Wednesday, July 15, 2009
As regular readers know, these days guitar-wise I’m performing exclusively on a resonator model. It seems like everywhere I turn up with my Regal, I get questions about it; since the resonator (also called a resophonic guitar) stirs interest in the tangible world, I thought it might generate some in the virtual world as well.
These days it’s de rigueur for a band in almost any form of popular music to have at least one guitar; & since this has been more or less the case since the mid 1950s on, you might believe it’s always been so. Well, no. The guitar as it existed from the 16th century to the 1930s had a significant drawback as a “band” instrument, especially in ensembles featuring wind instruments of practically any sort: acoustic guitars are quiet—a fact that may seem surprising to us in the era of magnetic pick-ups, & perhaps even unbelievable to moms & dads whose kid is hammering out power chords on his/her Strat.
So a number of developments in the history of guitar design have had to do with increasing the instrument’s volume & “sustain”; the latter term refers to how long a note produced by an instrument can continue to sound, & is actually only tangentially related to volume. For example, a banjo can generate quite a bit of volume, but has very little sustain. Solid body electric guitars have a great deal of sustain—when Les Paul was designing the “Les Paul Log” in the early 40s he said, “You could go out & eat & come back & it would still be sounding.”
Other innovations to guitar design dated to the late 19th century, many of which were instigated by the Martin & Gibson companies; these would include using steel strings rather than gut strings—which increased volume, & necessitated modifications in the neck design—& also the carved “archtop” body shape, especially associated with Gibson guitars. This shape tends to increase the guitar’s ability to project sound. But while these innovations worked well in string settings like mandolin orchestras, when jazz came along & popular bands started featuring cornets & trombones & clarinets, the guitar was simply drowned out. That’s why the early jazz bands featured banjos &/or pianos to play the chords. The guitars of the teens & early 20s couldn’t be effective in such a setting. & that’s where our story starts for real.
In the 1920s, instrument builder John Dopyera was approached by steel guitar player George Beauchamp, who asked him to design a louder guitar—by the way, “steel guitar” here refers to the Hawaiian guitar that developed into the lap steel & then to the pedal steel. The original steel guitar (like the lap steel) typically was laid on the lap & played with a metal slide held in the left hand. At that time, of course, steel guitars like their conventional counterparts were acoustic.
Dopyera’s solution was to place metal cones (originally as many as four) within the guitar’s sound cavity. Rather than relying on the wooden soundboard driven into vibration by the strings, the cone(s) amplifies the sound transmitted by the strings thru the bridge, & the body acts essentially like a speaker cabinet. Dopyera & Beauchamp formed the National String Instrument Company in 1927, making tricone metal-bodied resonators (tricone referring of course referring to three cones). The next year Dopyera & his brothers formed the Dobro Company (Dopyera Brothers=Dobro) & began producing single cone resonators. Following a legal battle, the Dopyera brothers gained control of both companies in the early 30s & operated them as the National Dobro Company. This company is no longer in existence: Gibson won the rights to the Dobro name in the early 1990s, while a new company called the National Reso-Phonic Guitars was formed in the 1980s. Guitars currently sold under the National name are made by this company.
There are a number of manufacturers of the various resonator instruments, which can be broken down into three mix & match categories: round-neck/square-neck; metal-bodied/wood-bodied; single cone/tricone. What is commonly known as the Dobro (actually a Gibson trademark now)—i.e., a square-neck played lap style (or if played standing, then played with the guitar suspended flat), typically with a single cone—is most often seen in bluegrass & country contexts. Players using resonators for blues or fingerstyle in general tend to use the round-necked models, because they can be played either lap style or “Spanish style”—i.e., held as a guitar is conventionally. The square-necked guitars are more versatile in terms of tuning possibilities, simply because the square neck is stronger—some common square-neck tunings simply can’t be used on a round-neck guitar. However, round-neck guitars are often re-tuned to what’s called “open tunings”—meaning the 6-strings sounded together make a chord—usually a major chord, & most commonly either a G or a D; because the strings either stay at conventional pitch or are “slacked” (tuned down) to do this, the strings & the neck aren’t put under any extra tension. These open tunings are especially favored by players who use a bottleneck slide. Of course many people—including yours truly—play round-neck resonator guitars in conventional tuning & held & fretted conventionally.
I love the resonator sound—& that distinctive sound is the reason that these guitars are still quite popular long after the invention of the electro-magnetic pick-up made their original purpose obsolete. I should note that other instruments have incorporated the resonator sound from almost the first days of the technology—these include especially the ukulele (also a notoriously quiet instrument) as well as the mandolin & the tenor guitar. I own a Beltona resonator tenor uke, & I love it—very bell-like in sound. My resonator guitar is a Regal RC-2 (a single cone), & I’m very happy with it—sorry not to have a sound clip ready at this point, but I do plan seriously on doing some recording next month—honest! Obviously, National is the brand everyone thinks of, & I’m sure they’re great if you have the $. If I had the $, however, I’d think very seriously about a Beltona Southerner. Because the Beltona bodies are made of a glass reinforced resin, they’re considerably lighter than the all steel body instruments—my Regal is pretty doggone heavy!
Other more affordable models in addition to the Regal would include Johnson, Recording King & Epiphone. Beard makes both high-end guitars & also more moderately priced ones (in conjunction with Gold Tone). Which guitar is right for a given player is obviously (to me at least) an individual choice. However, a Google search will show that this is a particularly hot topic when it comes to resonators. There are quite a few out there who insist you save for a National (or go in debt for one) & forget all others. My opinion: if you find a guitar you enjoy playing (both in terms of sound & feel) & it fits your budget, go for it.
Hope you enjoy the videos. The first shows Bukka White playing bottleneck style on “Aberdeen Blues”; the second shows Josh Graves with the Foggy Mountain Boys playing Dobro (look for Graves’ breaks at around 1:55 & again around 3:50 or a tick or two after) & finally, Blind Boy Fuller playing “I'm A Rattlesnakin' Daddy” Spanish style.
Pix from top
Yours truly with my Regal
Tampa Red with a tricone
Son House playing bottleneck style
Josh Graves & Dobro
Yours truly playing my Beltona resonator tenor uke with good pal Dani Leone on steel drum
Bukka White playing bottleneck. White has the bottleneck on his little finger, which is what I prefer when I do play with a slide. You'll notice Son House wears his on his ring finger. Both are common & each has advantages.