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Resophonic Tone – A History of Resonator Guitars

resonator guitar toneA Guest Post by Al @resoguitar

The resophonic, or resonator guitar, has a distinct tone that sets it apart from other acoustic and electric guitars. It was born in the Jazz Age of the roaring 20’s, an era prior to the invention of the first electric guitar, as a means of mechanically amplifying the sound to be heard above an orchestra. The man behind the invention was a Slovak-American craftsman, inventor and musician named John Dopyera who later went on to found the Dobro guitar company. The word “Dobro” has become synonymous with resonator guitars much in the way that “Xerox” has with photocopy machines. When someone says “Dobro” the picture that immediately springs to mind is an acoustic guitar with a shiny hubcap-like object in the middle where the soundhole usually resides.

Actually, there are at least three distinct flavors of reso-guitars, each with its own unique sound. Mr. Dopyera’s original guitar was a tri-cone model consisting of 3 small aluminum cones, about 6 inches in diameter, resting on a mechanical bridge that transferred the vibrations of the strings to the cones. The cones act as speakers, amplifying the sound without the need for electricity. The tone is balanced, the sustain is good and the volume is LOUD! It is a marriage of form, sound and functionality. The unusual design of the body, made of German Silver alloy with art deco lines, was unlike any guitar before or since. The list of notable guitarists who play a tri-cone is long, but guitar wizard Bob Brozman is at the top. Mr Brozman deserves a lot of credit for the resurgence of these wonderful instruments today and his mastery of the instrument is second to none.

Tri-cones are a joy to hear, see and play. Mr. Dopeyera considered it his greatest invention. It was marketed under the National Guitar brand and became quite popular among Hawaiian guitarists. Hawaiian music was all the rage during that time and the National Tri-cone quickly rose to prominence and popularity. It is still the flagship instrument of the new National Guitar Company, who make faithful reproductions of the original Nationals along with new and exciting designs of their own.

As the world sank into the Great Depression of the 1930’s the tri-cone suddenly was too expensive for most musicians to afford. John Dopyera created a second model that was less expensive to produce, but every bit as loud as his original. This was the single cone model, sometimes referred to as a “biscuit cone” because of the round wooden disc that sits atop a larger, single convex cone. This model became the choice instrument for the traveling Bluesmen of that era because of their incredible volume and rugged metal bodies. The metal body of National Guitar could even be used to fend off a hostile crowd in a juke joint in a pinch. Their sound is different from the Tri-cones with a sharper attack and less sustain. Johnny Winter, the great modern American Bluesman, once described it as nasty, like a metal garbage can with a wire attached to it. Not a very flattering but still fairly

accurate analogy. It’s the sound we associate with Country Blues Giants like Son House and Bukka White. In more recent times you might have noticed Mark Knoffler’s National Guitar gracing the cover of Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms” album.

Shortly after Mr. Dopyera perfected his single cone resonator he ended his business partnership with National Guitar and started his own company. Since he didn’t own the patents for his original designs, he set about creating yet a third model of resonator guitar that became known as the spider cone. This is a concave aluminum cone with a metal alloy bridge riding over it that resembles a spider’s web. The spider’s sound is characterized by clear, loud tones and good sustain. Dobro guitars can be found in both wooden and metal style bodies. The choice of materials influences the tone of the instrument. The Dobro is commonly associated with Bluegrass or Country Music and it’s often played lapstyle with a metal bar instead of the bottleneck that traditional Bluesmen often use. In the hands of a musical genius like Jerry Douglas the sky is the limit. Mr. Douglas and some of his peers, like Rob Ikes, have taken the sound of the reso-guitar to new places and they continue to push those boundaries today.

There are three main types of resophonic guitars; the tri-cone, biscuit and spider. The bodies can be made of metal, wood or even fiberglass in some cases. The necks can be round (like most guitars) for chording and playing bottleneck style or square with the strings sitting high off the fretboard for lapstyle playing. All of these factors will have an effect on the tone of the instrument, along with the quality of the materials and the care and craftsmanship that goes into building it. There are no rules when it comes to selecting a certain model of resonator for a particular style of music. It’s up to the individual to find the tone that’s right for them. If you’re having a difficult time deciding, you can always own more than one reso-guitar. Please exercise caution, as they can be habit forming and I’m not aware of any 12-step programs that can assist with your recovery. Cheers!

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