If you’re like me, the first time you heard the raw metallic sound of a Dobro, National or other resonator guitar, your curiosity got the better of you. Why that strange design? How do they get the slide to sing like that? How do they get that sound? Most importantly….how can I get that sound?
To answer those questions Resonator Guitar Guide has created an overview covering everything you need to know to get started. Included below are topics like:
- What is a resonator guitar?
- What is the difference between body styles, materials and brands like National and Dobro and which one is right for me?
- What do I need to get started playing a resonator guitar?
- How much does a resonator guitar cost and should I buy a vintage guitar or new guitar?
So lets get started with some basics…
What is a resonator?
The resonator guitar was developed before the age of modern amplifiers as a way to increase the volume of a standard acoustic guitar. This was needed to be audible in the brass bands of the 20’s and 30’s. A typical acoustic guitar produces sound when the strings cause the top (and to a lesser extent the back and sides) to vibrate. A resonator guitar utilizes a metal cone that sits underneath the strings and acts very much like a stereo speaker. The strings connect to the cone via a bridge. When the strings are played, the metal cone vibrates, moving air and amplifying the sound within the guitar and pushing it out through sound holes. The result is more volume, but also a completely distinct tone and timbre.
Is a Resonator Guitar the same thing as a Dobro?
Dobro is a brand of resonator guitar that has become somewhat synonymous with the entire category, much like Kleenex for tissues or Band-Aid as an adhesive bandage. In fact there are many resonator guitars that are not Dobros and the correct term for the category is Resonator Guitar. That said, Dobro is a commonly used term to describe the unique style of playing a resonator, particularly in bluegrass and country.
Types of Resonator Guitars
The are two main types or “styles” of resonator guitars, square neck guitars and round neck guitars. Each serves a completely different purpose, with a completely unique playing style.
Square Neck Resonator Guitar
A square neck guitar gets its name literally from its square neck. The neck is a “square” so that it can be played lying flat across the lap,
much like a steel guitar. The strings on a square neck are raised high off the fretboard and are only meant to be played with a slide. A square neck resonator guitar is most common in bluegrass and country music, but occasionally you will see blues players playing “lap style” with a square neck.
Round Neck Resonator Guitar
Unlike a square neck resonator guitar, which is really a unique instrument in and
of itself, a round neck resonator is held and played just like a traditional guitar. Some play a round neck exactly as they would a normal guitar, while others like to raise the strings higher off the fretboard and play primarily with a slide. Round neck resonators are more common in blues than in bluegrass and country.
There are three styles or designs of the actual metal cone that comprises the resonator, each resulting in a very unique sound.
The original resonator guitar, designed by John Dopyera and produced by the National String Instrument Corporation, consisted of three 6” metal cones joined by a T-shaped metal bar that supported a bridge, hence the name “tri-cone”. Tri-cones were costly and difficult to build, but many players consider them to have a superior tone than other resonator designs. They are generally said to have a smoother and complex sound, due to the three individual resonator cones, with a subtler attack with longer sustain. Tri-cones tend to be a favorite of bottleneck blues players like Tampa Red and Bukka White.
Single-cone, Biscuit Bridge
To solve the production and cost issues associated with the Tri-Cone, National began producing a simpler design that utilized a single, larger 9” cone that had a wooden disc in the center that held the bridge. Where the strings of a tri-cone had to drive movement across 3 resonator cones, the strings of a single cone drove only one. This results in a louder, slightly more brash tone than the tri-cone. This loud, aggressive tone is exactly what made the resonator guitar so popular with blues players. Son House, Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis all played single-cone biscuit bridge style resonators.
Single-cone, Spider Bridge
There is a complex and fascinating history surrounding the evolution and launch of the single cone resonator, full of family infighting and corporate takeovers. We won’t cover it here, but plan to in a separate post. In short, the two founders of the National String Instrument Corporation, John Dopyera and George Beauchamp, had a falling out. John Dopyera left the company to found Dobro with his brothers. Dopyera had designed the single-cone biscuit bridge, but when he left, National filed a patent for the design.
To launch Dobro, Dopyera had to develop a new single cone design that didn’t infringe on the National patent. What he came up with was an entirely new design that reversed the direction of the cone so that it pointed inwards. The bridge of the new design was connected to the concave cone by a cage that sat over it, looking very much like a “spider”. The spider bridge distributes multiple points of contact around the cone’s perimeter, rather than the biscuit bridge which has a single point of contact at the at the top of the cone.
The spider bridge single-cone resonator creates a tone that is completely distinct from either the tri-cone or the biscuit bridge single-cone. It has been described as drier and more nasally. The spider bridge is almost always associated with bluegrass and country, with players like Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge or Josh Graves (of Flatt and Scruggs). The design and tone are really synonymous with Dobro and Dobro-style playing, which centers around a square neck resonator played with a heavy dose of banjo-style rolls with rapid hammer ons and pull offs of the slide.
While the resonator cone and housing themselves are always metal, the guitar bodies come in two main materials – metal and wood. In a traditional acoustic guitar the body serves as the resonating chamber and the type and quality of the wood has a huge impact on the sound of the guitar: rosewood guitars sound different than maple guitars which sound different than mahogany guitars. For resonator guitars, the resonator cone produces the sound so the body material has much less influence. While resonator design is going to dictate the majority of the instrument’s tone, the body does make a difference and you should try several to determine the right one for you
For me, a metal body is really the quintessential resonator guitar, conjuring up unique Americana imagery, as Paul Simon sang in Graceland “the Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar”. “Metal” bodied guitars are generally either brass or steel and coated in nickel. Some of the original National tri-cones from the 20’s and 30’s were made out of German Silver and these models are highly collectable. Newer model Nationals also come powdercoated in a variety of colors. As stated above, the type of metal really has a small impact on the tone of the guitar. Steel has been described as slightly more raw and bluesy while brass is a little more rounded and sophisticated sounding. Metal bodied resonator guitars are also known for having rich etchings and engravings, typically of Hawaiian scenes (as Hawaiian music was incredibly popular during the resonator’s heyday in the 20’s and 30’s). Metal body guitars are typically preferred by blues players rather than country and bluegrass players.
Wood body guitars tend to have a slightly warmer sound with less overall punch and volume than metal body guitars. These guitars are prefered by country and bluegrass players, although there are a number of blues players who play wooden body resonators. Dobro’s are almost exclusively wooden bodied and when someone says a ‘Dobro’ player they are typically talking about a wooden-bodied, square-neck guitar with a single-cone spider bridge. As stated above, in traditional acoustic guitars, the quality of the wood has a huge impact on the sound and solid wood is much prefered (and more expense) than plywood. In a resonator guitar, the quality of wood has very little impact and there is almost no need for the extra cost of solid wood.
What Do I Need to Play a Resonator Guitar?
Besides obviously the guitar, there are a few other standard tools that you may or may not find helpful.
Fingerpicks and Thumbpicks
Fingerpicks are a tricky subject and you will find as many opinions and approaches as you’ll find guitar players. Since most resonator guitar players play some sort of fingerstyle guitar (picking the strings with your thumb, index and middle finger) rather than strumming with a plectrum, most opt for some sort of finger and thumbpicks to give them added volume. Also, since resonator guitar players tend to prefer heavier gauge strings, fingerpicks protect the fingertips and nails. That said, some like just a thumbpick, some like just fingerpicks, some use a fingerpick on one finger and not the other…there is no “right” way.The main complaint most have with finger and thumbpicks is that they are uncomfortable and lack the control one gets using just their fingers. Players have invented all sorts of ways to customize their fingerpicks to make them more comfortable and suit their particular style. Most say that if you can train yourself to use fingerpicks early, you’ll be happier as you progress as a player.
Thumbpicks generally come in a variety of plastics and fingerpicks tend to be nickle or brass, but there are literally dozens of different styles and types. My recommendation is to spend $20 at the music store on a variety of styles and materials and try them all until you land on a set that you like.
Many players use a resonator guitar exclusively for playing slide. Squareneck resonator guitars can only be played using a slide and many round neck resonator players will raise the strings high off the fretboard to make it more suitable for slide playing. When choosing a slide it is important to consider the style of music you will be playing and the tone you would like.
Round Neck or Bottleneck Slides
For those playing round neck guitars, they tend to be used more for blues style playing which utilizes a slide placed over your ring or pinky finger. These slides were originally made by breaking off the neck of a wine bottle, hence the name ‘bottleneck’. Today a range of companies make bottleneck slides out of glass, steel, brass, ceramics and other materials. Glass tends to have a smoother sound while metal is brasher. Most resonator players tend to prefer a metal slide, but it depends completely on the preference of the player.
Square Neck Slides
Square Neck guitars are played lap style which requires a different type of slide than a bottleneck as it needs to be held over the the strings. These style of slides are typically a solid piece of metal that has been shaped to fit in the hand. Some utilize a rounded bar, like lap and pedal steel players, which is gently “rolled” back and forth across the strings to produce a vibrato. This is typically found in country and hawiian style playing. Most, however, utilize what is called a “stevens” bar, which has grooves running down the sides that make it easier to grip the slide and raise it off the strings. The rapid-fire hammer ons and pull offs associated with bluegrass Dobro playing are produced using a stevens bar. Just like in bottleneck, these type of slides come in a variety of materials. It is important to try a few to find the sound, design and weight that works best for you.
How do I play a resonator guitar?
There are virtual libraries full of instructional material and videos found across the web to help beginners to experienced players. We will feature some of the best in the near future. The place to start, though, is to listen. If you’re into bluegrass, listen to Jerry Douglas, Tut Taylor and Mike Auldridge. If you’re into blues listen to Son House, Bukka White and Blind Boy Fuller. Check out people like Kaki King, Al Perkins or Robert Randolph to discover what they’ve done. Understand enough technique to emulate the sound you’re looking for and then just play, listen and play.
What type of resonator guitar is right for me?
There is no right answer to this question. It is important to do your research, understand your options and then make a choice that fits your needs. There certainly are no rules and you should find the guitar that speaks to you, regardless of what others have typically used it for. That said, to help narrow the choices:
If you’re looking to play bluegrass…you probably want to look for a square neck, wooden body guitar with a single cone, spider style bridge.
If you’re looking to play delta-style blues guitar…you probably want to look for a round neck, wood or metal body guitar with a single cone biscuit style resonator or a tri-cone resonator.
Again, some of the most unique and a original music has come from players who adapted a particular instrument to fit their needs, rather than adhering to what others felt was the “right” style for a particular instrument, so go with whatever works for you.
There are a host of affordable entry-level resonator guitars to get you introduced to the instrument without requiring a huge investment. In general, you’ll have to spend at least $300 to find an instrument that is playable. If you’re going to spend less, you’re probably better off waiting until you can move into this price tier as instruments under $300 tend to be difficult to play and keep in tune and could turn you off of the instrument all together. In the $300-$600 range you can find good starter instruments, but you should expect to find some rattling or finish flaws. As you move up in price, you’ll find higher quality materials and better construction which leads to an instrument that sounds and plays better. However, rather than start off with a $4,000 guitar, a $400 guitar will give you an opportunity to develop a sound and style that fits you. When you’re ready, you can move up to an instrument that is right for you.
Old versus New
While there is a nostalgia and historical appeal to vintage Nationals and Dobros, from a pure playing perspective there is not a huge amount of difference between older and newer resonator guitars.This is due to the fact that the core driver of a resonator guitar is the metal cone, which doesn’t require the same “breaking in” period needed for organic material like wood. Vintage acoustic guitars, like pre-war Martins, are prized for their bell-like tone that is a result of decades of playing which causes vibrations to “open up” the wood. When solid wood guitars are new, the wood if very tight and does not have a lot of flexibility. As the guitar is played, sonic vibrations cause the wood to “loosen” (for lack of a better term) which creates more flex and produces a richer and fuller tone. There is really no way to recreate this sound with new wood on a new guitar, which is part of the reason vintage guitars command such a price premium. They really do “sound” better. The metal in a resonators, on the other hand, does not benefit much from this aging. In fact, most resonators from the 30’s and 40’s are in such poor shape that newer instruments sound better and are easier to play. That said if you’re able to find (and afford) a pristine vintage National, they sound absolutely fantastic. There is also an argument that materials used in the 30’s and 40’s, like German Nickel, that is no longer used today, does have a distinct tone that can only be found on a vintage instrument. These instruments are unique pieces of American history and are a great addition to a guitar collection. However, if you’re looking for pure tone and playability, I would recommend a newer instrument.
Summary and Your Thoughts
Hopefully this overview gave you some useful information as you get into explore the world of resonator guitar. With an understanding of the design of the guitar, the materials and the various playing styles you can now head out to the store or borrow a friends instrument and get down to business making music. Whether you’re an up and coming guitarist, a grizzled pro, or just a fan of the music there is always more to learn. Please use the comments to let us know what else you might find helpful and we’ll continue to post new and exciting content. We look forward to your thoughts.
Resonator Guitar Guide