BRAIN SNACK: 5 Things About Resonator Guitars

February 8, 2012

Well before mass production of the electric guitar, the resonator instrument hit the scene as the first feasible effort to “amplify” a standard guitar. This was achieved by means of spun aluminum cones—designed much like standard paper speaker cones—that were placed in the guitar’s top, with a bridge and saddle configuration contacting them directly. When the strings were plucked, the cones’ vibrations projected a sound much louder than that of a traditional acoustic guitar. The first resonator guitars appeared around 1927 from National, a partnership between John Dopyera, Adolph Rickenbacker, and inventor/musician George Beauchamp.


The first National Reso-Phonic models were tri-cone designs, with three smaller cones that open toward the inside of the guitar body, all connected to the strings via a T-shaped bridge. With the rivalry soon posed by single-coned Dobros (see below), National produced its own single- cone resonators, and these are more common than tri-cones today. A singlecone resonator can be identified by the single, round “hubcap-like” cover which conceals the cone, while a tri-cone has a cone cover shaped like a rounded triangle with a T-shaped bridge cover. Confusingly, the first single-cone National model was called the Triolian, a name it retained from the tri-cone model from which it evolved.

Not surprisingly, single-cone and tri-cone resos will sound somewhat different. Tri-cones are generally more complex, detailed, and articulate, while single-cones are deeper, richer, and warmer. Differences in body material compound tonal variations too, however: steel or brass-bodied resos tend to be ringing, “zingy” and slightly strident, while wood-bodied versions are somewhat mellower and warmer. The instrument was first conceived to enable the guitarist to compete with horns on the bandstand, but quickly became a star of the Hawaiian music craze. Metal-bodied resos have tended to be Hawaiian and blues instruments, while wood-bodied Dobros are a bluegrass standard, and wood-bodied Nationals are more the choice of blues players.

After a dispute with his partners at National, John Dopyera left the company in 1928 to build his own new resonator designs with his brothers under the Dobro brand. These used a single cone that faced outward from the guitar’s body, like a traditional speaker cone, and was connected to the strings by a multi-pronged “spider” bridge. Early Dobros were also more often wood-bodied instruments. To compete with the new Dobros, National soon released its own single-coned resonator guitar—in both wood and metal-bodied models— which featured a cone that instead fired into the body of the guitar, connected by a “biscuit” bridge.

Early resonator guitars were available either as roundneck or squareneck models, for traditional and lap-style playing respectively. The squareneck was the staple of Hawaiian players, but was picked up by many lap-style blues and country artists over the years. A roundneck can, of course, be used for slide-style playing too—played upright in the “bottleneck” style with a finger slide, or like a standard guitar à la Mark Knopfler’s legendary Brothers In Arms National. A squareneck, on the other hand, can’t easily be played like a traditional guitar. To adapt a roundneck to lap-style, many players add a “nut extender” to lift the strings further from the fretboard.

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