Before the electric guitar and amplifier were invented, the only other way to make the sound of a guitar louder was to make the instrument physically bigger, so the resonator was the first version of guitar amplification.
My father recently passed away and left me his guitar that he had for many, many years. It’s a chrome guitar with National on the headstock and no other information that I can find. I’m a guitarist, but having grown up in the 1960s, I’ve always played electrics and know little about these resonators. Can you tell me what I have and what it is worth today?
Jeff in Pensacola, Florida
This Style 1 tricone from National is one of the earliest examples of a resonator guitar and “guitar amplification.” It was designed to be loud enough to compete with other instruments in a band setting or patrons in a noisy juke joint. One can date tricone resonators from this era via the serial number, which is normally located at the top of the headstock or stamped into the body near the endpin.
Cool guitar. This makes me want to get the old bluegrass band back together! Resonators are great, niche instruments that were ahead of their time for a brief period in history. Before the electric guitar and amplifier were invented, the only other way to make the sound of a guitar louder was to make the instrument physically bigger. So the resonator—though it didn’t involve any electronics—really was the first version of guitar amplification.
Let’s touch briefly on the history of National. In the early 1920s, brothers John and Rudy Dopyera started building banjos in Southern California. That’s when guitarist George Beauchamp approached the duo to solve his volume problem: His guitar couldn’t be heard over the other instruments in the vaudeville orchestra he was playing in. The idea came to the brothers to put aluminum resonators in guitar bodies to amplify the sound, and soon after, both the resonator guitar and National brand were born. John Dopyera left National in 1929 to start his own company called Dobro with his other brothers. But National and Dobro later merged in the 1930s, and since then have undergone several reorganizations and buyouts over the years.
Resonators have one or more thin aluminum cones (similar to a cone in a modern speaker) that amplify the sound. Unlike traditional wooden-body guitars where sound is created by the vibration of the body’s tonewoods, a resonator transfers the vibration from the strings through the bridge and into the aluminum cone. The body then acts as a speaker cabinet.
Your dad’s fantastic guitar appears to be a National Style 1 tricone and it looks like he took really good care of it. It. Since you don’t know much about resonators, I’ll first explain what tricone means. Resonators are generally constructed as either a single cone or a tricone. A single cone is one large resonator while a tricone is three smaller resonators that are assembled in a triangle. Each variation sounds a bit different. The tricone has a nice, warm tone with a slight attack when strummed, and a long sustain. The single cone variation is usually louder than tricones and has a much sharper attack, but a shorter sustain. Each style appealed to different types of guitarists and they were both very popular with artists playing Hawaiian and blues music in the ’20s and ’30s.
There were four different National tricones available and they were simply called Style 1, Style 2, Style 3, and Style 4, based on their appointments. Your dad’s guitar is a Style 1 and it features a plain body with dot inlays on the fretboard. Style 2 instruments have either a “Wild Rose” or “Wild Irish Rose” engraving on the body, but no engraving on the coverplate. Style 3 instruments have “Lily of the Valley” etching and diamond fretboard inlays. And the top-of-the-line Style 4 instruments have “Chrysanthemum” etching, diamond fretboard inlays, and fancier headstock overlays and designs.
All tricone resonators from this era have a body made out of a solid-nickel alloy called “German Silver” with nickel plating, a T-shaped bridge cover, slotted headstock, 12 frets clear of the body, and were available in a Spanish (round neck) or Hawaiian (square neck) version. Looking at the back of your guitar, it appears to be a Spanish-style guitar. With round-neck Nationals, there should be a serial number stamped into the body by the endpin or on top of the headstock. Take another look for the serial number, and you should be able to date your instrument as well.
As you can imagine, the higher the style number, the more the resonator is worth. This doesn’t mean the Style 1 is worthless though. A National Style 1 tricone from the late 1920s or 1930s is currently worth between $5,000 and $6,000 in excellent condition. Round necks are the most popular configuration as well. So get this guitar insured, and if you take care of it like your dad did, it’ll be a treasure for generations to come.
Zachary R. Fjestad is author of Blue Book of Acoustic Guitars, Blue Book of Electric Guitars, and Blue Book of Guitar Amplifiers. For more information, visit bluebookinc.com or email Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org.