The Resonator Guitar is one of the most distinctive of any type – but what exactly is it? Guitarists are, in several notable ways, a bit like magpies. When they see an eye-catching guitar, they tend to glaze over, compelled to take this shiny object back to their nest.
In this regard, the Resonator is perhaps the shiniest of all guitars, and attracts players like moths to a flame. This classic design is used by all manner of guitarists in a variety of styles, and its distinctive styling has featured on many classic album covers (perhaps most famously, Dire Straits ‘Brothers In Arms’).
However, you may well wonder what is a resonator guitar? Well, here’s a potted history and explanation. In a time before electric guitars…Though it might be hard to believe, there was once a time when electric guitars didn’t exist. Their development came about due to demands from players. Music had changed, and guitars now struggled to be heard over the brass sections of dance bands. Performers were desperate for something louder.
George Beauchamp was a performer during the 20’s, and like everyone else, he wanted his guitar to be heard over the rest of the band. Unlike everyone else, he hit upon the idea of employing a gramophone-like amplifying horn. He took his concept to a violinmaker, named John Dopyera, but the first prototype was something of a failure. However, unperturbed, he continued to experiment. The next model used three cone-shaped aluminium resonators mounted underneath the bridge of the guitar.
The result was a huge success. Beauchamp loved the design so much that he suggested they go into business together, and the National String Instrument Corporation was born. In 1927, the Tri-Cone guitar was patented, and the company began manufacturing the world’s first resonator guitars.
What do they sound like?
Resonators have a very unique sound. Though it is effectively an acoustic guitar, the metal resonators lend it a far brasher tone, with a slightly boxy (in a good way) mid-range. Aside from the increase in volume, the resonator’s unique tone cuts through most mixes and performances far more easily than a regular guitar. It became a popular choice for blues and bluegrass players, though since its appearance it has found its way into country, folk, rock and countless other styles.
Different types of resonator guitar
Resonators (sometimes called resophonic guitars) can be divided into two main types. Those with a square neck profile are played like a Hawaiian style guitar (lap steel), with slide, typically. Those with a round neck profile are played like a conventional six-string guitar. There were several variations on the tri-cone design to emerge in the years following its appearance. In 1928 the Dopyera brothers formed the Dobro Company. Their new resonator guitar design featured a single resonator cone, which was inverted, when compared to the tri-cone. A distinctive, spider-bridge featured on the Dobro.
At this point, National responded with its own single-cone design. Unlike the Dobro, the cone was oriented in the same way as the tri-cone using a wooden ‘biscuit’ to support the bridge. Each of the varieties has their own unique tonal flavour. The resonator has an incredibly distinctive tone. Immediately evocative of early blues, it can be a great way to add that ‘authentic’, vintage blues tone to any recording or performance. It sounds great when played fingerstyle, with a pick or with a slide. Most importantly, however, they’re shiny.