Photo by Andy Ellis

Everyone in my family plays a musical instrument. As a kid I wanted to play too, but someone else was already playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, and that made it very difficult to choose my own instrument. I longed to find one that would be mine alone. I wanted to stand out.

One Saturday afternoon, I was watching television with my dad. We were checking out his favorite bluegrass band, led by guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo picker Earl Scruggs, who had the Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show, sponsored by Martha White flour. The band was gathered around a single microphone when suddenly one of the players by the name of Uncle Josh Graves came up from the back. I noticed he wasn’t holding his guitar in the usual way. It was suspended horizontally by its strap, and he played with his hands hovering over the top of the guitar. His left hand gripped a metal bar, which he pressed against the strings.

This guitar was like none I had seen. It had a large, round metal plate on top that looked like a shiny hubcap, and a fat, square neck. As he soloed, my ears perked up. I’d never heard anything like it, and I immediately knew I’d found my instrument! It was called a Dobro.

My life was never the same after that. I went on to not only play that instrument to this day, but I’ve had the pleasure of building Sho-Bro resonator guitars for Sho-Bud, as well as resonators for the Original Musical Instrument Company (aka Dobro), Crafters of Tennessee (builders of Tut Taylor resonators), and more recently, to having my own Owens line of resonator guitars for a time. I was also fortunate enough to spend time around the Dopyeras, the first family of the resonator guitar, and their direct torchbearers, and to hear so many wonderful stories about my favorite instrument’s history.

John Dopyera came up with an idea based on the Edison phonograph’s method of creating volume via a small disk attached to a horn.
 

And So It Began

As with seemingly everything in the world of guitars, the history of the resonator is hotly debated. But my research, which includes many conversations with elders who were there in the instrument’s early decades, and popular consensus says it begins with John Dopyera.

John came from a large musical family. His father was a talented musician and a luthier of fine violins in their native Slovakia. John had built his first violin by his teens and was following in his father’s footsteps to become a master builder of instruments. As the winds of war began to blow through Europe, the Dopyera family moved to California in 1908 to pursue a better life. In the 1920s, John opened his own small music shop in Los Angeles, where he built and repaired violins, banjos, and guitars. John had an eye for what made instruments best for players and patented some improvements for both violins and banjos before he and his brothers, Emil and Rudy, would begin building the first production resonators.

But I’m getting a little ahead of the story. As John Dopyera’s shop was flourishing, so was a new craze: Hawaiian music. It was played lap style with a handheld bar—called a tone bar, these days—sliding along the strings of acoustic guitars known as Hawaiian steels, which were set in open tunings. (For a primer on this bar technique, see Andy Ellis’ “Hand Jive! Master the Fundamentals of Lap Steel” at premierguitar.com.) The crying, breathy melodies played on these instruments were a sensation with musicians and listeners alike.

The more popular brands of these Hawaiian lap guitars were Weissenborn and Kona. And these stringed critters were a little different from a regular “Spanish” guitar: They had squared necks that were hollow up to the 2nd or 9th fret, depending on the model and brand. Most were made of Hawaiian koa wood. They sound beautiful and are much sought-after today, but back before amplification really took hold, their volume couldn’t compete with that of banjos, mandolins, drums, pianos, or the other instruments in most bands. For that matter, even guitars were still mostly parlor-size—and thus relatively quiet—in the 1920s. But here’s what happened next.


John Dopyera’s patent drawings for the original tricone resonator assembly (left), and his spider bridge variation, show a debt to Thomas Edison’s concept of transmitting vibrations to create sound.

The National Arrives

One of the artists playing the Hawaiian steel was a Vaudevillian named George Beauchamp. He also played violin and was a tinkerer who was always looking for something that would give him an edge over the competition. Knowing John Dopyera’s knack for improving the playability of instruments, Beauchamp approached him about a way to increase the volume of the Weissenborn-style Hawaiian guitar. John came up with an idea based on the Edison phonograph’s method of creating volume via a small disk attached to a horn. But with the first resonator guitar, instead of a needle attached to the disk to transfer the sound from a spinning cylinder, the vibrations of strings laying across the surface of a bridge were transferred from that bridge to a horn, or, in this case, the now-familiar hubcap-like cone I first saw on TV.

In the original resonators that Dopyera built, three handspun aluminum cones amplified the vibrations of the strings via a cast aluminum T-bar attached to the bridge, which sat atop a stamped brass body designed to provide a louder, more metallic sound. John Dopyera and Beauchamp knew they had something, so with Emil and Rudy, along with other investors, they formed the National Stringed Instrument Corporation in 1927.