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A Brief History of the Resonator Guitar

  • A Brief History of the Resonator Guitar

     By Joe Stoebenau

        Spurred on by the popularity of Bluegrass and acoustic Blues music, the resonator guitar is enjoying a renewed popularity. While the Gibson Musical Instrument Company currently owns the copyright to the Dobro® name, it is common practice to refer to just about any type of resonator guitar as a “Dobro®”.

        As a truly American instrument, resonator guitars can be heard in just about any style of music including Country, Rock, Blues and even Jazz. In addition, these unique guitars can be heard in many television programs, commercials and feature films.

        With a body constructed of either wood or metal, usually brass or steel, the resonator is what sets these guitars apart from the crowd. The resonator is an aluminum cone that looks a lot like a stereo speaker cone and is housed in the large body cavity. These types of guitars are played either Spanish style (normal guitar playing position) or lap style with the guitar lying across the players lap facing upwards.

        Typically they would be played with a metal or glass slide on one finger or with a metal bar (called a “steel”) in the case of the lap style guitar.
    The resonator guitar is capable of lots of volume and the sound can range from thin and metallic to full bodied and rich and when combined with the slide can have an almost vocal quality.

        Created about 1925 by John Dopyera, the first successful resonator guitar was the tricone metal bodied guitar. The tricone has three resonating cones placed in a triangle pattern and when played, has a rich, deep sound that is unique to the tricone. This guitar was manufactured by the National Corporation that was formed by John Dopyera and George Beauchamp.

        The National Corporation also manufactured a guitar with a larger single cone that has the bridge sitting in a small wooden disc called a biscuit that rests upon the cone. It operates by transferring the vibrations of the guitar strings to the cone which are then amplified as the cone vibrates. As the tricone, the body was also constructed of metal.

         In 1929, John Dopyera resigned from the National Corporation and went on to form his own business the Dobro ® Corporation. Interestingly enough, the name Dobro comes from the words DOperya BROthers. He was forced to develop a new style of resonator because his patents still belonged to the National Corporation. Because of this, John developed a new style of bridge that instead of resting on the center of the cone, it sat in the center of an eight legged “spider” that rested on the outer edge of the cone. Thus the vibrations from the strings are sent down through the cast aluminum legs and to the cone via the outer edges which gives the guitar a loud, full bodied tone that when combined with the wood body has become a favorite with Bluegrass musicians.

        By 1932, the National Corporation was having financial difficulties and John’s brother Louis Dopyera purchased National and the two companies merged under the name National Dobro® Corporation. During this time the company continued to grow and in 1936 they moved from California to Chicago, Illinois. Because they were growing at such a fast rate, They contracted other guitar manufactures such as Kay, Regal and Harmony to manufacture the wood bodies.

        1941 brought the onset of World War Two and because aluminum was needed for the war effort, the company was shut down. Later, several years after the war was over, another Dopyera brother Emil also known as Ed began manufacturing the guitars for a short time from 1959 to about 1966. Mosrite acquired the Dobro ® Company in 1966 and went bankrupt in 1969 though they still owned the Dobro® name.

        The Doypera brothers once again acquired the rights to the Dobro® name in 1970 when they again began manufacturing resonator guitars in Long Beach, California under the name “Original Music Company” known to most collectors as OMI.

        Gibson acquired the Dobro® name in 1988 and continues to manufacture the resonator guitar to this day. In addition, Gibson has also developed several new models with modern day features required by today’s musicians as well as a successful line of signature model Dobros®.

    Joe Stoebenau is the author of “Teach Yourself to Play Dobro” and “Teach Yourself to Play Pedal Steel Guitar”.

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