FROM JUNE 2005 (ISSUE 4)
Michael Messer by William White
By Michael Messer
I have been
playing, collecting and writing about resonator guitars since the 1970s. Back
then and through most of the 1980s if you were into delta blues, bluegrass, or
Hawaiian guitar and you wanted to play slide on a resonator instrument, there
were very few choices. You either bought a new one from OMI Dobro, or you
hunted for an original National or Dobro from the 1920s and 1930s.
There were a few luthiers making Dobro guitars in the 1970s, but not
Then in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s in a wave of synchronicity, a handful of people started making National style guitars again. Interestingly this new wave of makers started here in the UK with a replica National Tricone made by Mark Makin, Alan Timmins and Ralph Bawn. Also in the UK, Steve Evans started making Beltona resonator guitars and over in Paris, Mike Lewis and Pierre Avocat started making Fine Resophonic guitars. In Germany there was the short- lived Continental brand and in the US, Don Young (once head man at OMI Dobro) and McGregor Gaines, started National Reso-phonic Guitars. By the mid 1990s companies making resophonic guitars were beginning to spring up everywhere; Amistar in the Czech Republic, Donmo and Beeton in Australia and Liberty over in the US to name a few. This popularity got the budget guitar factories interested and they started producing some very good quality budget-price entry-level resonator guitars. To begin with Regal led the way with this, but then Vintage developed their AMG range, which is also branded in some countries as Johnson guitars. Then along came Ozark with a large range of resophonic instruments and this is where for the beginner or first time reso-buyer, it all gets complicated. There are now numerous brands of resophonic guitars and to write about all of them in one article is impossible.
Do I want a Dobro or a National style guitar and what’s the difference?
Resonator guitars are all built in the style of one of the two major brand names, National or Dobro. These were the original companies that invented, designed and built resonator guitars in the 1920s. The electric guitar had not yet been invented and guitarists were finding it harder and harder to be heard. The hip music of the day was Hawaiian guitar swing and every band wanted a Hawaiian guitarist. The problem was hearing the guitar in a big venue above the rest of the band. This period in guitar history is similar to the early period of man learning to build an aeroplane and there were some pretty crazy inventions along the way. To cut a very long story short; in 1927 John Dopyera invented the Tricone resonator system of mechanically amplifying a stringed instrument. This was done by creating a kind of mechanical loudspeaker made in a cone shape from very fine aluminium which sat inside the guitar and amplified the sound.
Originally advertised as National Silver Amplifonic Guitars, they were the loudest and most state of the art stringed instruments available and they were very successful. During those early years National Stringed Instruments outsold all other brands. They originally started by making square neck Tricones for lap style Hawaiian guitar, but soon expanded their range of instruments to include ukuleles, mandolins and tenor guitars; as well as the single cone National Triolian, Style O and Duolian that have become so well known in Hawaiian, blues and rock music. Due to family politics, the National Company fragmented and the Dobro Company was formed. The guitars made by Dobro in the 1920s and 1930s helped define the sound of country music.
The essential difference between National and Dobro is in the design of the resonator cones. Nationals use two systems; the Tricone which utilizes three 6 inch resonators and the single cone, which is a larger 9.5 inch cone. The pressure of the strings running across the bridge pushes down on the cones and amplifies the sound. In a Dobro the resonator cone is turned upside down and the bridge assembly (known as the spider) which resembles the hob of an old gas cooker, transmits the sound to the edge of the cone, rather than to the centre, which is the case with Nationals. These three systems create very different tonal qualities. Most blues, Hawaiian, rock and jazz players prefer National guitars and country and folk players prefer Dobro guitars, but that is not always the case.
National guitars come in numerous different variations, but I will break this down for easy understanding. National Tricones were the top of the range, made of high quality materials and available with elaborate engravings. They use the triple resonator system of amplification. The Tricone has a unique tone and is considered by many to be the holy grail of slide guitars. The sound of a great Tricone is sophisticated and very sweet. Single cone National guitars come in too many variations to cover in this article, so I will just deal with the main ones. The Style O is the classic National – shiny nickel plating and palm trees sand blasted on the body. This is the top end of single cone Nationals; they are loud, clear and sound amazing played with a slide. National Triolians and Duolians are both single cone guitars similar to the Style O, which is made of brass, but made of sheet steel. The Triolian is slightly higher spec than the Duolian. These are wonderful guitars and have a unique tone for blues, whether picked in regular tuning like Blind Boy Fuller, or bottleneck style like Bukka White. National also made single cone guitars with wood bodies; Trojan, Estralita, Rosita, Triolian, Havana, Aragon and El Trovador, are some of the model names. Wood- bodied Nationals are wonderful guitars and although they are not silver and shiny, they should not be overlooked. These are some of National’s best kept secrets!
Dobro guitars come in more variations than Nationals….this can’t be told in one article.
For the newcomer to the world of resophonic guitars and as a generalization, Dobro guitars are more suited to country, bluegrass and Hawaiian guitar, than to the blues. Their tonal qualities, attack and sustain are different to those of a National and they really are more suited to slide playing than regular fretting. Musically, the sound of the Dobro has been defined by players such as ‘Bashful’ Brother Oswald, Josh Graves, Mike Auldridge, Eric Clapton, Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas. The National sound has been made famous by players such as Sol Hoopii, Blind Boy Fuller, Son House, Mark Knopfler, Rory Gallagher and Keb’Mo’.
I think to read a list of ‘who plays what’ is a great way to establish what instrument you are looking for. If like so many students these days you want to learn to play in a style similar to Jerry Douglas, you want a square neck wood- bodied Dobro style guitar with a spider bridge. Jerry actually plays guitars hand built by Scheerhorn. These are Dobro style guitars but made to modern specifications and are considered by many to be the best Dobro style guitars available today. Excellent high quality mid range Dobro style guitars I would recommend to look at are made by Lebeda in the Czech Republic and Pete Woodman in the UK. For a great entry level Dobro style guitar I would look no further than the Regal RD45.
If you are looking for a National and want to sound like Mark Knopfler, you want a single cone Style O type of guitar. OMI metal bodied guitars from the 1970s are a good option and fairly reasonably priced. Mid priced guitars that I recommend are Amistar, Donmo and Pete Woodman. At entry level I would recommend trying the Ozark and Vintage ranges. If you are looking for a more tin-can blues sound you would want a National Duolian style guitar. At the mid range level, the Beltona Southerner is a good option and at entry level there are a few contenders…AXL, Vintage and Resound….are just three of the many brands available these days. At the other end of the scale, if you are looking for a high quality guitar that compares with the originals, you should look at National Reso-phonic, Fine Resophonic, Dave King, Beltona, Beeton and Liberty. My personal preference and choice of instrument is Fine Resophonic (hand-made in Paris by Mike Lewis). Mike has built guitars for among others; Eric Clapton, Robbie McIntosh and Louisiana Red and is one of the world’s top luthiers.
I hope in this rather heavily information-packed article to have been able to answer some of the questions that you might ask if you are considering buying a resophonic guitar for the first time. It is impossible to cover everything in one article, but if anyone would like to contact me to ask more questions or just to communicate with other reso-freaks (cone heads), I host a forum on my website at www.michaelmesser.co.uk and everybody is welcome.
Shine On, Michael Messer
Michael Messer publicity photo for Diving Duck by Alan Messer 1988
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