Resonator guitars have been built with both wood and metal bodies, but most players agree the metal-body guitars are the real attention grabbers—in no small part because they can be finished in gleaming chrome or polished nickel. The metal-body reso also arguably captures the seminal sound, being a touch more haunting and reverberant than its more organic partner. Although resonators with three cones, called “tri-cones,” are also made, the single-cone design—often referred to as the “National Duolian style”—is a little more straightforward and is perhaps more versatile tonally. All three of our samples are in this style, with an inward-pointing 91/2" aluminum cone and “biscuit” bridge. Resos also come in both roundneck and squareneck flavors; the latter is for lap-style slide playing only, but roundneck models offer a more familiar introduction to the newbie. Roundnecks can be played in the traditional upright style using either fretting or slide techniques (or a mix of both), and in the lap style as well if the action is high enough to accommodate. For comparison purposes, I tested this trio alongside a National Reso-Phonic Delphi, which at a list price of $1,940 is the most affordable American-made metal-body resonator available from a major maker.
One of the big Chicago guitar makers of the early 20th century, Regal also produced metal-body resonator guitars in the 1930s under license from Dobro. The Saga company now owns the Regal name, and offers Korean- and Chinese-made instruments under the brand. Saga’s Regal guitars were among the first to bring the metal-body resonator down toward the half-a-grand mark a few years back, and they remain among the best selling budget versions of the instrument.
The RC-1 (list $495/street $379) has a steel body that’s finished in an attractive gun-metal grey, which is contrasted nicely by the chromed coverplate, fixed bridge cover (hand rest), and tailpiece. The pearloid headstock overlay lends a fun vintage touch, although the green and red art deco motifs might lean towards the hokey for some tastes. The mahogany neck carries a bound rosewood fingerboard, and joins the body at the 14th fret.
On the whole, workmanship on this instrument is pretty good for the money, despite a few bubbles in the enamel finish. At first grab, the RC-1 feels solid and playable: The fret ends have been well dressed so there are no sharp hitches, the gloss-finished rounded-C neck profile should feel comfortable in most hands, and the generic die-cast sealed tuners function smoothly. The only considerable fly in the ointment so far is that the string spacing has been cut a little narrow at the nut—a spacing of 15/16" on a 111/16" nut, verses 115/32" on the Johnson in a nut of the same width. There’s room here to get the E strings further out without risk of dropping off the fingerboard, and as it is, it’s a little tight for larger fingers.
The RC-1 has been set up for a fairly low action with medium-light strings, and it’s an easy guitar to play. Even for beginners, the transition from the average acoustic guitar to this Regal should be a smooth one, and it’s a real breeze to fret and strum. But the factors that make some resos real beasts to get used to are also the factors that help make them great-sounding slide instruments. On the RC-1, bottleneck-style slide playing requires a light touch, and even then it can be difficult to eliminate all knocks and buzzes. Lap-style playing is even trickier, and the weight of the tonebar drags it down onto the frets if you’re not extremely delicate. Still, you can achieve enough of both forms of slide playing to get a taste of the style, and Regal’s target customer is likely to be the player who wants to dabble in the reso tone while learning or expanding their slide chops, rather than the hardcore bottleneck or lap-style player. If the slide bug bites, you can either hot-rod the RC-1 with a slightly higher bone nut for bottlenecking, or add one of the commonly available nut extenders to (reversibly) modify it for lap-style playing. (For details on the latter, see “Lap Slide Seminar” in the Winter 2006 issue of Frets.)
Most resonator guitars of this style have a tone that balances a richer, bassier sound emanating from the f-holes in the upper bout with a sharper, more metallic sound projecting from the top of the cone. The RC-1 is heavy on the latter, and doesn’t offer a great portion of the smoother, warmer side of the tone. That said, it sounds like a reso, and barks out enough zingy cone action that you’ll never forget you’ve stepped out of standard acoustic guitar territory.
Johnson Style-O JM-998-R
The Johnson company’s resonator guitars have earned a reputation for providing imported entry-level instruments with some professional-grade spirit, and the JM-998-R (list $677/street $559) represents the stable well. The bell brass body wears a highly polished nickel-silver plating that creates the kind of instant impact on stage that draws many wannabe reso players to the instrument in the first place. This guitar has a 14th-fret neck joint like the Regal, and a similar body shape. The fullish C-shaped mahogany neck has a satin finish that inspires speedy transitions, and its unbound rosewood fretboard benefits from reasonably smooth fret ends.
All that reflective silver aside, you get the impression that a little less time has been spent making this Johnson look like a vintage reso, with a little more attention paid to making it sound and play like one. The JM-998-R carries a hand-spun Hungarian Continental aluminum cone, which can be considered a genuine upgrade in an instrument in this price range. Many enthusiastic, but shallow-pocketed reso players upgrade a budget instrument’s stock cone to one made by National or Quarterman, and this can significantly improve the tone of a cheaper resonator guitar. The European-made Continental cone gets us close to that territory right from the factory, and saves the customer a potentially tricky modification.
A medium-high action and medium-gauge strings make the Johnson more of a slide-
oriented instrument right from the go, although it still functions well for fingerstyle rags or punchy strumming if you put just a little more muscle into it than might be required of your average steel-string flat-top. If you’re serious about slide playing, or want to develop chops that will help you become a slider, this trade-off is inevitable, and the JM-998-R pays off with a smooth, buzz and clunk-free sound, even with a heavy brass slide. The higher action also enables you to pull off those nifty behind-the-slide hammer-ons to alter chords or swiftly drop in minor hints. This is just the kind of “how’d he do that?” technique that is simple enough to achieve with the right setup, but lets novices feel like they’re getting into advanced territory. The guitar applies itself ably to lap-style playing as well, which—even if the biscuit-bridge, single-cone, roundneck reso is designed primarily as a bottleneck instrument—opens up other sonic doors, and is a lot of fun to get a whiff of here.
Sonically the Johnson has a good blend of cutting, slightly nasal treble from the cone and throaty, round bass from the upper-bout f-holes, and carries us into something closer to premium resonator guitar tone. It doesn’t possess quite the depth and dimension of U.S.-made and finer European instruments costing around $2,000 and up, but it at least offers strong hints of that tone, and is a very good all-rounder for the money.
Gold Tone GRS
Designed for Gold Tone by noted resonator maker Paul Beard—and carrying his signature—the GRS (list $899/street $729) is easily the heaviest guitar in this roundup, and its literal heft follows through to the figurative as you delve into its details and design. From the bone nut to the ridged cover plate with removable hand rest, from the gloss finished, golden-walnut-stained mahogany neck to the rich dark-chocolate of the bound rosewood fretboard, the GRS looks and feels a rung up the ladder from what we’ve experienced so far. The guitar is made in Korea and assembled in the USA with the addition of several American-made Beard parts, including a hand-spun aluminum Beard cone.
This Gold Tone also differentiates itself in having a 12th-fret neck joint and a longer, slope-shouldered body design. The shape—which echoes that of high-end models from National and others—sets the GRS apart from the more standard, concert-bodied guitars. But this difference is more than just cosmetic: The neck joint and body style give the guitar an extra inch-and-a-half or so in body length compared to the Regal and the Johnson, and set the cone in a larger reverberant chamber. The neck has a chunky, full, but palm-friendly feel to it, and the nut has been cut to allow plenty of room between strings for conflict-free fingering, without putting the E strings so close to the edge that you’re constantly pulling them overboard.
At first strum, there are hints that the extra effort put in here design-wise, and the addition of some upmarket parts, are going to pay off. The GRS has the deepest, fullest, most mature voice of the bunch. There’s loads of ring and sustain, and a gorgeous bass/treble balance with, if anything, a slight favoring of the deeper tones that flow from the f-holes. While newcomers are often drawn to the novel zing and sizzle of the cone sound from a reso, that alone can get a little grating over time. Personally, I like an instrument that exudes more of the silky lower frequencies with a fairly linear overall balance. The Gold Tone definitely falls in that camp, while retaining enough sparkly aluminum cone sizzle to really cut through the mix. Indeed, it’s also the loudest of the bunch, which speaks of a successful design all around. I’d say this instrument even approaches the tonal territory of the Delphi, and if it’s a hair short in terms of succulent, velvety richness, I’m guessing it has the potential to mature over time as the cone gets played in.
The GRS wears medium-gauge strings with a fairly low action, which makes it easy enough to fret, but requires a light touch with the slide, and makes behind-the-slide fretting techniques a little tricky. The setup works to an extent for lap slide, but players who find themselves using it across the lap far more than upright might eventually want to modify it with a slightly higher bone nut.
In this ultra-competitive price range, the build quality and sonic performance of a metal-body resonator guitar steps up considerably with each jump of roughly $150, with attainment of that “real reso sound” following pretty closely the amount of cash you’re willing or able to lay down.
The Gold Tone GRS is the clear standout tonally, and is the most thought-out design of the group too, but the Johnson sounds pretty decent for the money, and also—given the current setups of each—makes a good choice for players who might like to dabble in lap-style playing while still being able to tackle the guitar upright for bottleneck slide and standard fingering. The Regal is ultra-affordable for a steel-bodied reso, and at least cops
some of the characteristic zing and twang, although taking the National Reso-Phonic Delphi for a spin after some time spent with the RC-1 feels a little like switching on the
hi-fi after listening to your old LPs through the stylus vibrations alone. Even so, the RC-1 is a fun instrument, and with a street price of well below $400, it offers even those on a tight budget an opportunity to explore the funky cry of resonator tone.