The resonator guitar has charmed musicians and audiences for decades with its distinctive and mesmerizing sound.
In this article, we will unravel the magic behind this unique instrument, from its origins to the genres it has come to define. Join us on this musical journey as we explore the allure of the resonator guitar.
What Exactly is a Resonator Guitar
A resonator guitar is a type of acoustic guitar that produces a much louder and unique sound compared to a regular acoustic guitar. It doesn’t use electricity like an electric guitar, but it has a special part called a speaker cone inside its body.
When you play the strings, they vibrate and the guitar’s bridge transfers those vibrations to the speaker cone. The cone then acts like a speaker, amplifying the sound and giving the guitar its loud and distinctive tone.
A Brief History of a Resonator Guitar
The resonator guitar was created by a man named John Dopyera in the 1920s. He ran a shop in Los Angeles where he fixed regular stringed instruments and made his own as well.
Back then, before electric guitars and amplifiers were invented, dance bands and orchestras used acoustic guitars. But these guitars couldn’t compete with the loud horns, brass, and percussion of the big bands, so they needed a solution.
A guitarist named George Beauchamp asked John Dopyera to come up with an answer to this problem. Dopyera’s solution was the resonator guitar. This guitar was much louder than the regular acoustic ones, making it possible to be heard over the orchestra.
As technology advanced and electric guitars with amplifiers became popular, the issue of acoustic guitars being too quiet was solved. This made resonator guitars less needed for a while. However, they found new popularity among blues and bluegrass guitarists, especially for slide guitar playing. So, even though they weren’t as widely used as before, they still became cherished by certain musicians for their unique sound and style.
Resonator Guitar Materials
Resonator guitars are built using two main materials: wood and metal. For the wooden ones, they use types of wood like mahogany, maple, and rosewood, just like regular acoustic guitars. These wooden bodies are treated with lacquer and paint to protect and beautify them.
As for the metal resonator guitars, they are made from materials like steel, aluminum, and brass. These metal bodies can be plated, painted with cool designs, or left plain without any extra coating. So, depending on the type of resonator guitar, it will either have a wooden body with a polished finish or a metal body with different surface treatments.
How Resonator Guitars Work
Resonator guitars work differently than regular acoustic guitars to make their sound louder. As we already mentioned, they have a special part called the “speaker cone” placed under the bridge. This cone acts like a speaker, just like in a guitar amplifier.
Depending on the type of resonator guitar, it can have either one or three cones. These cones help to make the guitar sound much louder and more distinct.
What’s interesting is that in regular acoustic guitars, the body material affects the sound a lot, but in resonator guitars, it’s the speaker cone that has a bigger impact on the sound.
That’s why resonator guitars have a unique and powerful sound that stands out from regular acoustic guitars. They are popular for certain styles of music, like blues and bluegrass, where they need to be heard clearly, even with other loud instruments playing together.
How Resonator Guitars Sound
A resonator guitar has a unique sound that some people describe as “twangy” and “shrill.” It might also be called “nasally.” Though these words might not sound very attractive, this distinct sound has become a trademark of certain types of music.
Resonator guitars produce a bright and lively tone, especially in the middle range. This special sound has made them popular and closely associated with specific styles of music.
So, while the description might not seem so great, many musicians and fans love the characteristic sound of a resonator guitar and the way it adds a special touch to the music they play.
How to Play a Resonator Guitar
Playing a resonator guitar is similar to playing a regular 6-string acoustic or electric guitar, especially if you already know how to play those. You can tune the resonator guitar just like the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning and start playing right away.
But the real magic of a resonator guitar comes when you play it differently, either as a lap steel guitar or with a slide.
If your resonator guitar has a square neck, you can lay it across your lap and play it as a lap steel guitar. You’ll use a solid tone bar in your hand to slide across the strings while picking them with your fingers or fingerpicks.
If your resonator guitar has a round neck, you have more options. You can still play it as a lap steel guitar, or you can hold it like a regular guitar and use a slide.
A slide is a hollow tube that you put on one of your fingers, and then you slide it along the strings to make cool sounds. Your other fingers can still press down on the strings to create chords.
No matter which way you choose to play, it’s a good idea to tune your guitar to “open tuning.” This makes it easier to produce nice-sounding chords even when you’re using the tone bar or slide and not pressing the strings down.
Main Types of Resonator Guitars
There are three main types of resonator guitars, each with its own unique features and sound.
Tricone resonators have three cones arranged in a triangular shape and connected to an aluminum T-bar bridge. Having three cones gives them a lot of sustain, making them popular among slide players.
Due to their complex design and construction, Tricone resonators tend to be the most expensive among the types.
Spider Bridge resonator
The Spider Bridge resonator gets its name from its bridge, which looks like a large spider with its legs spreading out. The legs connect with the single cone both at its edge and center. This design gives it a tone similar to the Tricone but with a greater mid-range.
Spider Bridge resonators are mainly used by slide and bluegrass guitarists.
Biscuit Bridge resonators
The Biscuit Bridge resonators get their name because their bridge looks like a circular biscuit. They have one large cone speaker and a smaller, circular bridge. This setup allows vibrations from the strings to quickly transfer to the cone, giving them a shorter sustain. Biscuit bridge resonators create a distinct sound similar to a banjo, which makes them a favorite for fingerpickers and blues guitarists.
The types of resonator guitar necks
Resonator guitars can have two types of necks: a square neck and a round neck. These necks affect how you play the guitar and the types of music you can play with them.
- Square neck resonators are commonly used in country, bluegrass, and Hawaiian music.
- To play a square neck resonator, you hold it in your lap with the fretboard facing upwards. It’s played like a lap steel guitar using a bar or slide.
- You can’t play it in the traditional way like a regular acoustic guitar, with the guitar placed over your knee.
- The neck of a square resonator is wide, chunky, and has square edges, which makes it uncomfortable to hold but great for playing when resting on your lap.
- The nut on a square neck is placed higher than on a regular guitar, making standard fretting impossible. The frets on the fretboard are used as a guide for finger placement but don’t produce any sound.
- Round neck resonators are more common and similar to regular acoustic guitars.
- You can play them with a slide, strumming, fingerstyle, or flat picking, offering more versatility for musicians.
- Round neck resonators can complement your acoustic tone and are suitable for various styles of music.
- If you have a round neck guitar and want to try playing it like a square neck, you can use a nut extender to raise the height. This way, you can transform your round neck guitar into a square neck guitar without having to buy a new instrument. However, this process can be challenging and put strain on the neck.
The Differences Between Resonator and Acoustic Guitars
The most significant difference between a resonator guitar and a standard acoustic guitar is the volume they produce. Resonator guitars create a much greater and louder sound compared to acoustic guitars.
Additionally, these two types of guitars sound quite different from each other. Resonator guitars have a more high-pitched and focused mid-range sound, giving them a distinct and unique tone.
The Differences Between Resonator and Dobro Guitars
The main difference between a resonator guitar and a Dobro guitar is that a Dobro is a specific type of resonator guitar built with a slight variation.
In a regular resonator guitar, the cone that reflects the sound is positioned at the back of the guitar. However, in a Dobro, the cone faces away from the guitar.
Dobro guitars have a spider bridge that creates more sustain, meaning the notes ring out longer, compared to a regular resonator guitar. This difference in the bridge also gives the Dobro a slightly different tone, making it unique and favored by many musicians.
What to Consider When Buying a Resonator Guitar
When buying a resonator guitar, there are some important things to consider to find the right one for you.
- Size: Resonator guitars come in different sizes, just like acoustic guitars. The size affects how the guitar sounds, so it’s essential to try out different sizes before buying. They usually follow the same size standards as regular acoustic guitars, like concert, full size, half size, and 3/4 size.
- Design: Resonator guitars can have different designs, like single metal cones or multiple cones. These design differences create subtle variations in sound, so it’s worth considering which one you prefer before making a choice. You’ll also find resonator guitars with wooden bodies or metal bodies.
- Price: The price is an important factor to consider. Resonator guitars can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Set a budget before you start shopping to avoid overspending.
- Quality: We highly advise choosing a resonator guitar made from high-quality materials. Better quality guitars last longer and sound better. Keep in mind that higher quality often means a higher price, but it’s worth it for the improved sound and durability.
- Brand: Do some research to find a brand of resonator guitar that you trust. Look for online reviews to help you narrow down your choices and find a reputable brand.
By keeping these factors in mind, you can find the perfect resonator guitar that fits your preferences and budget and brings joy to your music-making journey.
Famous Resonator Guitar Players
Resonator guitars have been played by many famous musicians, especially in the country, blues, and bluegrass genres. Here are just a few well-known players:
- Eric Sardinas
- Cindy Cashdollar
- Alvin Hart
- Mike Aldridge
- Andy Hall
The resonator guitar’s unique twangy sound and innovative design have made it a captivating instrument. From its origins to its prominence in various genres, this charming guitar continues to enchant musicians and audiences alike. Embrace the allure of the resonator guitar and let its melodious echoes enrich your musical journey.
Read this if you want to know more about the types of guitars.
How hard is it to learn to play a resonator guitar?
Learning to play a resonator guitar is not difficult, especially if you already know how to play a regular guitar. Beginners can start by learning basic chords and then progress to playing songs on the resonator guitar. There are instructional books and online lessons available to help you get started. With practice, you can play any song you want on a resonator guitar.
Are resonator guitars loud?
Yes, resonator guitars are loud and have a unique sound different from acoustic guitars. Some people may love the volume and sound, while others may not prefer it.
Do resonator guitars need special strings?
Resonator guitars don’t necessarily need special strings, but they are often used for slide guitar playing and may require heavier gauge strings. You can use regular heavy gauge acoustic strings, but there are also strings specifically designed for resonators.
How is a resonator guitar tuned?
A resonator guitar is tuned similarly to a regular acoustic guitar. However, many resonators are tuned to alternate tunings like open G, which gives them a distinctive sound. The tuning you choose will affect the choice of strings and the overall sound of the instrument.