(photo credit: Mshai)
Resonator guitars are an iconic part of American musical culture. Son House and Bukka White played one. Keith Richards and Duane Allman played one. Jack White plays one. The first line of Paul Simon’s Grammy winning ‘Graceland” starts off with “the Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar…”. How could you not want one, right? However, if you’re thinking of buying a resonator guitar, it is important to do your research. For this post, we’ll cover the first and most important thing you need to know: the different types of resonators available. We’ll help you understand how it works and what options are available.
A resonator guitar utilizes a metal cone that sits underneath the strings and acts very much like a stereo speaker. This is the ‘resonator’. The strings connect to the resonator cone via a bridge. When the strings are played, the metal cone vibrates, moving air and amplifying the sound and pushing it out through the guitar’s sound holes. The result is more volume, but also a completely distinct tone and timbre. It’s that raw, metallic tone that makes the guitar so unique.
There are 3 types of resonator designs, and each one has a unique sound suited to a particular style of music so here is a quick overview.
(Photo credit: National Guitar)
The original resonator guitar, produced by the National String Instrument Corporation in the 1920’s, consisted of three 6” metal cones joined by a T-shaped metal bar that supported a bridge, hence the name “tri-cone”. Tri-cones are generally said to have a smoother and more complex sound than other resonator designs with a subtler attack with longer sustain. Tri-cones tend to be a favorite of bottleneck blues players like Tampa Red and Bukka White.
Single-cone, Biscuit Bridge
(Photo credit: National Guitar)
To solve some of the production and cost issues associated with manufacturing the Tri-Cone, National began producing a simpler design that utilized a single, larger 9” cone that had a wooden disc in the center that held the bridge. Where the strings of a tri-cone had to drive movement across 3 resonator cones, the strings of a single cone drove only one. The result is a louder, slightly more brash tone. This loud, aggressive tone is exactly what made the resonator guitar so popular with blues players. Son House, Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis all played single-cone biscuit bridge style resonators.
Single-cone, Spider Bridge
(Photo credit: National Guitars and KayEss)
There is a fascinating history behind the early days of resonator guitar companies, full of family infighting and corporate takeovers. We won’t cover it here, but In short, the original designer of the resonator guitar left the National String Instrument Corporation to found Dobro. To launch Dobro, he had to develop a new design that didn’t infringe on the National patent. What he came up with was an entirely new resonator design that reversed the direction of the cone so that it pointed inwards. The bridge of the new design was connected to the concave cone by a cage that sat over it, looking very much like a “spider”. The spider bridge single-cone resonator creates a tone that is drier and more nasally than either the tri-cone or the biscuit bridge single-cone.The spider bridge is almost always associated with bluegrass and players like Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge or Josh Graves (of Flatt and Scruggs). The design and tone are really synonymous with Dobro and Dobro-style playing, which centers around lap-style slide playing with a heavy dose of banjo-style rolls with rapid hammer ons and pull offs.
There are lots of other considerations when researching resonator guitars: an all metal or wood body, a round neck or a square neck meant for lap style playing, to buy new or vintage… but the place to start is to understand the sound you’re looking for and which resonator style will provide it.
About the Author
Kevin Clinton writes for Resonator Guitar Guide, an online hub run by musicians that covers information, reviews and tips and tricks for purchasing and playing a National, Dobro, Regal or other resonator guitars.