Resonator guitars were born early in the 20th century with one main mission in mind – to be louder. Brought into the world at a time of musical development, resonator guitars were an innovative way to amplify sound before the modern-day luxury of electronic equipment.
Are resonator guitars louder? Resonator guitars were designed to amplify the sound coming out of an acoustic guitar and can produce a much louder sound than their traditional counterparts. However, design and technology have come a long way since their invention, and the electric guitars and sound systems of the modern world are now able to produce much louder volumes.
Resonator guitars were a stepping-stone in American musical evolution, and they are certainly unique in their design as well as the resulting sound. They came into existence at a time when guitars had grown in popularity and guitar players desired to play melodies rather than harmony, but also at a time before modern technology like speakers and electronic amps were available to make these guitars heard among other instruments. The characteristic sound that came from this invention is still prevalent in certain areas and genres of music today.
How a Resonator Guitar Works
Resonator guitars use one or three spun aluminum cones as a sound box in place of the traditional wooden box found on acoustic guitars. The strings vibrate a bridge, which creates the sound that goes through the back-facing cones of the guitar. The back wall of the guitar then bounces the amplified sound back out towards the audience.
By using an aluminum rather than wooden sound box, the sound takes on a metallic quality. This allows for more sound to reverberate, but it also creates the uniquely characteristic twang that resonator guitars are known for.
The History of Resonator Guitars
Resonator guitars, also commonly referred to as resophonic guitars or Dobros, were first invented in the late 1920s by guitar maker John Dopyera, who had been requested by musician George Beauchamp to create a guitar with a sound loud enough to be played, and heard, on a bandstand. Dopyera and The National String Instrument Corporation would be the first to make a resonator guitar.
The original design included three cones and a T-shaped bridge, but this design only lasted until the onset of World War II, at which time the metal was needed to build aircraft and the price to purchase materials skyrocketed. A new design came about featuring a large, single cone with a bridge known as a “biscuit” at the top.
Dopyera and his brothers went on to begin their own single-cone resonator guitar making company called Dobro, which is where the now commonly used term came from. Dobro stemmed from Dopyera Brothers. It was also a nod to their Slovakian roots as the word “dopro” means “good” in Slovak.
Resonator guitars were innovative for their time but understandably fell in popularity with the invention of the electric guitar. It did, however, maintain fans in certain genres of music and actually made a spike in popularity in the 1980s.
Where are Resonator Guitars Commonly Heard?
Resonator guitars became popular in several different genres including:
Hawaiian music was one of the first genres to adopt resonator guitars. Hawaiian music with the use of lap steel guitars was a popular genre at the time, and musician Sol Hoopii was the first to ever record with a National tri-cone guitar.
Not long after, resonator guitars also became popular in the genre of bluegrass music, as first popularized by musician Tampa Red. The invention of this instrument is thus the reason for the close similarities found between these two seemingly different musical styles from opposite sides of the country. Resonator guitars were also popular in the dancehalls of the jazz world as they were loud enough to stand up alongside brass instruments.
To find out more about some of the musicians who popularized this instrument, check out this article by Acoustic Guitar.
Resonator guitars are still played today in certain genres of music. Some popular artists who use resonator guitars include:
- Jerry Douglas
- Brooks Williams
- Eric Sardinas
- Corey Harris
- The Derek Trucks Band
- Scott Ainslie
- Rachel Van Zanten
- Rocco DeLuca & the Burden
For more popular and contemporary resonator guitarists, check out this article by last.fm.
Different Types of Resonator Guitars
Although resonator guitars spent a relatively short time in the limelight, there were several distinct styles that came to be during this time. In a basic breakdown, resonator guitars can have:
- Three cones or a single cone
- A silver, brass, steel, or wood body
- 12 or 14 frets
- A square neck (Hawaiian) or a round neck (Spanish)
- A slotted or a solid headstock
Hawaiian-style guitars with a square neck were designed to be played flat on a lap, hence the term “lap-steel guitar”, while the Spanish counterpart is played as a traditional guitar would be.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the history of resonator guitars with greater details of its evolution or want a more detailed breakdown of the many specific models and brands of guitars, this article by Chasing Guitars does a great job at covering both topics.
Playing A Resonator Guitar
A resonator guitar is nothing but a standard guitar with a different type of sound mechanism. The resonator guitar utilizes an aluminum cone soundbox that projects sound. They can be tuned and played the same way you would play a standard acoustic guitar. However, there are also other ways that they can be played depending on the type of resonator guitar that you have.
A round neck resonator guitar plays very similarly to a standard acoustic guitar. You can play chords in the same way that you do on a guitar as well as use a slide which is common with blues music.
A square neck resonator guitar is a little different in that the action is much higher and it is designed to be played lying down. This type of resonator is common with bluegrass music. These are typically played as lap-style instruments and will be lying flat on your lap as you play.
Take a look at the video below which features Jerry Douglas playing the Dobro. Notice how the instrument looks and the action that is much higher than it would be on an acoustic guitar.
How to Choose Which Resonator Guitar is Right for You
When choosing a guitar, there are several different factors to consider, these being:
- What genre of music you plan to play
- Your price range
- Whether you are more interested in the novelty of a vintage instrument or the consistency and increased clarity of a newer model
- What type of sound you’d like the instrument to produce
Different styles are typically used for different types of music. For example, square neck spider cone guitars are commonly used in country and bluegrass music, while the square neck tri-cone variety, which has a smoother sound, is preferred for Hawaiian and sometimes blues music. Blues will also use round-neck tri-cone and biscuit resonator guitars, while jazz prefers the tri-cones.
Which material the body of the instrument is made of will also determine what type of sound reverberates from it. A wooden body will not have the amplified sound nor lasting notes of a metal-bodied guitar, and brass bodies tend to have a warmer tone than steel.
The following video above not only demonstrates several different varieties of resonator guitars but also shows off some of the unique artwork and offers a musician’s insight on the instruments.
Cheaper models can be found at prices as low as $300, while more expensive models can take you into the thousands. As with most instruments, higher-priced instruments are likely made with higher-quality materials and produce a better sound, but it is not necessary to break your wallet if you’re just starting out.
This article by Musician’s Friend offers some good options for beginner players, as well as accessories and explanations of each.
Resonator guitars have made their mark in the musical world not only through their unique metallic twang but by being an artifact of American history. Although they may have been built for the short-lived need for increased volume before the dawn of the electric guitar in the 1930s, their unique designs and sounds have left a lasting imprint on the musical world.
With the innovative designs of the early 20th century alongside beautiful artwork, resonator guitars are still treasured by musicians and art collectors alike today. And whether you’re laying out on a Hawaiian beach, frequenting bluegrass festivals in the southern United States, or getting your groove on to some dancehall jazz, the resonator guitar’s twang can still be heard far and wide.