I remember it like it was yesterday, I was twelve years old staying at a friend’s house who had some new records we were listening to. One of the album covers caught my eye because it had a strange but beautiful looking instrument on the cover. It looked like a guitar but like none I had ever seen before. The album was ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits and it was the first time that I and many others had ever seen a National metal body resonator guitar. That album was a worldwide success, so Mark Knopfler did more for introducing the world to resonator guitars than anyone before.
In this article, I will give you a brief history of the resonator guitar and shed some light on their design and what makes them so unique.
When that Dire Straits album came out in 1985, I hadn’t heard enough blues music yet to know that that type of guitar was a big part of the early years of blues. Many early blues performers and recording artists used resonator guitars for the sole fact that they are loud! When you’re playing music on the street for tips, or in a loud juke joint, you need to get heard. Simple fact, if they hear you better they pay you better. Also when in a recording situation, the resonator cuts through in a mix much better than the traditional acoustic guitar. Before the electric guitar came along, all you had were acoustic guitars and banjos. The need was out there for a louder, more refined stringed instrument, and that need was soon filled by John Dopyera.
John Dopyera is the inventor of the resonator guitar. He was an instrument builder, woodworker and craftsman whose family originally immigrated to the United States in 1908 from Hungary. John’s first love was the violin but after he heard the guitar being played in hawaiian music of the 1920’s, he decided to make a guitar that was louder and had more sustain. His first designs were inspired by the Victrola record player- you know the old record player with the large horn coming out of the top? Well that was the inspiration but putting a horn on a guitar didn’t work as well as he thought so after many prototypes, finally in 1927 a patent was made for the first resonator guitar. The guitar was called the tricone.
The tricone has three small cones that act the same way your speakers do in your stereo. A sound current, in this case the sound of the vibrating guitar strings, is amplified through three thinly spun aluminum cones. The strings sit on top of a t-bridge keeping them in place, which then sits atop all three cones. Get all three cones vibrating on a chord and you’ve got one sweet sound. The first tricone body was made out of wood, which sounded fine, but then Dopyera took his design one step further and he made the body out of metal! Metal body guitars had never been done before but it makes sense. If you’ve ever knocked over a metal trash can, you know it’s loud. So Dopyera started incorporating metal bodies into guitar making. He first used German silver, then later brass and steel, all of which lend a different tone to the instrument. The tricone guitar has a sweet, almost vocal quality to it’s tone, especially with slide or bottleneck playing. It has been used in all types of music by guys like Tampa Red and the Black Ace for blues, Oscar Aleman for jazz and Sol Hoopii for Hawaiian music just to name a few.
By 1928, only one year after it’s introduction, the tricone guitar was a huge success, and sales were skyrocketing. They were being made under the name of National Guitars, with whom Dopyera was already working for before he patented the tricone. Quickly growing tired of the corporate structure, Dopyera left National in 1929 and with him all of his existing patents. After he left, the powers that be at National took one of his other designs that he left behind and started producing a type of resonator guitar which had only one large cone. This single cone resonator is the most widely known of all resonator guitars because there were far more made and they were cheaper than most tricones. It’s still the same idea, amplify the sound of the strings with a thin aluminum cone, but only use one large cone instead of three smaller ones. The guitar bodies were still made from different metals, but now wood bodies were put into production to make a lower priced instrument. There are a lot more blues players from this time period playing single cone resonator guitars because they were cheaper and louder than the tricone. Son House, Blind Boy Fuller, Bukka White and Bo Carter all used different models of the single cone guitar to play and record their blues.
Earlier, I mentioned Mark Knopfler’s famous National guitar, but what I forgot to tell you and what really made it stand out was the etched hawaiian scene on the body of the guitar. This is one more element of early National resonator guitars that no one else had done, engraving and etching of the body. The guitar was made of brass or
German silver, then nickel plated to shine, then etching is done to the metal, usually of palm trees, a canoe, a beach or some kind of island scene. Engraving could also be done for a beautiful effect. You could have anything you wanted engraved into your metal body if you had the money. Some of these engraved guitars that I have seen are truly unbelievable. A metal body guitar with a resonator cone or cones inside, polished up real shiny with artwork etched or engraved onto the body is really an incredible thing to see, and hear.
Now remember that guy John Dopyera, the one who started all this? Well, he’s not out of the picture. When he left National in 1929 he still wanted to make instruments based on his original design but he knew the higher-ups at National would never allow it. They now had acquired his original patents and would sue him. Being always an inventor, Dopyera decided to put a spin on his own single cone resonator design and put the patent in his brother’s name to not allow National the option to sue. So in 1929 the Dopyera brothers or ‘Dobro’ for short, started making another type of resonator guitar. The principle is the same, a thin aluminum speaker cone is installed into a guitar under the strings to amplify the string vibration. Instead of the cone pointing upwards toward the strings, it points downward in a Dobro. In doing so there needed to be something for the strings to lie across. Enter the spider bridge. It’s called the spider because it has eight legs that reach out to meet the edge of the inverted cone and is unique to the Dobro. The first Dobros were made of wood but as the shop got bigger, metal bodies were made. The Dobro has a different sound than the tricone or the single cone Nationals and most were made with square necks for playing on your lap with a slide in the Hawaiian style. They really caught on for bluegrass music however, and today players like Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge, and Rob Ickes are true virtuosos on the instrument. .
After the invention of the electric guitar, the popularity of the resonator guitar slowly started to decline. National and Dobro went through various changes to their product line to compete in the new market, even adding some electric guitars in the 60’s and 70’s. National eventually went out of business but Dobro continued on due in large part to bluegrass and country music. Now with the resurgence of roots and Americana music the resonator guitar is receiving a boost in popularity. Resonators are usually associated with blues but can be used for every type of music out there. There are many great players and builders out there today putting a new spin on an old design. National itself started back up in 1989 by John Dopyera Jr. as ‘National Reso-phonic’ and they have well over fifty models to choose from today. From replicas of the original models to completely new designs, National has you covered. Check them out at www.nationalguitars.com
There you have it, a brief history and explanation of the different types of resonator guitars and how to tell them apart. There is not one better than the other, they are all great and all sound cool in their own way. For more information please check out a book by the late, great Bob Brozman titled ‘The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments’. It is the best resource out there for the history of the resonator guitar. The pictures of all the vintage instruments alone is worth the price of the book.