If you’ve ever seen an acoustic guitar with a big metal disc in place of a sound hole, you may be wondering what it is and what it’s there for.
What you’re thinking of is called a resonator guitar. The metal disc you see on the outside is actually just a cover, but underneath it is an intricate amplification system that allows the guitar to produce a sound unlike any other.
If you’re curious to learn more, keep reading. We’ll talk about what a resonator guitar is, its history, its different types, and how it’s typically played.
What Is a Resonator Guitar?
A resonator guitar, also called a resophonic guitar, is an acoustic guitar that uses one or more cone-shaped metal resonators to amplify the sound. When the strings are strummed or picked, their vibrations travel through the bridge of the guitar to these “cones,” which resonate and produce a bright, loud tone.
Resonator Guitar Origin
Before the invention of electric amplification, acoustic guitar players were desperate for a way to make their instruments louder. Unamplified guitars worked fine as part of the rhythm section, but if a guitarist ever wanted to solo, they would simply be drowned out by other instruments.
In the mid 1920s, steel guitar player George Beauchamp asked luthier John Dopyera to invent a louder guitar in an attempt to remedy this issue. Together they formed the National company and produced the first resonator guitar. Called the National Tricone, the instrument featured three aluminum cones. It became widely popular among steel guitar players, who used tone bars or slides to glide across the strings.
Dopyera eventually left the National and formed the Dobro company together with his brothers (Dobro is a portmanteau of Dopyera Brothers and also means “goodness” in their native Slovak). They produced a new kind of resonator guitar, which only had a single cone and was much cheaper to make. This model became so popular that to this day, most people use the terms “Dobro” and “resonator guitar” interchangeably.
Types of Resonator Guitars
There are a few different types of resonator guitars, and they differ based on what resonator they use, whether they have a round or square neck, and the material of the body.
Type of Resonator
Resonator guitars can come with a tricone resonator (like the one John Dopyera originally designed), a single-cone “biscuit” style resonator, or a single-cone “spider” style one. They all function slightly differently, so the type of resonator you choose will ultimately impact your guitar’s tone, volume, and sustain (how long each note lasts before it dies out).
Biscuit resonators feature a single metal cone that has its convex surface facing outward. It has a small round piece of wood in its center called the “biscuit,” to which the bridge of the guitar is attached. The notes produced by a biscuit resonator are punchier, but they don’t have a lot of sustain.
Spider resonators also have just one cone, but it’s inverted, so that its concave surface faces outward. The bridge of the guitar sits on top of a metal structure that resembles a spider web and sends vibrations to the outer edge of the cone. Spider resonators have a longer sustain but don’t produce as much volume as biscuit resonators.
Tricone resonators have three small cones that are joined together by a T-shaped metal bar, which supports the bridge. These resonators provide a nice balance of volume and sustain but are more difficult and more expensive to make than single-cone ones.
Resonator guitars can have a round or a square neck. Round square guitars are perfect for playing the instrument like a conventional guitar or using a hollow slide on one of your fingers.
Square neck guitars aren’t comfortable to hold like conventional guitars, but are instead meant to be played like a lap steel guitar, with the body laid across your lap and a solid tone bar in your left hand.
Some resonator guitars are made of wood, with just the resonator part made of metal. Others have a body that’s made entirely out of metal. Wood-bodied guitars produce a warmer, less punchy tone that’s similar to how a standard acoustic guitar might sound. Metal-bodied guitars, on the other hand, have a much brighter, more piercing tone.
Types of Resonator Guitar Music
The resonator guitar sound is most often associated with genres like blues, bluegrass, and country. Bluegrass and country players typically use square neck guitars and play them like lap steel guitars, while blues players use round neck guitars and play them in the conventional position.
How to Play a Resonator Guitar
If you already know how to play a standard 6-string acoustic or electric guitar, you can pick up a resonator guitar, tune it to the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning, and start playing. However, the resonator guitar truly shines when it’s played as a lap steel guitar or with a slide.
If you have a square neck guitar, your only option is to lay the instrument across your lap and play it as a steel guitar. You’ll hold a solid tone bar in your fretting hand and glide it across the strings while picking them with your fingers or fingerpicks.
If your resonator guitar has a round neck, you can play it like a lap steel guitar or you can hold it just like a regular guitar and play it with a slide. A slide is a hollow tube that you’ll wear on one of the fingers of your fretting hand and glide across the strings. Your other fingers can still be free to fret the strings and create chords.
With either option, it’s best to tune your guitar to open tuning. This way, even when you’re not fretting any of the strings and solely using the tone bar or slide, the strings will still produce a nice sounding chord.
Is a Resonator Guitar Right for You?
No matter what genre of music you play, there may be a place in it for that bright metallic twang of a resonator guitar. Even now that we have electrically amplified guitars, plenty of musicians are still choosing it because of its unique sound, versatility, and simply the fact that it’s an absolute joy to play.
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