Almost nothing evokes the sounds of the Mississippi Delta quite like a bottleneck slide dragged across the strings of a resonator guitar. National introduced the resonator to the world in 1927 with their single and tricone guitars. And blues pioneers like Son House and Bukka White used their National resonators prodigiously, churning out Delta gems like “Death Letter Blues” and “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.” The first Nationals were made from brass. Then, in order to accommodate more budget minded musicians, they produced all-steel versions such as the Duolian.
A few short years later Dobro followed with their spider cone resonator guitar, which became many bluegrass musician’s go-to box. Dobros differed in sound and construction. The spider cone lent a nasal honk to the sound, and many Dobros used wood back and sides. Today a new National will run you over $2,000 and the Dobros (now produced by Gibson) are well over a $1,000. So where does a musician on a budget go to get that Delta vibe? Thankfully, several companies are putting out resonator guitars that the rest of us can afford. Many of these instruments play and sound great and you don’t have to go too far to find a guitar for under a grand that will get your mojo working!
We checked out four guitars all priced close to or under $1000. Each has a wood body and some version of a spider cone. And though the spider cone tends to be more associated with bluegrass musicians and square neck dobro players while the biscuit bridge and tricone resonators of National guitars are associated with blues and Hawaiian players, there is a lot of crossover. And in this review we will focus the playing on blues and slide guitar.
Gretsch G9200 Boxcar Standard
The Gretsch is feather-light and vintage styled from its aged pearloid headstock to the soft V-shape of the neck. The body, back, and sides, are built from laminated Mahogany and feature twin f-holes on the top, while the neck is mahogany with a rosewood fretboard. But the heart of the Gretsch is the resonator, which Gretsch has dubbed the Ampli-sonic and built from 99% pure aluminum that is hand spun in Eastern Europe. Black, open-gear Grover tuners are an attractive addition. And the only construction flaw I could detect was a spot of underspray around one of the f-holes.
The soft V neck is very comfortable and evokes the feel of a vintage Martin. The guitar I received was set up with D’Addario light gauge strings (.012-.053) and had low action, which makes it easy to navigate the fretboard. My one quibble is that for bottleneck playing the action is a little low—easy enough to correct, but far from ideal.
The Box Car produces a cool, nasally honk and has great projection. In open G and open D tuning there’s a nice balance between low and treble strings, making it easy to articulate slide lines. But tuning the guitar down for open G and D tunings slackens the strings to the point of making slide playing more difficult and buzzier sounding. Tuning up to open A tuning resolved the issue and put me in closer proximity to Robert Johnson’s slide pitch on songs like “Crossroads” and “Come on in My Kitchen”—tunes on which the Gretsch sounded pretty sweet.
The Washburn brand has been a presence in the guitar industry off and on for more than 120 years. Given that the company was originally based in Chicago—a hotbed of blues since the late 1920s—and remains in Illinois to this day, it’s appropriate that Washburn designs and manufactures instruments with an eye towards vintage blues vibes.
With its single f-hole and cutaway the Washburn R15RCE has a way of beckoning you to play. It’s a lovely resonator, and a shimmering tobacco sunburst adds a hint of sophistication to the down home retro look. The lipstick tube-style pickup fits right in from a styling perspective—sitting right between the chrome-plated spider-cone resonator and the end of the fretboard—and it’s controlled via two knurled knobs for volume and tone. Grover-style enclosed tuners help complete the marriage of modern and vintage touches.
The Washburn has a slightly chunky U-shaped neck that helps offset the cramped feeling of the narrow string spacing at the nut. I often found myself unintentionally muting strings as I played, and had the neck been much thinner things would have been more difficult because I have fairly large hands. Like most of the guitars it was setup with light gauge strings and low action. And the frets are neatly dressed and without rough edges or snags.
Playing slide proved both rewarding and frustrating. The setup on the low strings is a bit higher than the treble strings, so much that my slide kept striking the frets on the treble strings for using a less-flat slide angle.
Like most guitars with spider-cone resonators, the Washburn has a noticeably nasal honk, albeit with more accents on the low-mid side of things. This produces a punchy tone that is ripe for bluesy slide excursions. Cruising through classic lines in open A and open E highlighted the clarity of the single string runs, as well as fully barred chords. In standard tuning, the bass was a bit muddy for fingerpicked blues and strumming. Instead the Washburn is more responsive to a lighter touch and lighter attack evens the response. This can be a drawback if you tend to be a spirited picker who likes to pound the strings—and many blues players are. But for a songwriter with a more sensitive style that’s looking for a bluesy vibe this could be just the ticket.
The pickup faithfully reproduces the acoustic sound of the instrument, although it doesn’t have a lot of volume. You can remedy this by adding a DI box with volume control or simply rely on your amplifier/PA for more punch.