Posted by: kubiakl | October 13, 2008

Resonators, Mount Up

I think it’s pretty clear from the “Wrong I Do” post that resonator guitars hold a special place in my heart.  In keeping with my idea about this being an (occasionally) informative website, I’d like to talk about different kinds of resonators.

A little history: resonators were invented to compete with the volume of brass and reed instruments before electric guitars came around, sometime in the 1920’s.  John Dopyera founded National guitars in 1927, then the Dobro guitar company a year later.  That’s all the history lesson I will do.  If you want to find more history, Wikipedia has a good article on resonator guitars.

Basically, a resonator is an acoustic guitar with an aluminum cone that acts as a speaker to amplify the sound.  There are a few different flavors we’ll run through.  The body can be made of wood or metal, and these differences in materials produce vast differences in the sound.  There are also different types of cones and cone configurations.

This is a single cone wood-bodied Epiphone biscuit resonator:

Epiphone Biscuit Resonator

Epiphone Biscuit Resonator

And this is a Gibson wood-bodied resonator with a spider bridge:

Gibson Spider Resonator

Both of those are wood-bodied single-cone resonators.  They have a slightly nasal twang, especially when plucked close to the bridge, but can be played closer to the neck for a more standard acoustic tone.  The different types of bridges affect the tone, so if you are looking for a wood-bodied resonator play both styles before deciding.  Generally the cover plate will give away what kind of bridge it has.

Then we have metal bodied resonators.  They can be single cone or tricone.  Tricones have (wait for it…) three cones and look like this:

National Tricone Guitar

National Tricone Guitar

And then there’s the single cone metal bodied resonator:

Fender Steel Biscuit

Fender Steel Biscuit

Metal bodied guitars have a very nasal tone that slide players love, but they are shoulder killers – you want to be sitting down when you play one of these.

Resonators can be played a few different ways.  There’s always the standard guitar playing position, where you hold the back of the guitar to your chest and fret the notes.  Then there’s bottleneck/slide, where you hold it in the same position but use a slide instead of fretting.  And then there’s lap steel style:

Jerry Douglas Live

Jerry Douglas Live

This is where the action (distance between the strings and the fretboard) is raised and a tone bar is used as a slide, similar to pedal steel playing.

I have a fairly inexpensive Fender FR-50 wood bodied resonator with a spider bridge:

Fender FR-50 Sunburst

Fender FR-50 Sunburst

It was my second acoustic guitar.  Before that I had a cheap Johnson thinline acoustic that I sold to a friend, so this was my only acoustic for a while.  I still consider it a good choice, especially considering that I hadn’t done too much research before buying it.  The action is comfortably low, the tone is beautiful, and it sounds great with a slide.  I generally keep it in Open D or Open G tuning.

Wait, I haven’t talked about that yet?  Many slide players use open tunings, instead of the standard guitar tuning (low to high: E A D G B E).  Standard tuning sounds very dissonant when strummed without fretting any notes.  If you are playing with a slide it can be hard to fret full voiced chords since you have a tube on one finger.  Open tunings sound a chord when nothing is fretted or when all the strings are barred on a fret.  Since a slide is basically just a long finger that barres all the strings, open tunings work really well.  The most common tunings are (low to high):

Open G:  D G D G B D

Open D: D A D F# A D

and their counterparts, Open A and Open E

Open A:  E A E A C# E

Open E: E B E G# B E

There are plenty of others, but those are the most commonly used.  If you’ll look at a comparison between standard tuning and Open G:

Standard: E A D G B E

Open G:   D G D G B D

You’ll notice that the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings are the same.  Slide can be played in standard tuning easily using these three strings, but you will be missing some of the chord voicings.  I use standard tuning when playing slide on an electric quite often but that’s mostly because I don’t want to retune my guitar.

And here’s a video of someone playing a tricone resonator with a slide:

What’s not to love about resonators?

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