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.

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!


comments powered by Disqus

Reader Poll

Best B.B. King Song?

See results without voting »