Son House is one of the best-known resonator players in Delta blues, largely thanks to his 1960s comeback and the popularity of his much-covered “Death Letter Blues,” which he first cut as “My Black Mama (Part 2)” in 1930. He holds a National Duolian model in this late-career promotional photo.
Hello, Dixie!While lap-style guitar had its birth in Hawaii, these days resonator guitars are more typically heard in the hands of players firmly rooted in the musical traditions of the American South—from Taj Mahal to Eric Clapton to Jerry Douglas to Derek Trucks to Doug MacLeod. To find out why, we need to return to the Great Depression.
During the Depression, many Americans were on the move looking for jobs. People from the South started migrating north to major cities like New York, Kansas City, and Chicago—which were modern and comparatively bustling, even in such hard times. But in the South, full electrification was decades away, which almost seems hard to believe in retrospect. Poverty was at epic levels all over the country, but in the largely agrarian South, it was double epic. Folks were literally dirt-poor.
Without electricity, amplifiers, which began to be sold in the mid 1920s, were an impossibility—even if a sharecropper could afford one. Which he could not. So rural Southern blues players and early country musicians became pioneering adopters of the resonator guitar. Think of classic recordings by Son House on the blues side and Cliff Carlisle, who recorded with Jimmy Rodgers, on the country music side. And while they were first exposed to the sound via Hawaiian guitar recordings and radio broadcasts, the reasons for picking up a resonator were likely more practical than aesthetic. Juke joints and beer halls were loud, and unamplified acoustic guitars were quiet—at least until the resonator guitar came along. The sharp and bold tones produced by the cones and body construction of these then-new instruments could compete with the rest of a small band or orchestra, and cut through the sounds of a country dance, a Saturday night fish fry, and maybe even a knife fight.
Early blues players generally favored the roundneck Nationals, with their rear-facing 9.5" aluminum cones, and country and bluegrass pickers went for the wooden-bodied squareneck Dobro’s more open sound, with its larger 10.5" front-facing cone. That set a pattern of preferred instruments for both styles that continues today.
And speaking of today, the modern resonator is a much more elite beast—straddling the worlds of tradition and modernity. They come in a larger variety of shapes and sizes, with cutaways and parlor designs and openings figured to let more sound emerge, among other refinements. Some have solid bodies—initially introduced by Supro and National and taken to new heights by the current National Reso-Phonic brand and others. And electricity has worked its magic.
As with acoustic guitar, pickup systems can now reproduce the actual sound that comes from resonator guitars. Intonation, which has long been an issue—especially with metal-bodied resonator guitars—has been improved via compensated nuts and saddles. String manufacturers even make sets specifically for resonators. Plus, player demand for tone and durability continues to compel manufacturers to choose high-quality wood and metals, and to bolster internal designs. Sandblasting and other etching techniques even allow metal-bodied guitars to have more distinctive designs on their fronts and backs, although the palm-trees-and-surf imagery that adorned many early steel-bodied resonator guitars remains a thing of beauty.
Those designs can still often be found today on guitars bearing the tried-and-true historic names of National, Dobro, and Regal—although National is now a brand made by the National Reso-Phonic Guitar company, which was founded in 1989, Dobro has been a Gibson imprint since 1993, and Regals are made in Korea by Saga Musical Instruments.
So, You Want a Resonator GuitarIf you go shopping for a resonator guitar, there are some basic got-to-knows you should have in your brainpan—just so you understand what you’re looking at. Of course, your final decision should be based on playability and what sounds best to your ears. But here’s a look at the instrument’s basic bones.
Roundneck versus squareneck. That’s pretty simple. Roundneck resonators are the kind you play like a conventional acoustic or electric guitar, and they’re a good entry point for the majority of players. Think Son House, Clapton, and Trucks. When slide enters the picture with roundnecks, it’s typically a tube-shaped finger slide, like a bottleneck.
Squareneck resonators are supported horizontally and played with the same angling as a lap steel or pedal steel guitar. They have a special nut and bridge that raises the strings high above the fretboard, so they must be played with a slide—typically a tone bar of some kind, held with a combination of fingers and the palm. That’s how Uncle Josh Graves did it when I was a kid, and how Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, Randy Kohrs, and others do it today.
Normally hidden behind a shiny coverplate, this biscuit and single-cone assembly sports a National spiral cone. The round wooden disc is the biscuit, and the bridge is seated on top. After the coverplate is screwed back onto the guitar’s face, a metal handrest arches over the bridge and strings to protect the bridge during play. Photo by Richie Owens
Cones and bridges. Not to be mistaken for a John Lennon album title, cones and bridges are what makes resonator guitar resonate. There are three kinds of designs to consider: the biscuit bridge with a single cone, the tricone, and the spider bridge with a single cone.
Let’s bite into the biscuit and single cone first. In this design, the cone faces inward. The biscuit is a small disc, typically wooden, that is positioned in the center of the inverted cone and protrudes above the guitar’s body. Atop the biscuit sits the saddle, which is usually wooden and rests in a slot on the biscuit. The cone, by the way, is supported by a circular ridge built into the bottom of the guitar’s body. Got that?
This design works especially well with metal-body guitars, like the kind the old bluesmen used to cut through the squall of noisy juke joints. Why? It tends to create a booming fundamental tone. The trade-off for that volume is less harmonic complexity. In wooden bodies, this design is not quite as thunderous.
With its “hood” off, this National Tricone displays its three downward-aimed cones and reveals how the T-shaped bridge makes contact with all three cones to transfer the energy of the moving strings. Photo courtesy of National Reso-Phonic Guitars
The tricone. Yep—this intriguing design has three cones and a T-shaped bridge that helps get the string vibrations to all of them. The saddle on a tricone straddles a leg of the T, and these cones also face downward.Since more energy gets transmitted to a more complex cone array, tricone models tend to be more harmonically complex and produce more overtones than single-cone-with-biscuit guitars. With a tricone resonator guitar, notes hang in the air a little longer, even if they’re less bold. And tricones sound really sweet for slide. Typically, this design is found in metal-body guitars.
And finally, along comes the spider. In the spider bridge with single-cone design, the cone has an interior raised section. Think of the cone as “W”-shaped. The aluminum bridge makes contact with the cone at its edges and the apex of its raised center, which has a slot that holds a wooden saddle. More contact equals more transmission of string vibration. Oh yeah—and the cone faces forward, like the speaker in a guitar amp. Its sounds are projected out of, rather than into, the body.
The aluminum spider bridge makes contact with both the outer rim of the “W”-shaped cone and its raised interior. Photo by Richie Owens
This design is typically employed in wood-body resonator guitars, and these guitars often have specially designed soundwells to add to the sonic projection. Between that, the forward-facing cone, and the high-contact spider bridge, these are loud suckers. And they often have a tonal character that could be described as honking. Listen to your favorite bluegrass and country resonator pickers, and you’ll hear it.
There’s one more thing about resonator guitars I haven’t yet mentioned, but you likely read it between the lines. They are the first distinctly American variation on the guitar—born in the U.S.A., even if a crafty Slovakian invented them. And before you go off to explore resonators on your own, I would like to say that John Dopyera should be considered the Thomas Edison of the guitar industry. His legacy includes not only resonator guitars, but the foundation on which the Valco family of products were established … and more, with connections to the Rickenbacker and Fender legacies. (But that’s another story!) So his influence extends from Beauchamp to Bashful Brother Oswald to Jimmy Page to Chris Whitley to Jerry Douglas and beyond. Not bad for an immigrant who kicked it all off by wanting his own little instrument repair shop. So maybe, in some way, the sound of the Dobro is also the sound of the American Dream.