The resonator: blues steel

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hunter60

Humble student

Joined: 06/12/05

Posts: 1579

The Resonator: Blues Steel





There are a few guitars that let you know just on appearance alone what type of music they were meant for and none more so than the resonator. With a very deft combination of wood and steel, the resonator practically drips an indigo tone just by its very look. The resonator is the blues guitar. And when you think resonators, two names immediately come to mind; National and Dobro. But have you ever wondered where this near perfect blues instrument came from? My imagination led me to believe that the resonator was the product of some enterprising blues man, hammered together in a garage workshop on a muggy night in the Delta. A dream born of the necessity and need for an instrument that would provide a loud second voice to his blues.

Not quite.

In 1925 a vaudeville entertainer by the name of George Beauchamp approached John Dopyera with a request to make a guitar that could be heard above the piano and orchestra that often played with vaudeville acts. Dopyera had his own small shop in LA where he repaired violins, banjos and other stringed instruments. Initially Beauchamp asked Dopyera to make him a novelty guitar that would sit on a stand with a large horn coming from the side. Dopyera made the instrument for him despite knowing that it would not work well. Beauchamp did play the monstrosity on stage a few times before abandoning it not only because of its unwieldy nature but as the story goes it, it sounded truly awful.

Beauchamp returned to Dopyera’s shop and this time the goal was much more manageable. By 1927 Dopyera, inspired by the Victorola phonograph, had created a metal bodied guitar with three aluminum cones mounted under the bridge of the guitar (very similar in nature to how the phonograph of the time functioned). This ‘resonator’ was 3-5 times louder than the typical acoustic guitar but even more than that; it had a rather unique rich, almost metallic tone. Along with Beauchamp and Dopyera’s brothers Rudy, Emile, Robert and Louis (and a host of willing investors) they formed the National Stringed Instrument Company. (According to the companies’ history, the original ‘Triolians’ were wood based and only 12 of the originals were manufactured before being scrapped and the metal body resonators were created). The three cone resonators sold very well but they were pricey and sold mainly to professional musicians. But that, as George pointed out, was a limited market. Beauchamp had developed a single cone resonator which aside from being cheaper to produce had a LOUD, almost aggressive sound compared to Dopyera’s design and it was this design that caused Dopyera to leave National only a few short years after it had been created. Beauchamp had pressed John hard to abandon the tri-cone model, which was something that the inventor was unwilling to do. When John left the company he lost legal possession of his patents, including his three-cone design.

So Beauchamp had National and pushed along on his single cone resonator design. According to the company’s history, there were many designs and models being put out by National through the thirties but it was the single cone design that kept the company afloat during the Great Depression. Being cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper to sell, the market for the resonator increased. The company was in full production, cranking out as many as 50 pieces a day. The resonator became as popular a guitar amongst the more rural players as that of the Stella acoustic (which was sold through the Sears and Roebuck catalogue), which is where so many of the early blues players got their first guitars.

The resonator became a favorite amongst blues players because so many of the venues that the players found themselves in were packed and loud with partiers and without electricity which left them unable to plug in an electric guitar (if they had even had one). The resonator was loud enough to be heard over the crowd but more than that the tone fit perfectly with the blues. The some times harsh metallic sound was a near-perfect second voice and the bottleneck played on a resonator was a moan that lent the blues its voice.

But Dopyera didn’t disappear. He and his brothers formed their own company to push on with their preferred three-cone design. They called their company Dobro combining their last name with the word ‘brothers’. Dopyera means ‘good’ in their native Slavic tongue and it lent well to their company slogan, ‘Dobro means ‘good’ in any language’. The brothers also learned from their former partner and did not ignore the need for a good single cone design. They came up with their own design setting the cone on an eight-legged aluminum ‘spider’ which rested under a rather distinctive metal plate on a wooden body. Of course Beauchamp countered and to add insult to injury, his counter product was the ‘biscuit’ model in which the cones were attached to the body via a wooden ‘biscuit’. It was actually John Dopyera’s design that he had created before he left National.

While the two companies were wrangling for their market share, the Dopyera’s took legal action and eventually took control back of National and merged the two companies together to become The National Dobro Corporation. They continued to make resonators in various styles and designs until America entered World War 2. Following the war, Emile (Ed) Dopyera began manufacturing resonators again in 1959. Shortly thereafter he sold the patent and trademark to the Mosite Company. In 1967 Ed and Rudy Dopyera began to make Dobro’s again, this time under the Hound Dog label. In 1970 they snagged the Dobro name back when Mosite found themselves in financial trouble.

National resurfaced in the 80’s as the National Reso-Phonic Guitars that continues to make an array of stringed instruments under the National label. Gibson purchased the Dobro name in the 1990’s and has been making dobro’s and resonators under the Epiphone and Hound Dog names since.

What amazes me is how now, closing in on 100 years later and despite the changes in technology and materials, you can still pick up a resonator, place a slide over your finger and begin to work the frets and you can hear, feel, the history in your hands. The resonator shows up in blue grass, Hawaiian, country, some folk music and even in jazz in the early days but there is no mistaking it, it’s the true blues guitar and it’s history is as wide and varied as the music it best represents.
"All I can do is be me ... whoever that is". Bob Dylan

#1

The Resonator: Blues Steel





There are a few guitars that let you know just on appearance alone what type of music they were meant for and none more so than the resonator. With a very deft combination of wood and steel, the resonator practically drips an indigo tone just by its very look. The resonator is the blues guitar. And when you think resonators, two names immediately come to mind; National and Dobro. But have you ever wondered where this near perfect blues instrument came from? My imagination led me to believe that the resonator was the product of some enterprising blues man, hammered together in a garage workshop on a muggy night in the Delta. A dream born of the necessity and need for an instrument that would provide a loud second voice to his blues.

Not quite.

In 1925 a vaudeville entertainer by the name of George Beauchamp approached John Dopyera with a request to make a guitar that could be heard above the piano and orchestra that often played with vaudeville acts. Dopyera had his own small shop in LA where he repaired violins, banjos and other stringed instruments. Initially Beauchamp asked Dopyera to make him a novelty guitar that would sit on a stand with a large horn coming from the side. Dopyera made the instrument for him despite knowing that it would not work well. Beauchamp did play the monstrosity on stage a few times before abandoning it not only because of its unwieldy nature but as the story goes it, it sounded truly awful.

Beauchamp returned to Dopyera’s shop and this time the goal was much more manageable. By 1927 Dopyera, inspired by the Victorola phonograph, had created a metal bodied guitar with three aluminum cones mounted under the bridge of the guitar (very similar in nature to how the phonograph of the time functioned). This ‘resonator’ was 3-5 times louder than the typical acoustic guitar but even more than that; it had a rather unique rich, almost metallic tone. Along with Beauchamp and Dopyera’s brothers Rudy, Emile, Robert and Louis (and a host of willing investors) they formed the National Stringed Instrument Company. (According to the companies’ history, the original ‘Triolians’ were wood based and only 12 of the originals were manufactured before being scrapped and the metal body resonators were created). The three cone resonators sold very well but they were pricey and sold mainly to professional musicians. But that, as George pointed out, was a limited market. Beauchamp had developed a single cone resonator which aside from being cheaper to produce had a LOUD, almost aggressive sound compared to Dopyera’s design and it was this design that caused Dopyera to leave National only a few short years after it had been created. Beauchamp had pressed John hard to abandon the tri-cone model, which was something that the inventor was unwilling to do. When John left the company he lost legal possession of his patents, including his three-cone design.

So Beauchamp had National and pushed along on his single cone resonator design. According to the company’s history, there were many designs and models being put out by National through the thirties but it was the single cone design that kept the company afloat during the Great Depression. Being cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper to sell, the market for the resonator increased. The company was in full production, cranking out as many as 50 pieces a day. The resonator became as popular a guitar amongst the more rural players as that of the Stella acoustic (which was sold through the Sears and Roebuck catalogue), which is where so many of the early blues players got their first guitars.

The resonator became a favorite amongst blues players because so many of the venues that the players found themselves in were packed and loud with partiers and without electricity which left them unable to plug in an electric guitar (if they had even had one). The resonator was loud enough to be heard over the crowd but more than that the tone fit perfectly with the blues. The some times harsh metallic sound was a near-perfect second voice and the bottleneck played on a resonator was a moan that lent the blues its voice.

But Dopyera didn’t disappear. He and his brothers formed their own company to push on with their preferred three-cone design. They called their company Dobro combining their last name with the word ‘brothers’. Dopyera means ‘good’ in their native Slavic tongue and it lent well to their company slogan, ‘Dobro means ‘good’ in any language’. The brothers also learned from their former partner and did not ignore the need for a good single cone design. They came up with their own design setting the cone on an eight-legged aluminum ‘spider’ which rested under a rather distinctive metal plate on a wooden body. Of course Beauchamp countered and to add insult to injury, his counter product was the ‘biscuit’ model in which the cones were attached to the body via a wooden ‘biscuit’. It was actually John Dopyera’s design that he had created before he left National.

While the two companies were wrangling for their market share, the Dopyera’s took legal action and eventually took control back of National and merged the two companies together to become The National Dobro Corporation. They continued to make resonators in various styles and designs until America entered World War 2. Following the war, Emile (Ed) Dopyera began manufacturing resonators again in 1959. Shortly thereafter he sold the patent and trademark to the Mosite Company. In 1967 Ed and Rudy Dopyera began to make Dobro’s again, this time under the Hound Dog label. In 1970 they snagged the Dobro name back when Mosite found themselves in financial trouble.

National resurfaced in the 80’s as the National Reso-Phonic Guitars that continues to make an array of stringed instruments under the National label. Gibson purchased the Dobro name in the 1990’s and has been making dobro’s and resonators under the Epiphone and Hound Dog names since.

What amazes me is how now, closing in on 100 years later and despite the changes in technology and materials, you can still pick up a resonator, place a slide over your finger and begin to work the frets and you can hear, feel, the history in your hands. The resonator shows up in blue grass, Hawaiian, country, some folk music and even in jazz in the early days but there is no mistaking it, it’s the true blues guitar and it’s history is as wide and varied as the music it best represents.
"All I can do is be me ... whoever that is". Bob Dylan

Steve Clay

Full Access

Joined: 10/15/11

Posts: 1

resonator heaven

Excellent article. Tune your Resonator`s to D in order to use a slide. Try wearing your slide on your pinky so that you can play cords behind the slide. Play your slide over the top of your frets, Each fret gives a dfferent note. Try playing to slided frets next to each other around the twelth fret and then drop down to play cords This is the Robert Johnson style of slide play. Frets 3,5,7,9.12 and 15 are excellent areas to use your slide. If you dont have a resonator and would like to try slide on a acoustic guitar tune down to D tuning and have fun. When you get a resonator in your hands you will have already mastered it.

#2

resonator heaven

Excellent article. Tune your Resonator`s to D in order to use a slide. Try wearing your slide on your pinky so that you can play cords behind the slide. Play your slide over the top of your frets, Each fret gives a dfferent note. Try playing to slided frets next to each other around the twelth fret and then drop down to play cords This is the Robert Johnson style of slide play. Frets 3,5,7,9.12 and 15 are excellent areas to use your slide. If you dont have a resonator and would like to try slide on a acoustic guitar tune down to D tuning and have fun. When you get a resonator in your hands you will have already mastered it.

jmorgans

Full Access

Joined: 04/07/13

Posts: 7

Resonator

TERRIFIC STORY;

I was of the same belief as you. I would not of thought of Vaudeville at all. Great information and story.

Thanks

#3

Resonator

TERRIFIC STORY;

I was of the same belief as you. I would not of thought of Vaudeville at all. Great information and story.

Thanks

Slipin Lizard

Registered User

Joined: 11/15/07

Posts: 711

That was a good read Hunter! Didn't know anything about the history of those guitars at all... very interesting, thanks for posting!

#4

That was a good read Hunter! Didn't know anything about the history of those guitars at all... very interesting, thanks for posting!

lhowerton

Registered User

Joined: 02/01/10

Posts: 1

More guitar history

Loved the article. How about more guitar history. That'd be great!!

#5

More guitar history

Loved the article. How about more guitar history. That'd be great!!

sleepnomore

Full Access

Joined: 06/03/11

Posts: 7

Them scrap metal guitars ... :-)

Thank you for this lesson in guitar history, Hunter. Most of it I knew, but not in such detail. Being addicted to anything historical, it was a joyful read.

The better Resophonic guitars still have a hefty price tag to them, and for an amateur like me, such great guitars are probably a waste when in my hands.

If all you guys and girls out there who read Hunters article are wondering what's on the market that's kind of affordable, then I have two recommendations:

1. Republic Guitars http://republicguitars.com/index I own two guitars of their make; one a travel sized one, the other full scale with a single coil pickup fitted. They are not the easiest to play, but they are worth to wrangle with. And that Lace single coil pickup on the full size Highway 61 really does the trick. What a beautiful monster!

2. Gretsch Bobtail roundneck http://www.gretschguitars.com/products/index.php?partno=2716010503 This one is a real beauty and fitted with a Fishman Nashville pickup. I do not own it yet, but I heard it, and it has such a sweet sound. I only became aware of this one just a week after I ordered my second Republic Resophonic guitar. In hindsight, I would have probably gone for this one this time; part of it being sheer curiosity. :-)

The Republic guitars as well as this line of Gretsch guitars are quite affordable. Should you think about acquiring a guitar that represents the very heart of the blues, you can't go much wrong with either one. Both offer round-neck and square-neck versions.

My best to you all, and happy while blue

sleepnomore

#6

Them scrap metal guitars ... :-)

Thank you for this lesson in guitar history, Hunter. Most of it I knew, but not in such detail. Being addicted to anything historical, it was a joyful read.

The better Resophonic guitars still have a hefty price tag to them, and for an amateur like me, such great guitars are probably a waste when in my hands.

If all you guys and girls out there who read Hunters article are wondering what's on the market that's kind of affordable, then I have two recommendations:

1. Republic Guitars http://republicguitars.com/index I own two guitars of their make; one a travel sized one, the other full scale with a single coil pickup fitted. They are not the easiest to play, but they are worth to wrangle with. And that Lace single coil pickup on the full size Highway 61 really does the trick. What a beautiful monster!

2. Gretsch Bobtail roundneck http://www.gretschguitars.com/products/index.php?partno=2716010503 This one is a real beauty and fitted with a Fishman Nashville pickup. I do not own it yet, but I heard it, and it has such a sweet sound. I only became aware of this one just a week after I ordered my second Republic Resophonic guitar. In hindsight, I would have probably gone for this one this time; part of it being sheer curiosity. :-)

The Republic guitars as well as this line of Gretsch guitars are quite affordable. Should you think about acquiring a guitar that represents the very heart of the blues, you can't go much wrong with either one. Both offer round-neck and square-neck versions.

My best to you all, and happy while blue

sleepnomore

welder4

Registered User

Joined: 03/30/08

Posts: 4

Resonators and the Stella guitar

When I was but a lad my father handed me a guitar, at the head stock it was printed on there "Stella" , I used and played that guitar touching ever so slightly an old chest of drawers and pulled some fantastic sounds from it. When the guitar was discarded I had deep holes in the fret board and it was not because I did not trim my nails, I played so well on the Stella the next one he bought me was a Les Paul jr. $129.99 and a Princeton Amp one 12 and a single 6lb6 tube out put . Those were the best of times for me and guitars. Loved to read about the dobro's it really gives an insight as to how things came about . Yes I am old now but still playing today at 69 years I still love the guitar. I now own a Fender plus 1989 vintage and 1989 Takemine and a Martin, new one and I enjoy it to no end. keep playing and make your music and to thy own self be true

#7

Resonators and the Stella guitar

When I was but a lad my father handed me a guitar, at the head stock it was printed on there "Stella" , I used and played that guitar touching ever so slightly an old chest of drawers and pulled some fantastic sounds from it. When the guitar was discarded I had deep holes in the fret board and it was not because I did not trim my nails, I played so well on the Stella the next one he bought me was a Les Paul jr. $129.99 and a Princeton Amp one 12 and a single 6lb6 tube out put . Those were the best of times for me and guitars. Loved to read about the dobro's it really gives an insight as to how things came about . Yes I am old now but still playing today at 69 years I still love the guitar. I now own a Fender plus 1989 vintage and 1989 Takemine and a Martin, new one and I enjoy it to no end. keep playing and make your music and to thy own self be true