with a variety of action heights, ranging from the half inch favored for steel guitar (making use of the frets almost impossible) to the small fraction of an inch used by conventional guitarists. A compromise is most common, allowing use of a bottleneck on the top strings but also use of the frets as desired, with the guitar played in the conventional position.
Many different tunings are used. Some square neck tunings are not recommended for round neck resonator guitars, owing to the high string tension required, which in turn requires the stronger square neck. Slack-key guitar tunings are most suitable for bottleneck playing, and conventional E-A-D-G-B-E guitar tuning is also popular.
In bluegrass music
The resonator guitar was introduced to bluegrass music by Josh Graves, who played with Flatt and Scruggs, in the mid-1950s. Graves used the hard-driving, syncopated three-finger picking style developed by Earl Scruggs for the five-string banjo. Modern players continue to play the instrument this way, with one notable exception being Tut Taylor who plays with a flat pick.
Tuning for the resonator guitar within the bluegrass genre is most often an open G with the strings pitched to D G D G B D or G B D G B D, from the lowest to highest. Occasionally variant tunings are used, such as an open D: D A D F# A D.
In country music
In blues music
The resonator guitar is also significant to the world of blues music, particularly the Southern style of country blues that grew out of the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana. Unlike country and bluegrass players, most blues players play the resonator guitar in the standard guitar position, with the strings facing away from the player. Many use slides or bottlenecks.
Many players in the 1920s and 1930s, including the great Bo Carter, and others like Bukka White, Son House, Tampa Red and Blind Boy Fuller, used the instruments because they were louder than standard acoustic guitars, which enabled them to play for a larger crowd in areas that did not yet have electricity for amplifiers. For the same reason street musicians like Arvella Gray used resonator guitars while busking, e.g. on Chicago's Maxwell Street.
One of the few Delta Blues players to play lap style in the 30's was Black Ace, also known as B.K. Turner. He toured and recorded with his mentor Oscar "Buddy" Woods, who also played lap style Resonator guitar and Lap Steel. Woods, who was fifteen years older than Ace, taught him his guitar playing techiques.
The instrument is still used by some blues players, notably Taj Mahal, Eric Sardinas, Alvin Hart, The Deacon Brandon Reeves, Derek Trucks, Doyle Bramhall II, Roland Chadwick, the late Rory Gallagher (RIP), John Hammond Jr., Roy Rogers, John Mooney, and Johnny Winter.
Varieties of resonator guitar
Single resonator guitars with a bowl resonator and spider (Dobro style) are often heard in bluegrass music, while tricone (National style) instruments are still preferred by many blues players. Single-resonator biscuit (also sometimes called National style) instruments are also currently produced, and give a different sound again.
Many bluegrass players prefer wooden bodies, blues players either metal or wood. The early metal-bodied instruments were generally of better quality than the earliest wooden-bodied ones, but this may not be the case with more recent instruments. Metal bodies may be brass, aluminum or steel. Fiberglass has also been used as a body material, and a marble bodied resonator guitar is commercially available. Both metal and wooden bodies are often painted, or wooden bodies may be stained or lacquered, metal bodies may be plated or plain.
Bluegrass players tend to use square necks, while blues players tend to prefer round necks. Square-necked guitars give a slightly greater variety of possible tunings, while round-necked guitars give a much greater variety of playing positions.
Single resonator instruments can have round sound holes with screens, or round sound holes without screens, which many players used to remove to improve the bass response. They can also have f-holes, often with gauze screens that are also sometimes removed but have an important function in strengthening the belly particularly if the body is of wood.
An enormous number of combinations are possible, most can be found either on old or new instruments or both, and many styles of music can be played on any resonator guitar.
Although the original aim of the resonator was increased volume, some modern instruments incorporate electric pickups, and players add pickups to non-electric instruments, and use the resonator purely for its distinctive tone. As the resonator is far more sensitive to audio feedback than any semi-acoustic guitar, the design of these pickups is extremely critical and specialized.
Other resonator instruments
As well as resonator guitars, resonators have been used on:
- Basses, available from Regal as of 2006[update].
- Ukuleles, (see Resonator ukulele) produced by National and Dobro 1928–1940.
- Tenor guitars
- Mandolins and mandolas
- Mountain/Appalachian dulcimers
- Viola guitars
As of 2006[update] the three most famous historic brands of resonator guitar, National, Dobro and Regal, were all in use, but all by different companies to the ones that produced the historical instruments, each after one or more long breaks in production:
- The National name is used by National Reso-Phonic Guitars, founded in 1987, who specialise in reproductions of historic instruments of all brands, not just National pattern instruments
- The Dobro name has been owned by Gibson Guitar Corporation since 1993
- The Regal name has been a brand of Saga Musical Instruments since 1987
- #1,741,453 covering the tricone
- #1,896,484 covering the Dobro
- #1,808,756 covering the biscuit single cone resonator, lodged in the name of Beauchamp
- "Dobro" is often used as a generic term for single resonator guitars, or for resonator guitars in general. "Dobro" originally described a specific company's guitars and since 1993, is a Gibson trademark.
- Barron Clarke, Australia
- Resonators Explained by Paul Kucharski
- American fretted musical instrument makers, pre-Civil War to WWII, comprehensive list.
- notecannons.com, Colin McCubbin's site devoted to prewar resonator instruments.
- Some notes on Resonator guitars,