The Ultimate Guide to Resonator Guitars

resonator guitar

What is a resonator guitar? 

A resonator guitar (resophonic, or resonator bass) is an acoustic guitar with a distinctive tone. It creates sound by conducting string vibrations through the bridge to at least one, or more, spun metal cones (resonators), as opposed to into the guitar’s sounding board (top). Resonators were originally built to be louder than regular acoustics, which were overwhelmed by horns and percussion instruments in dance bands. However, electric amplification solved this. Some guitar players feel the resonator is not versatile, best for the blues/bluegrass/country music realm, but if you can get one with a pickup, you will have more versatility.

Resonator guitars come in two styles: Square-necked guitars played in lap steel guitar style, and Round-necked guitars played in conventional steel guitar style. 

There are three basic designs: the tricone, with three metal cones, designed by the company National; the single-cone “biscuit” design of other National instruments; and the single inverted-cone design (also called a spider bridge) of Dobro. A variety of other brands produce variations on these three designs. 

The body can be made of metal, nickel-steel, brass, or wood. Others are made of wood with a distinctive tone, making them good bluegrass guitars, and quite popular with blues musicians, as well as aficionados of bluegrass and country players. As far as durability goes, those made of metal (except of course the neck) are very durable and never warp. It produces a midrange tone and is less full than a flat-top acoustic.

How it works

Typically, there are two main sound holes added to either region of the fingerboard extension. In the case of single-cone models, the sound holes are generally both circular or both f-shaped.The resonator is louder than the regular acoustic guitar and originally intended to be played in tandem with larger ensembles. The bridge sits on metal cones, usually between one to three metal cones rather than a wooden top, as is the case with most acoustic guitars. These guitars are louder because the cones move more efficiently than the traditional wooden top guitar. 

How hard is it to learn resonator guitar?

Learning to play the resonator guitar is no more difficult than learning to play lap steel guitar or electric guitar. It will always help if you are knowledgeable of other instruments, but like anything else, practice is key. A good ear for pitch will also help to ensure it is well-tuned. When not practicing, listen to other experienced resonator guitar players.  

Experience playing with a slide guitar is helpful. Also, if you are familiar with the banjo, you’ll find that the Dobro resonator guitar uses an Open G tuning, similar to the banjo. You can often play a banjo tune on the Dobro, because of the similar tuning. 

History of the Resonator Guitar

The first resonator was made in 1926. The creator wanted to make an instrument able to produce enough volume to compete with louder instruments. He tried several configurations with cones, made of different types of metal, using up to four resonator cones.  

The National String Instrument Corporation was formed in 1927 and developed a system called the tricone; three conical aluminum resonators joined by a T shaped aluminum bar supporting the bridge of their national steel guitar. Initially, they were making wooden body tricone models in a factory in Los Angeles, CA. But they only made twelve of those. 

In 1932, two brothers gained control of both brands, merging them into the National Dobro Corporation. In 1959, the company sold Dobro to a company that sold the guitars under the Mosrite brand. In 1967, they formed OMI and began to manufacture resonator guitars themselves, namely, the Dobro Hound Dog round neck resonator guitar. By 1970, Mosrite had gone into liquidation. By 1993, Gibson acquired the exclusive right of the Dobro trademark, producing several models under the Dobro name by 2006. Everything they created had a single resonator for either square neck resonator guitars or round neck guitars. 

In 1928, Dobro released a resonator guitar to compete with National that was a single resonator. In response, the National company came out with its competing single resonator model. Single resonator models use a wooden biscuit at the top of the cone to support the bridge. Instruments that did not have an inverted cone were also known as Nationals to differentiate them from the inverted cone dobros. The expensive and more elaborate tricones went out of production. 

How does a resonator guitar work

History of the Resonator Guitar

A resonator is a guitar where the bridge sits on one or a set of three metal cones (instead of a wooden top, like on other acoustic guitars). The saddle part helps the  transmission of the string’s vibrations from the bridge to the soundboard (or pickups for an electric resonator guitar). The cones can move much more freely and efficiently than a wooden top; this is the big reason why they are so much louder.

Resonator guitars are popular among those who enjoy playing bluegrass country and Blues style of music, and “dobro” became the name referring to any resonator guitar. Blues players usually gravitated toward the national style guitars played most often with a bottleneck. In contrast, bluegrass players preferred the square-necked resonator guitar dobro. The round-necked version of the guitar may be played either in lap steel or in Spanish guitar position. You can set up round necks in a variety of action heights, but many prefer somewhere around the middle. 

Most often, the resonator guitar is played as a lap steel guitar. It’s well known that resonators often have higher action than standard acoustics. Lowering the action requires removing material from the biscuit bridge. Also, because there is a metal bar above the bridge, it makes palm-muting impossible. However, the bridge cover is removable for those who would prefer to palm mute.  

Tuning Your Resonator

There are many different tunings possible. Not all are recommended for round neck resonator guitars because of the high string tension. Commonly, the resonator is played as a steel slide guitar, meaning the strings are set high above the neck and used in one’s lap. However, you can play the resonator guitar in the conventional sense by reducing the height of the strings, which is like a cross between a banjo and standard guitar.  

The question of restringing 

Most players remove all strings when restringing a guitar resonator. There’s nothing like a new set of strings to make a guitar sound like new. The standard for stringing up a square neck guitar resonator is to insert the string’s ball into the tailpiece from the top. Tuning to open G does exert pressure or tension on the strings, which is normal. When winding the string, take several turns around the peg and make sure the strings lie flat, never crossing each other on the wrap. This is good advice for stringing any guitar. The tension in the string sometimes pulls the tailpiece away from the cover plate. So. the more of an angle from the bridge to the tailpiece, the more stress on the cone. The best angle for the strings is straight across the bridge, but that makes them buzz and rattle. 

Recommended Strings

Resonator Strings

Other brands to check out include the fender resonator guitar, the recording king resonator guitars, or the regal resonator guitar.   

How to Make a Cigar Box Resonator Guitar

The cigar box guitar uses an empty cigar box as a resonator. These are popular due to a revival in jug bands, and the Do-It-Yourself culture. Also, the cigar box guitars are inexpensive to make, relatively speaking, and don’t take as much time to construct. It is also possible to add pickups and resonator cones to these guitars.

 The wooden box of a cigar box guitar should be 8 inches wide by 11 inches long by three inches deep. Place the neck back into the cigar box. Then install the bridge tailpiece and tuners. Next, you will run your new set of strings through the holes of the tailpiece. The distance from the nut to the bridge on the resonator should be exactly 25 inches on a cigar box guitar (a middle of the road standard). The very first cigar box guitars had one or two strings, although now they typically have three or more. Cigar box guitars use three strings tuned to D or E, and they use the 6th 5th and 4th strings. The brand of strings doesn’t matter so much, although many have a preference for D’ Addario, Ernie Ball, and Martin brands. 

How to tune a resonator guitar

Tuning a resonator guitar for bluegrass is usually done by using the open G with the strings pitched to D G D G B D or G B D G B D. Still, occasionally, there are other tunings used such as the open D which is D A D F# A D. 

How to identify resonator guitar brands

The most obvious way to identify one resonator from the other is simply to go to the store and check them out in person because there are many similarities even between resonator guitar manufacturers. Without considering handmade models from professional luthiers, National has been considered the top brand of resonators. National and Dobro are associated with reasonably good, mid-priced guitars today in a variety of styles. Republic Guitars (based in Austin, manufactured offshore) Gretsch, Regal, Dean, and Epiphone also make Resonators.  

Which resonator guitar to buy

You have many options when looking to buy a resonator guitar, whether you want new or vintage. If you can afford a vintage one, many covet those produced by the Continental brand name, once made in Munich by AMI. 

Republic, Gold Tone, and Gretsch offer good guitars below a thousand dollars. Range, and Republic guitars, though made offshore, sound great and are less pricey than many models with cutaways with upper fretboard access. Keep in mind when looking at sub $1000 units, it is essential to have a high-quality cone, but as always, you get what you pay for. Dean resonators are often lauded for their quality. You may also want to look for a Telluride guitar for sale; the Telluride Music Company is known for selling an impressive selection of new and used instruments. 

What is the best resonator guitar

When looking for a dobro for sale, many websites are listing their Top  Resonator models. Below is a small selection to get you started: 

Danelectro ’59 Acoustic-Electric Resonator.

Dean Chrome G Roundneck.

Gretsch G9220 Bobtail.

Gretsch G9210 Boxcar Squareneck.

Dean Thinbody Cutaway Resonator.

Rogue Classic Spider Resonator.

Pyle PGA48BR.

How to choose a resonator guitar

Which resonator you choose often depends on the style of music you prefer to play. Blues players like a full metal body and bluegrass players prefer wooden bodies. Bluegrass players typically prefer square necks, while blues players prefer round necks. This is because square-necked guitars offer a large variety of tunings. Still, round neck guitars have a great range of positions to play in.  Single resonator guitars used in bluegrass music usually feature a bull resonator and spider in the dobro style. Blues players prefer the national style using tricone instruments. There are many combinations possible; single resonators with sound holes featuring screens or without screens, are sometimes used to improve bass response. Or F-holes using gauze screens to strengthen the belly, especially when made of wood. Today it is even possible to incorporate a resonator guitar pick-up placed under the bridge or elsewhere. However, the design and placement of a resonator with a pickup is  critical, so be sure to read the reviews. 

The beginner may want to check out Gretsch, Republic, or Michael Messer brands for entry-level guitars. You may also scour the internet for a vintage dobro resonator guitar if you have the heart of a collector. Another brand to check out is the Rogue brand, which is an upgradable model, with a great tone. There are also aesthetic considerations, such as the popular choice of nickel-plated resonator guitars or those with a sunburst finish. 

Whatever you buy, probably the most crucial part is the cone, and how everything is set up because the body, whether round or square neck, is just the box. What matters is the overall construction and components. Some prefer square necks for the sound or round necks specifically because they want it to be a loud instrument. Note, especially for a beginning resonator guitarist, the round neck resonators plays particularly well. 

It is possible to make your own resonator guitar 

Decide whether you want an unfretted (square-neck) or a fretter (round-neck) resonator. This means deciding whether you want to play the guitar with a slide or if you want to do it with your fingers. You can raise the action to a round-neck and play it with a slide, but you can’t lower the action. This decision is going to dictate the guitar you make. 

Choose a guitar with laminated top and sides, no matter what style you’re going to play. Laminated tops and sides are more durable, and since they are not the part of the guitar producing the sound, their lack of resonance is not a matter of concern. Spruce is a traditional wood used for acoustic guitar tops and is now gaining popularity with resonator guitar makers, although some are crafted from solid mahogany or maple wood.

Choose a comfortable neck. Find a neck that fits comfortably with your hand, and take into consideration there is such a thing as a lefty resonator guitar! The distinctive sound of the resonator guitar is due to the cone. Quarterman cones are best; cheap cones have a tinny sound. There are many places to find metal cones for sale, but if unsure of where to start, get one from Janet Davis Music (bluegrasscenter.com). You’ll need accessories as well as the cone. You’re going to need a soundwell to support the cone and the bridge for the strings. To keep everything in place, you will want plastic binding, screws, and wood kerfing. 

The guitar tailpiece is probably the most expensive part, and if you like to use varied open tunings, the trilogy tailpiece from Hipshot (hipshot.com) is a good choice. 

First, cut the hole for the cone using a jigsaw, using the cone itself as your guide. The spider bridge and tailpiece handle the string tension, so don’t worry about cutting through braces. Cut two 2-1/4-inch holes in the upper ends as a sound port. Cover with the screens. Then place the cone on top of the inserted soundwell, to cover the plate and spider, after which you attach the tailpiece to the pin on the strap and insert the bridge. After you’re done, all you need is a gig bag and an audience!