August 1, 2003

By Andy Ekkus

Replete with family squabbles and business deals gone sour, the story of the Dobro—and resonator guitars in general— would make a cool soap opera. Having survived numerous owners and many ups and downs in its 75-year life, the Dobro-brand resonator guitar is now being built in Nashville by Original Acoustic Instruments, a division of Gibson.

The roundneck Hound Dog Dobro ($799 street, gig bag included), OAI’s latest reso offering, is a vibey, fat-sounding, no-frills 6-string that’s perfect for acoustic lead and fingerstyle slide. To
understand where the Hound Dog fits in the spectrum of reso instruments—which includes vintage collectibles, mass-produced imports, and handmade customs—we need to review some construction basics.

To the casual observer, single-resonator guitars differ primarily in their body materials. A classic Dobro is built from laminated wood, and old Nationals have nickel-plated brass or painted steel bodies. But if you peer through the coverplates of a few vintage resos, you’ll soon realize there are other, less obvious
distinctions between traditional designs. Squareneck Dobros— the acoustic lap steel used in bluegrass—have forward-facing aluminum cones, and roundneck Nationals—the instruments that helped define the sound of ’30s Delta blues—have rear-facing cones. The inverted National-style cone is mechanically driven by a wooden, hockey-puck shaped “biscuit” bridge, which sits in a cup at the center of the cone. Dobro-style cones are driven by a more complicated “spider” bridge, an eight-legged assembly that straddles the cone and contacts its rim and center. Squareneck Dobros typically have necks that join the body at the 12th fret, slotted headstocks, and a pair of small, screen-covered soundholes, and Nationals often have 14-fret necks with solid headstocks, and sport f-holes on the upper bouts.

Designed to be fretted like a standard guitar, the roundneck Hound Dog borrows from both blues and bluegrass schools of reso design. It has a wood body with f-holes, a forward-facing 10 1/2" spun aluminum cone and spider bridge, a 12-fret neck with a solid headstock and adjustable trussrod, and a nickel-plated fan-style coverplate.

The Hound Dog isn’t the only modern reso guitar to combine elements of old Dobros and Nationals, but one item makes it unique: a sweet sounding Fishman Resonator pickup. It’s tricky to install a pickup on a resonator guitar, so it’s a big deal to find an affordable one that’s prewired and ready to rock.

Construction Details
In the world of resonator guitars, opinion is divided on the subject of solid versus laminated wood bodies. According to traditionalists, to gain maximum projection and tone from the resonator, you want to minimize body vibration by using stiff, high-quality laminates. Many custom reso builders take the opposite tack and use solid woods throughout their instruments, aiming for a more flexible, guitar-like response. Another area of debate is the internal soundwell—a burly, circular wall that encloses the cone on vintage Dobros—versus the baffle-and-soundpost construction favored by such contemporary builders as Tim Scheerhorn.

Once again, the Hound Dog combines the old with the new. Like traditional Dobros, its body is made entirely of three-ply laminated maple, yet the interior is completely open, with no well or baffles to concentrate or deflect soundwaves. The cone is supported by a circular, kerfed lining and four pencil-width soundposts. The latter connect the top to the back, and create stiffness with minimum mass. Soundpost construction keeps the body light and resonant, and this contributes to the Hound Dog’s big, yet relaxed voice. While there’s no body binding, the edge of the top and back absorb the hand-rubbed, brown stain differently from the flat surfaces, and this adds visual interest to the guitar’s otherwise utilitarian appearance.

The HD’s one-piece maple neck has a comfortably round profile, and a thick, gently
radiused rosewood fretboard. (While OAI doesn’t publish the specs, my measurements indicate a 12" radius.) The frets are nicely trimmed, crowned, and polished. It’s too bad that a few of them were rudely spot-filed after the fact, and left with an uncrowned, raspy playing surface.
The Corian nut is shaped decently, and its slots are spaced accurately, though the second and fourth strings sit higher from the fretboard than their siblings. Happily, the string slots are correctly radiused in the ebony-capped maple saddle. Like all Dobros, the Hound Dog has a straight saddle, which means intonation is a compromise. Still, I found that by rotating the spider assembly slightly counter-clockwise to lengthen the bass-string scale (as described in the HD’s info sheet), I was able to find a sweet spot where the intonation was acceptable along the entire fretboard. Tuning and restringing this Dobro is quick and easy, thanks to its smooth, sealed machines and unslotted headstock.

Play Time
If you’re used to slinky flat-tops, you’ll probably find the HD a bit stiff to fret. But there are two reasons OAI made the right call to ship the Hound Dog with moderately high action and medium-gauge strings. First, if you intend to play slide—an obvious use for a reso guitar—you need a tad more space between the strings and the fretboard, and plenty of string tension. Second, raising the action on a Dobro means cutting, fitting, and slotting a new saddle (a real chore), whereas lowering the action merely requires deepening the existing saddle’s string slots—a quick, low-cost adjustment.

Even when pummeled, the Hound Dog plays clearly up and down the neck, with no buzzing or fretting out. Its cone—the soul of any reso guitar—is very dynamic. It responds equally well to gentle fingerpicking or aggressive flatpicking. Chords have a generous sustain and graceful decay, and single-note lines sound creamy or barky, depending on whether you pluck close to the fretboard or back at the saddle. The spider bridge provides plenty of projection and pop, yet the wood body keeps the sounds warm and round. While you don’t get the spitty clang of an old steel-body reso, the HD’s overall timbral palette is wider, and there’s plenty of volume and midrange holler to let your slide lines compete with the sound of a strummed flat-top. The HD records well, too. Using an Alesis condenser, I captured woody notes from the f-holes, nasal tones from over the coverplate, and twangy sounds from above the trapeze tailpiece.

Plugged in, the Hound Dog really shines. The passive Fishman pickup (which was co-designed by reso guru Paul Beard) sounds fat and full, and far more realistic than the magnetic pickups I’ve tried on my own Dobro. The Fishman is also surprisingly resistant to mechanical noises, such as your palm bouncing on the coverplate. Using either a D-TAR Solstice or a L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic D.I., I was able to get righteous amplified sounds in a matter of seconds.

Dog Days
For some pickers, the HD’s 12-fret neck will be too limiting. But if you’re looking for a sturdy, toneful resonator guitar for budget bucks, the Hound Dog delivers the goods. What it lacks in visual appeal, it makes up for in sonic pizzazz. With its well-tuned cone and honey-toned pickup, this is one hound dog you’ll want to have cryin’ all the time.


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