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.
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.