The look of the classic National Style 1 Tricone has remained unchanged for 91 years: a brass body and coverplate that’s nickel-plated and buffed to a reflective shine. Photo courtesy of National Reso-Phonic Guitars

Enter the Dobro

It didn’t take long for in-fighting to begin among National’s founders. It came in the form of claims on designs and accusations of mismanagement. So John, Emil, and Rudy left National to start a new company. They called it Dobro—which has become commonly used as a generic term for the resonator guitar but is really a brand name for instruments made by the Dopyeras’ company.

They wed the first two letters of their family name with a slang term for brothers—“bro”—to create the Dobro brand. Not coincidentally, “dobro” is also the Slovakian word for “good.” I’m telling you, these guys were clever!

Juke joints and beer halls were loud, and unamplified acoustic guitars were quiet—at least until the resonator guitar came along.

Having walked away from National with no money for making new stamping dies and wanting to step away from their original designs, the Dopyera bros started working on a new design that John had been developing while at National. Rudy held its patent to avoid conflict with their former partners, who knew that John had been cooking up something new while at National—which was by now also building single-cone resonator guitars.

Likely by accident, as part of an effort to cut costs, Dobro did something quite extraordinary: They switched to a wooden body and, to hold their new one-cone design, created a soundwell inside the body of their guitars. A wooden body allowed the generated tones to benefit from compression, and they reversed the single cone for forward projection, making for a louder instrument. That’s right, until then, resonator guitars exclusively projected sound toward the back before it flowed out through the ports on the top of the guitars’ bodies. And many resonator instruments built along classic lines still do that today.

Here’s the parallelogram soundwell in the body of a Bashful Brother Oswald signature Dobro. The soundwell was a Dobro innovation that increased volume and helped create the honking tone that’s now familiar to bluegrass and country fans. Photo by Richie Owens

One more refinement that the Dopyeras’ developed was a centered aluminum bridge called a spider, which looks a bit like its eight-legged namesake. The outer legs of the spider bridge touched the ridged edges of the cone, more efficiently channeling vibrations from the strings and wood to the cone. It produced a louder, richer, woodier tone than earlier resonator guitars—thanks also to the two round, screened holes in the upper section of the guitar’s body that allowed air and, therefore, more sound to project out. Think of it as a primitive version of the modern speaker cabinet but built right into the guitar.

Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate, with Lawyers

As often happens when two businesses have their fingers in the same tasty pie, relations between the Dopyera and the Beauchamp camps remained strained. The Dopyera’s filed a suit and eventually regained control of National, combining the two companies in the spring of 1935 and forming the National-Dobro Corporation. (Eventually the Dopyeras and Beauchamp reconciled.) During the course of the Great Depression, the Dopyeras had turned to other manufacturers for the bodies and other components of their guitars. Regal, Harmony, and Kay eventually all became suppliers, and by 1937 the torch was wholly passed to Regal, which became the sole maker of resonator guitars—marketed under the Regal, Dobro, Old Kraftsman, Recording King, and Ward brands, among others. Regal ceased to produce resonators when the U.S. entered World War II.

Recording King resonator guitars in the squareneck Dobro-style were at one time made by Regal in California. Today’s Recording Kings, like this RR-60, are made in China and set up and inspected in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of The Music Link

But once again, I’m getting ahead of myself. There was one more important development in the 1930s. The National-Dobro Corporation was transformed into a new brand you’ve probably heard of: Valco—best known for manufacturing Supro and Airline amps and guitars at the dawn of rock ’n’ roll. In Valco’s early years, they made all styles of fretted instruments under many names, so the National and Dobro brands continued, but eventually the Dopyera brothers dropped out of the business—not returning to it until 1959, when Emil started manufacturing resonators again under the Dopyera’s Original banner. He sold that company to Semi Moseley, who absorbed it into Mosrite and made Dobros for several years.

If that’s not complicated enough to follow, in 1967 Rudy and Emil decided to have another go at making their family’s legacy instruments and created the Original Musical Instrument Company. At first they sold their axes under the Hound Dog brand, but when Mosrite went into liquidation in 1970, they reacquired the Dobro product name.

Over the years, the companies and brand names in the world of resonator guitars have expanded. Today they include National, Hound Dog, Recording King, Fender, Dobro, Washburn, Dean, Beard, Scheerhorn, Amistar, Republic, Gold Tone, and more. Keeping track of all the production and boutique resonator makers out there can be a bit head-spinning.