Sunday, November 12, 2006

The resonator guitar

The acoustic guitar we know today really only gained popularity in the past century. As recently as the turn of the last century the guitar (or more properly, Spanish Guitar) was used primarily as a rhythm instrument, used to keep the musicians in beat, much as drums or bass are used today.

As the guitar became more readily available and gained in popularity it made the transition from rhythm to playing the melody. Now, the guitar is a quiet instrument without amplification and this posed a problem for guitarists sharing the stage with other, more vocal instruments. Imagine the poor guitar player in an early jazz band, struggling to be heard over the brass and reed instruments.

Even the lone busker playing and singing on the street corner knew that in order for his hat to fill with coins he had to be heard above the sounds of the city.

An inventive musician from Los Angeles by the name of George Beauchamp is credited with coming up with the basic idea of making the guitar louder. Beauchamp hooked up with John and Rudy Dopyera who had already made improvements to the banjo by adding a resonator to the back.

The resulting design included a set of three metal cones connected at their apex to a “T” shaped metal bridge, an arrangement that would later be known as the Tricone design. This assembly was suspended inside a guitar body made of metal and formed a resonating chamber sort of like a modern speaker cabinet. Strumming the strings caused the metal cones to vibrate and mechanically amplify the sound.

In 1927 Beauchamp and John Dopyera incorporated their business as the National Stringed Instrument Corporation and sold their instruments under the National brand. In 1928 John Dopyera left National and along with four of his brothers formed a competing business. The brothers named their new business the Dobro Manufacturing Company. The name is a contraction of Dopyera Brothers and had the side benefit of meaning “good” in their native Slovak language.

The Dobro differed from the National in that it used a single inverted cone as a resonator as opposed to the tricone design. The single cone design produced a much louder sound than the tricone and was much cheaper to produce. National soon came out with their own single cone guitar, although the National design was attached opposite of the Dobro cone with a small wooden “biscuit” at the apex attached to the bridge. John Dopyera, who still owned a controlling interest in National, claimed to have designed the single cone while still at National. In 1932, after a long legal battle, the Dopyera brothers gained control of both companies and merged them as the National Dobro Corporation.

During WWII all production of resonator guitars was halted due to the shortage of the steel and aluminum.

The round necked National with its steel body became popular with blues musicians who preferred to play it with a bottleneck slide. Hawaiian musicians preferred the square necked, steel body played lap style (laid flat with the strings up). Bluegrass musicians took to the square necked and wood bodied Dobro, most often playing it lap style.

Pictured here is a 1933 National Duolian just like the one I bought at an estate auction many years ago. When my eldest son was but a baby and having trouble sleeping at night, I would rock his cradle with my foot and play some soft bottleneck blues on that old National until he drifted off to sleep again. Today my son is a DJ and cohosts a local radio show, but has no interest in the blues. I didn’t think I played that badly.

Sylvester Weaver - Guitar Rag.mp3

Bukka White - The Panama Limited.mp3

Kanui & Lula - My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua.mp3


Blogger Rob Hutten said...

Great post. Can't get enough of those old Nationals.

BTW, I'm 99.44% sure Weaver's playing a regular ol' wooden flat-top on Guitar Rag.

November 13, 2006 12:14 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

You are absolutley right, Rob.

BTW- When are going to start blogging again? Sure do miss your posts.

November 13, 2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger Woodshed said...

I do enjoy your posts about a single instrument.

The first time I heard a resonator guitar in the flesh (or should that be 'in the steel'?) was at a Bob Brozman gig. I was knocked out by the range of sounds he got out of it. And I've been promising to buy myself a resonator ukulele ever since seeing him play one.

November 13, 2006 3:22 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

You’d be hard pressed to find a better inspiration than Brozman, Woodshed.

If you are looking for a resonator uke, Elderly Instruments has all of the new Nationals. Also, the Mandolin Brothers always have a superb assortment of vintage instruments (although I don’t see any reso-ukes listed right now).

Good luck with that resonator uke!

November 13, 2006 8:18 PM  
Anonymous rockin'androllin' said...

Hi great post.
Do you know "Tomi Tomi" from Kanui & Lula?

November 14, 2006 3:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

check out

He is the keeping the dobro alive!

November 14, 2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger Woodshed said...

Thanks for the links. I wish I could afford one of those Nationals. Maybe if I sold one of my prettier kids.

November 14, 2006 7:09 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

rockin'androllin' -
I've heard "Tomi Tomi" by Kanui & Lula, but alas, I do not have a copy.
You continue to impress me with your interest in a wide variety of world music.

anonymous -
Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band (link corrected) looks and sounds very interesting. "Robert Johnson on crack". I'll keep an eye on them.

woodshed -
No need to start sellin' off the youngens! I found my National at an estate auction. I paid US$300 for it. No one at the auction knew instruments besides me and one woman. I stopped bidding against her on a beautiful F5 mandolin and she let me win the National. We both left very happy.

November 14, 2006 9:12 PM  
Anonymous rockin'androllin' said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

November 15, 2006 2:32 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks rockin'androllin'!
What a wonderful tune!

November 15, 2006 7:32 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

I thought I knew something about modern music until I started reading this blog. Now, I know what a proverbial musical knee-high I am. I bought a resonator this past summer. I've played lap steel for 30 years. The lap steel is destined to collect dust. My resonator sounds incredible, and looks incredible. As an old guy of 50, the chicks think it's hot! So I enjoy the sounds and the ladies. The best of both worlds. It don't get no better.

November 17, 2006 8:10 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

You're right there Dan, it just don't get no better than that! I believe laps were made for resonators and the ladies. Although a lap steel comes in a close third.

Congrats on the new resonator.
BTW - you've only got a year on me, old man.

November 17, 2006 9:12 PM  

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