The first time I heard
a resonator being played I knew immediately that it wasn't an
"ordinary" acoustic guitar, but I wasn't quite sure what it was
at the time either. Because the player was also playing slide
on it, it also was one of those religious experiences for me in that all I
wanted to do after that was to figure out how to get "that
sound". That began for me what has so far been a 10 year
relationship with resonators. I had been playing slide since
the 70's, but there was just something special about the nasal-sounding
tone of a resonator that really intrigued me. I think it's
that piercing pure tonal quality that resonators are capable of that make
playing slide music on them so much more satisfying.
The first thing I
discovered when I began investigating these bizarre instruments was that
there were a lot of different models and design differences out
there. Just wanting one wasn't going to do it. Like acoustic
guitars, every variation in instrument design yielded a different tone and
I discovered I needed to learn more before I knew how to spend my
money. Eventually I came to own a half-dozen of these over the
If you've been wanting
to delve into resonators and haven't done so because you didn't know how
to make the tradeoffs, I hope to provide enough of an overview
to help you decide what resonator might best suite your needs. They
certainly do look different, but they all sound just as different as they
look. And just like guitars, knowing the differences are important
to selecting the one that will give you the sound you want.
What I won't do is
delve into the history of these instruments. There are plenty of
other sources for this information and knowing it doesn't help make any
decisions unless you're thinking about a vintage instrument. So let's get started.
Before we delve too far
into the makes, models and differences of the various resonators, we first
should clear up some terminology associated with these
things. A common point of confusion for many is the appropriate word
to use for this category of instrument. I've used the term resonator,
but some call them dobros, while others only refer to square-neck
resonators as dobros . While dobro has historically been used in
reference to these instruments, it also introduces confusion because
"Dobro™" is also a trademark name for a family of resonators made
by the Gibson company. The name is derived from the inventors
of the instrument; the Dopyera Brothers
(DoBro) (I know, I said I
wouldn't talk about the history... but just this little bit). They sold a line of these instruments under that name for
many years and Gibson acquired the rights to the name when they began
producing their own line. To avoid confusion with the brand, I only
use the word Dobro when referring to the brand name.
So for purposes of this article I offer
the following definition:
Guitar with one or more metal resonator discs mounted inside the body.
are two fundamentally different types of resonators based on the type of
guitar neck they have: square-necks and round-necks. These
differences are significant because it changes the entire way in which you
play them. A square-neck resonator is laid flat on your lap.
These have a special nut that raises the strings high above the fretboard
and are typically played with a special slide generically called a Stevens Steel. You can
see in the picture on the right that the neck is very thick and squared
off to make a flat and rigid support. This
type of instrument is what you see Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes or Mike
Auldridge play. This is the type most commonly used in bluegrass
The round-neck type on
the other hand is held and played just like a regular guitar. The
neck profile and nut is basically an ordinary guitar neck. If
your goal is to play bottleneck slide the round-neck type is
what you should be looking for. If your goal is to play lap slide
like Jerry Douglas, you want to be looking for a square-neck model.
In general, the round-neck type is the more versatile of the two.
There are special nut converters for example that raise up the strings to
convert a round-neck into a lap-slide configuration.
Within these two
primary categories, there are 3 primary designs based on the number of
cones and the design of the bridge. They are the single-cone
biscuit-bridge, single-cone spider-bridge, and tri-cone. In all these
designs, the aluminum cones act very much like the speakers in your stereo. The strings make
contact with the biscuit-bridge, spider-bridge, or T-bridge and these
bridges transfer the vibration to the cones. The cones in turn
vibrate to move the air volume inside the guitar and out the sound holes.
simplest of the designs is the biscuit-bridge single-cone. The biscuit-bridge cone looks basically like an inverted speaker
cone. The biscuit bridge gets its name from the little wood disc
(generally made with some solid hardwood) in the center of the cone. The
saddle is also generally made of wood and sits in a slot in the
biscuit. The cone rests on a
small ridge on the bottom of a well built into the body. Because there is
only one cone and the string vibration drives a single point on the cone,
these resonators tend to generate a stronger fundamental tone with less complexity or overtones. You will find this cone design
used in both metal body (like the ResoRocket above) and wood body models
(like the DonMo on the right). The metal-body
biscuit-bridge resonators were highly favored by delta blues players
because of their loud metallic tone. When used in a wood body, the
tone has less crispness and a bit less brittle, but still has a strong fundamental tone.
Listen to some mp3 sound samples.
There is a wide variety of builders and
price ranges for this style of resonator. At the high-end, National is
the most well known brand with a wide variety of models. If you can
afford a National, you can't go wrong with any of their models.
There is also custom builders like Australian builder Don Morrison (DonMo)
who is the builder of the instruments I
use. But if you are just beginning to explore these instruments and don't want
to invest a lot in an instrument to start with, there are a number of imported
alternatives like the Dean Metal Body acoustic-electric, Dean CE acoustic-electric, Regal RC2 Duolian,
Regal RC1 Polychrome Duolian, or the Epiphone Biscuit
Tri-cone has, as its name implies, three cones and a T-shaped bridge
. These instruments are more difficult to build, so they tend to
cost more than a single-cone model. The saddle of the Tri-cone sits in a slot along the long leg of the
T. The sound of the vibrating strings get distributed to the three
cones and the vibration of these cones combine/interact within the body of
the resonator to create what can be described as a more distributed
There is a less
immediate attack when the strings are plucked or the slide is
applied. The more complex tone, the existence of more
overtones, and a generally greater sustain make the Tri-cone a favorite
among slide players; particularly in the style of Robert
Wood versus Metal in
the Tri-cone family also modifies the overall tone by taking out some of
that brittle metallic tone. Many blues players want that metallic
brittleness however, so it all comes down to preferences.
There are very few
builders who make a wood body Tri-cone currently. DonMo is one who
does, so you can get an idea of effect a wood body has on the Tri-cone
There is a wide variety of builders and
price ranges for Tri-cone resonators. In the high-end range of the
market, National is the dominant name. But builders like DonMo
and some European companies build fine instruments as
well. For a beginner wishing to explore a Tri-cone but don't want to
spend a lot, Regal and Johnson also offer Tri-cone
models. A Regal model like the Regal RC-51 Tricone,
or the Regal RC-58
are very reasonably priced.
single-cone spider-bridge design gets its name from the spider-like look
of the bridge. The cone itself has a W-shape to it and the spider
bridge contacts the cone in both the center and along the edges. So
with this design, string vibration gets distributed to numerous points
around the cone. Also, the spider cone is more like a typical
speaker in that the spider cone has its concavity reversed so more of the
sound is driven out directly rather than into the body. This change
makes a dramatic difference on the tonal properties of these
instruments. In addition, often these cones sit in
special sound wells that modifies the tonal character even further. The best
term I can think of to describe it is a more "nasal" tone.
design is the type most often used in square-neck models and is what
provides that characteristic bluegrass resonator tone you hear from
players like Jerry Douglas. This type is also most often built with a wood body rather than metal body. It
can be found in
round-neck models as well.
There a LOT of builders and
price ranges for spider-bridge resonators; both square neck and round
neck. It is a very popular design in both the high-end and
low-end. The majority of the
high-end builders specialize in the square neck models but generally offer them in
round necks as well. Names like National,
Tennessee, Gibson's Dobro Brand and Paul Beard
(which is what I have) all
make fine square neck models; but a complete list of builders would be much
For beginners there are a
number of imported alternatives like the Regal Black Lightning
others like the Dobro Hound Dog.
Paul Beard now offers a lower priced squareneck under the Gold Tone label
( Goldtone Signature Series). What's great about the Goldtone Series is that it uses Beard components for the critical parts.
In the round neck variety,
there are models in the Dobro Hound Dog as
the Fender FR50CE
or Fender FR-50 that are very cost effective starter instruments. Beard also offers his
Goldtone Signature Series
model in a round neck.
The body of resonators
actually play a much smaller role in the overall sound of these instrument
compared to a regular acoustic guitar. On a regular acoustic, the
top wood of the guitar is the predominant sound generator. The
better the wood and the more time spent on optimizing the tap tone, the
better the sound. On a resonator, the
cone generates the vast majority of the sound. You could say that 80% of the tone's in the
cone. In fact, the stiffer the body of a resonator the
better. This is why resonator builders who make wood body models
typically use thick laminates instead of solid wood. Many
builders and retailers will tell you there is no strong tonal benefit to
justify the extra expense of solid wood. The only significant justification for the expense of solid wood
on a resonator is its inherent beauty.
cones used in many of the imports vary quite a bit in quality and many who
buy these often will eventually purchase a replacement cone/s from places
like Paul Beard's
Outfitters. Because so much of the tone generated by resonators
comes from the cone, the improvement can be quite dramatic.
It's beyond the scope of this article to delve into this process, but you
should at least note that if you do buy an import, there is at least one
relatively simple thing you can do to them to improve their sound when
you're ready to take that step.
Now that you know
the differences of the various resonator designs, there are some other
factors to also think about. One thing you may not notice right away
when shopping for a round neck resonator is that the majority of these are
made with 12 frets clear of the body. Many acoustic guitars are
built with 14-frets clear. The first time you try to bar the 12 fret
with your slide, you'll discover the limitation this can have. So
another choice you have is to seek out resonators that are either built
with 14 frets clear or have a cutaway. For example, National now
offers two models with cutaways: the new ResoRocket metal body single-cone
and the Radiotone wood body single-cone. DonMo
offers a cutaway in all
his models if you want one; including tri-cone models.
There are a couple of
variations that you might come across in resonators that I should make
note of. One common variation is a Baritone
model. These are made with necks that are a couple inches longer
(generally 27") to allow them to be tuned down 2-3 whole steps.
This gives the instrument a very deep growling low end. I use
a baritone to play songs that better fit my vocal range in the key of C
The last variation I
want to mention is models that feature more than 6 strings. Some
custom builders like Paul Beard offer square neck models with 7 or 8
strings. Most players have enough trouble with 6-strings, much less
7 or 8, but there are some who find more is better.
That about wraps it
up. Resonators are so unique in the kind of tones you can produce
that even if you already have an acoustic guitar, a resonator offers such
a completely different palette of sounds that it is pretty easy to justify
having both. And the sound of each resonator design itself offers a
wide tonal spectrum to explore. So it just goes to
show...guitars are like potato chips....you can't have just one!