What to Look for When Buying a Resonator Guitar

From the soul-piercing wail of Delta blues to the homespun sounds of bluegrass masters to the edgy tones of modern Americana, resonator guitars have been lending their distinctive voice to pop for nearly 90 years. Or should we say distinctive “voices.” To savvy players, painting all resonators with the same brush is a bit like calling all sausages “hot dogs.”

“Resophonic, also known as ampliphonic, guitars actually fall into a few different categories, which not only influence the instruments’ sound, but the way they’re played,” says Jon Chappell, co-author of the “Guitar For Dummies” book series. “...while they all use some kind of metal cone — the resonator — to project sound, you’ll find important variations in the way these resonators are designed and mounted, as well as differences between wood and metal body construction and neck type.”

History of the Resonator

The resonator guitar was invented by John Dopyera in the mid 1920s in an attempt to make an acoustic loud enough to compete with big bands in the pre-electric guitar era. In 1927, he partnered with George Beauchamp, later of Rickenbacker fame, to form the National String Instrument Corporation, which released the first resonator model, a metal-bodied instrument with three conical aluminum resonators.

By the following year, conflicting design and business philosophies led Dopyera to leave National and form the Dobro Manufacturing Company with four of his brothers. The company name “Dobro,” commonly used as an eponym for resonators, is actually short for Dopyera Brothers. In the early 1930s, the brothers would take control of National to form the National-Dobro Corporation.

So while the term “Dobro” shouldn’t be used to refer to all resonator guitars, the company’s founder did set the template for the designs you’ll find nowadays. Today, Gibson produces resonator guitars under the Dobro name, while the National brand has been revived as National Reso-Phonic. But models by other modern resonator manufacturers—including Gretsch, Fender, Ibanez, Washburn, Recording King and Dean — also owe a lot to the original National/Dobro legacy.

Basic Resonator Designs: Biscuits, Spiders and Cones

Resonators are metal cones that attach to the bridge of the instrument and act as sort of mechanical loudspeakers to project the strings’ vibrations. “There are three basic resonator designs,” Chappell says. “Those derived from the first Nationals are known as tricones — thanks to the three resonators, which are attached to a T-shaped bridge.”

National M-1 Tricone

National Reso-Phonic is known particularly for producing high-end tricone models with bodies of wood, like the mahogany M-1 Tricone, as well as metal tricone resonators like the NRP Steel, and others made with brass and silver.

Though tricones were—and still are—sought for their complex tone, National was developing a single-cone resonator guitar at the time Dopyera left to form Dobro. The single cone resonator became a hallmark of his new company.

“Dobros and Dobro-style guitars use an inverted cone and a ‘spider bridge,’ so called because the assembly has eight legs,” Chappell says. “The guitar bodies are usually made of wood. The marriage of the wood and resonator gives Dobros their trademark projection and focused tone.” Modern examples like the Dobro Hound Dog and Gold Tone Paul Beard Signature series continue that tradition.

National would eventually come out with a single-cone design, reportedly based on Dopyera’s earlier work, though it was patented to Beauchamp. It uses a non-inverted cone and a simpler “biscuit bridge.” Metal-bodied models using the biscuit bridge are especially prized among blues players. A few popular models in production today with this design include the steel-bodied National Collegian and wood Gretsch G9241.

“The tricone has a smoother sound that sustains, and the latter a sharper, clearer sound,” said Al Handa in an essay on the history of resonator guitars at nationalguitars.com. “Which is better is really a moot point, as one could say it is like choosing between Tampa Red and Son House.”

Round Neck vs Flat Neck Resonators

While body materials and resonator type influence the sound, Chappell says the shape of the neck is even more fundamental.

“You’ve got two main choices: instruments with a round-necks, which are designed to be played like conventional Spanish guitars, and square-neck models that are played like a lap steel.”

Dobro Square Neck Resonator

It’s easy to find both neck styles in all three resonator categories—there are tons of models offered in both forms. In the end, the choice largely comes down to how you want to play.

“Round-necks can be played by fretting the strings conventionally, or using a bottleneck-style slide,” says guitarist Geoff Hartwell, who has performed and taught alongside Sonny Landreth and Cindy Cashdollar. “Square-neck models are typically laid out flat either across your lap or with a strap. They have a flat fingerboard with only position markers, not any actual frets, and the action is so high that you can only play them with a slide or bar. This can be an adjustment when switching from conventional guitar, but is a great experience.”

If you decide to go with a square neck, Hartwell recommends getting two types of slides, known as tone bars: a Stevens bar and a bullet bar.

“A Stevens bar has a groove on top that keeps your index finger centered, which is a big help,” he says. After getting comfortable with the Stevens, “try using the bullet, while keeping your index finger straight on top all the way down the center. This will help with your tone and intonation.”

Resonator Nuts

Because they’re designed specifically for slide playing, square neck resonators have a raised nut that keeps the strings well off the fingerboard. But round neck players can also make their guitars more slide-friendly by using an extension nut, which slips over the standard nut and raises the action. “Because they’re inexpensive and removable,” Chappell says, “extension nuts are a worthy investment if you want to switch between slide and standard fingering.”

Wood vs. Metal Resonator Bodies

The final consideration is body material. All resonator guitars will feel “body heavy” compared to a standard acoustic, and this can be more pronounced with metal bodies.

“As for sound, wood is major contributor to the warm tone of someone like Jerry Douglas,” Chappell says. “But like all guitars, the tone is based on a combination of factors.”

Hartwell finds metal bodies to be brighter and louder, but some older metal resonators also have a few unique qualities. “Some resonator players talk about ‘the Ghost,’ as in, ‘That guitar’s got The Ghost!’ I've only heard this demonstrated on old metal body models, but it refers to an echo or overtone inherent in the instrument. For example, when you play a note or chord loudly and mute quickly, there’s a faint reverberation after you've muted the strings. It’s pretty cool!”

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