By Mark Kemp
Resonators may be the coolest instruments ever made: shiny metal acoustic guitars that look as loud as they sound, or wooden bodies with massive metal cones in the middle. They look like a vintage sci-fi creation, and in the hands of a Son House, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tampa Red, Taj Mahal, Bruce Cockburn, Keith Richards, or Duane Allman, resonators explode with the fuzzy crackle of a space rocket.
Originally designed in the late 1920s to pump up the volume on acoustic guitars, resonators today are used to dirty up the blues, make a country slide-note moan, give some meatiness to a folk song, or add a little sizzle-and-fry to rock.
Resonators are either square-neck and played on the lap, or round-neck for playing more conventionally. National-style resos come in tri-cone (three small metal cones with a T-shaped bridge) or single-cone biscuit (one big cone), and Dobro-style resos come in a single inverted-cone outfitted with a spider bridge. But in reality, cones and bridges often are mixed and matched on individual resonator guitars.
For more of AG’s newest stories, lessons, and gear reviews, pick up a copy today. The May issue includes a lesson on playing slide guitar, a special section on resonators, reviews of two new 12-string Taylors, and stories on Peter Frampton, Duke Robillard, and M. Ward.
With great progress made in amplification, resos are no longer necessary for making acoustic guitars louder. Yet new generations of guitarists continue to be drawn to these dirty-sounding instruments. AG asked ten up-and-coming resonator players why they are drawn to these fascinating guitars and what aspiring reso players should do if they want to learn.
1. Molly Maher, 45
St. Paul, Minnesota
Maher, who fronts Molly Maher and her Disbelievers, is a fixture on the Twin Cities music scene, where she plays original Americana music, often on all kinds of guitars, including her 1938 Dobro/Regal “Alahambra” Model 14 with D’Armond pickup. Her biggest influences on resonator are Chris Whitley, Gabriela Sweet, Charlie Parr, Andy Dee, Pat Donahue, and Ellen McIlwaine’s version of “Down So Low,” though she also counts Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, and Derrick Trucks as big influences on her slide playing.
I was working at the Podium, a guitar shop in Minneapolis, and this sound came from the back one day. It absolutely stunned me. It was what I heard in my head but I could barely play guitar. It turned out to be the person who would become my mentor and teacher, Gabriela Sweet. She taught me how to play open tunings and slide and the I–IV–V language. Because I’m an unconventional player (I take a righty and flip it upside down) and a somewhat lazy student, playing in open tunings worked great for me. Also knowing that I would stand out a bit better in a sea of female singer-songwriters that were starting to emerge in the mid-’90s, I went for style points.
I used to split the signal when I played solo. Nice clean acoustic spider-cone “front-porch” tone for one line, another line through smaller amps got what we call the “bitchy guitar.” Fuzzed out! I’m a pretty sloppy slide player. Not a lot of single notes but more full chords with a great natural overdrive when I really want it to howl. I lean more toward the latter these days. I keep my reso in open G with the sixth string tuned up to G. I think the metal body lends itself better for that. My dream is to get a wood body for open D for more melodic ballad types of songs.
Working at Willie’s American Guitars for the past 15 years, I have sold a lot of resos to folks. I can give anyone a five-minute lesson on slide. My tip is: Wear a slide on your pinky finger, your first finger will act as the “brakes.” Use it to drag behind to mute.
2. Charlie Parr, 48
Parr plays original and traditional folk and blues on his Mule tri-cone and National NRP single-cone resonators. Some of his influences are Bukka White, Kelly Joe Phelps, Black Ace, and Glenn Jones. You can hear Parr on his 2015 album Stumpjumper (Red House) or catch his Acoustic Guitar Sessions episode at acousticguitar.com.
I’ve developed a weird picking style as a result of being stubborn, self-taught, and having RSS [repetitive stress syndrome], and the resonator responds really well to this style, which is more staccato and lets the notes fire out of the guitar, like a banjo only with a different kind of tone. The initial attack, in other words, is aggressive and doesn’t grow out of the guitar as much as it’s launched out, and the decay is quite a bit shorter, which lends itself to a quicker pace of picking. For bottleneck, the resonator brings a kind of sting to the tone that helps accentuate the note and also brings a sustain that shows up very differently on a wooden guitar.
The best advice I ever got was to approach the resonator as though it’s a completely different instrument—like a banjo or a mandolin. Let it bring its sound to you rather than having you force your sound onto it. It’s a lot more versatile than it’s given credit for, between the different types of body materials or whether it’s a single- or tri-cone. Where you place your right hand changes the tone immensely, and what the slide is made out of and how heavy it is changes things all over again.
3. John Fairhurst, 37
London, UK, John Fairhurst Band
Fairhurst, who fronts the John Fairhurst Band, blends a variety of styles on his 2000 maple-body single-cone National Resophonic Estralita and 2011 mahogany-body National M1 Tricone—from bottleneck blues and fingerpicked folk to Gypsy, raga, flamenco, and Middle Eastern music. His biggest influences are Son House, Bukka White, Black Ace, the Reverend Gary Davis, Tampa Red, Ry Cooder, and Rory Gallagher.
When I was a kid, my dad played me loads of records of the old blues guys and taught me how to fingerpick, play in open tunings, and use a bottleneck, so I always wanted a resonator. After having a bad knee injury on a building site, I got a payout and went straight to a shop in Manchester, UK, with my dad to get myself a National. That’s the Estralita I still play today. It’s been everywhere with me, from beaches in New Zealand to a snowy mountain in Morocco to front porches in Texas. It’s built like a tank and has taken all the punishment I have put it through.
Resonators are quite different beasts to play. I busked all over the world with mine. It’s loud enough to not need an amplifier, but that also means it amplifies all your mistakes. In the long run I believe this makes you a better, cleaner player. They are so harmonically rich that the sound, though unique, is suitable for a whole number of styles of playing. I prefer wood bodies as they are capable of producing a wider variety of tones and are a lot warmer than their metal-bodied counterparts. Whether purely acoustic, mic’d, or through the pickup using a RAT [distortion] pedal through a ’70s valve amp for a truly filthy sound, resonators are incredibly versatile. I use numerous open tunings, standard tuning, play styles of various ethnic origins, it doesn’t matter—they do everything. They are my number one go-to guitars, an integral and core part of my sound on which I write 90 percent of my music.
Listen to as many different resonator players as you can and play as many guitars as you can. Single cone, tricone, spider bridge or biscuit bridge, wood body or metal body, square neck or round neck. It’s all a matter of personal taste and playing style. As with any piece of equipment, find the right one for you and get the best you can afford or save up for a really top instrument. Bearing in mind the cones are all important, make sure you are getting top quality spun cones, or for a better sound on cheaper instruments, change out the cones for better ones. You will notice the difference!
4. Steve Dawson, 43
Dawson plays all original blues-, bluegrass-, jazz-, and Hawaiian-inspired experimental music, predominantly instrumental, on three resonators: a 2000 National tricone, a 1970s square-neck Dobro, and a 1928 style-O National. Among his many wide-ranging influences are Sol Hoopii, Tampa Red, King Bennie Nawahi, Casey Bill Weldon, Oscar Aleman, John Hammond, Bob Brozman, David Tronzo, Kevin Breit, and Jerry Douglas.
It depends on the situation. If I’m doing a session and someone wants an organic, traditional sound, I’ll often go for the square-neck Dobro. I use a low open-G tuning on that. I’ve never used the traditional bluegrass tuning—I just never bonded with it for some reason. I like the lower range of the D–G–D–G–B–D tuning. It’s a little bluesier, which I like, and that guitar really likes that tuning, too. If I’m going for something bluesier, or when I need to incorporate chords, or I just want a barkier tonality than a regular guitar, I’ll go for one of the Nationals. When I’m writing an original, I usually steer toward one of the Nationals if I’m incorporating bottleneck slide.
The tricone is more elegant and complex, and the style-O is ruder. I love the tricone for minor chords and minor tunings, which I use fairly often. The style-O usually sits in a tuning that is standard guitar tuning but with both E’s dropped to D’s. That tuning incorporates things I like about both open G and open D. It was something I started doing at sessions and gigs because it allowed me more freedom, and I started to really like that tuning and have written a lot of songs with it. I don’t know anyone else that uses it, but it works well for me on all my guitars—lap or regular style. The main thing about any of the resonator guitars is the tonality is so unique and cuts through a mix in a nice way. Very little EQ is needed if they are recorded right, and they cut nicely without taking up too much sonic space.
For me, with slide, it’s all in the right hand, and it’s really all about using a thumb and three-fingered technique to block the strings you don’t want to hear. As much as I love a good Elmore James open-slide chord, I’ve always gone for precision and single notes over full barre chords. To do that, I move my right hand as a unit with the thumb and three fingers. When I play Dobro or steel, I use three fingerpicks, which is unusual. But it allows me to move all four digits as a unit, blocking the unwanted strings with the other fingers. It takes practice, but eventually you just do it without thinking about it. It’s a pretty big topic, but the right-hand blocking is the most important thing for my playing. It applies to bottleneck and lap style, so it’s a really important concept.
5. Donna Herula
Herula plays folk, country blues, and Delta blues, both fingerstyle and slide, on her three National Steel resonators: a brown starburst mid-’30s vintage Triolian, a gray NRP Steel 14-Fret, and a 12-fret Polychrome Tricone, all round-neck guitars. She uses National Slimline pickups. Among her resonator-playing influences: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Son House, Johnny Winter, and Eric Sardinas.
I play resonator because of its unique sound and sustain and because it is very fun to play. Depending on the type of resonator, it could be gritty and intense (Triolian) or calm and sweet (tricone). I play fingerstyle, but particularly like to play slide on resonator guitars. When I improvise, I try to think of playing slide guitar like vocal lines—with lots of descending and ascending lines by moving my slide a whole step or one-and-a-half steps in a direction. For example, in
G tuning, descending from the high G on the first string—using a 5, 3, 0 fret pattern—down to the third, fourth, and fifth strings. One big influence was Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.” I had an instant connection to that song, as I had lost my father when I was a child. I was shocked and amazed to hear Son House howl and bang on his resonator, singing that the gal he loved was dead. I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It changed me and I realized that that was the blues and I wanted to play it like Son House.
I can also create different emotional effects by varying my use of tremolo—or the shaking of the slide on the fret of the resonator. For a more anxious or intense sound, the left-hand tremolo is fast with little movement (or distance) when I shake my hand.
I use two plastic Dunlop fingerpicks and one thumb pick on my right hand, which gives more strength and power to the tone, and I use force with multiple strums up (with the fingerpicks), if I am sliding up to a chord. Resonators are louder compared to a regular wood-bodied guitar, as they were originally made to be played with bands (before amplification)—and be heard.
For a sweeter sound, I use my Triolian to slowly slide up to a note and take my time rocking the slide back and forth on the fret. I choose my notes sparingly and make good use of the sustain.
Use thumb- and finger-picks when playing resonators. It makes the resonator sound punchier and brings forward the sound of the guitar. [As for slides,] I use a tapered brass slide—the Dunlop Preachin’ Pipe—because, as Johnny Winter said, metal slides sound “nastier.”
Don’t be afraid to use a capo. In open tunings like open G or open D, all you have to do to change keys is clamp a capo on one of the frets—but continue to use the exact same chord shapes.
To change the sound quality of the resonator, I sometimes vary where I place the capo. In open-G tuning, I have put the capo on the fifth fret (changing the tuning open C), which increases both the pitch and the string tension. I think it’s fun to play higher up the fretboard using a capo—and I have seen and heard other slide players capo even higher up the fretboard for an interesting, fun effect. If you are singing along with your resonator, don’t be afraid to change the location of your capo so that you can sing the song in a comfortable vocal range.
6. Reverend J. Peyton, 34
Brown County, Indiana
Frontman of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Peyton plays deep fingerstyle country blues on his 1934 National Trojan, a National Resophonic custom recreation of the old ’34, a custom Kochel Resonator, and various other vintage Nationals and custom builds from makers across the country. Among Peyton’s biggest influences are Bukka White, Son House, Tampa Red, and other non-resonator-playing country-blues legends.
I love resonator guitars because they sound like they are holding ghosts inside of them. There are all kinds of overtones and howls that sneak out of the body. When John Dopyera invented the resonator, he was trying to make acoustic guitars loud, and he succeeded, but the uniqueness of timbre is the real legacy, not the volume.
Resonators don’t have to be played with a slide, but if you do, remember that the magic is actually between the frets. If you are going to stick to chromatic scale, just play the piano.
7. Alexander “Sasha” Ostrovsky, 35
Obninsk, Russia (now Nashville)
Ostrovsky, who plays with Darius Rucker, performs bluegrass, rock, and jazz on his two Scheerhorns, National Reso-Phonic, and Recording King tri-cone resonator. His biggest influence is Jerry Douglas, but he also cites Rob Ickes, Sally Van Meter, and Andrey Shepelev of Russia’s first country band, Kukuruza.
When I got a call to join Darius Rucker on tour, my goal was to add that very distinctive country and bluegrass flavor to his sound. While most country artists at the time were trying to rock up their live performances, Darius wanted to make sure that the songs he wrote and the shows he put on sounded as country as they could possibly get.
Coming out of the pop-rock mega band Hootie and the Blowfish, it was important for Darius to solidify that traditional sound. It turned out to be so much fun that we even added a minute-and-a-half bluegrass jam, featuring resonator and banjo, going into “Only Wanna Be With You.”
I also have to mention my newest addition on the road: a metal body tricone resonator made by Recording King. There are two critical points of our live production where I felt like doing something different. The first is an opening song, a high-energy anthem, where a rocking, bluesy, metal tone adds that extra punch. The second is the beginning of our encore—the most personal, stripped-down, and exposed song in the set, where tricone’s dark overtones are helping bring out the emotions without overpowering its sonic content.
After a year of playing resonator and making good progress, I got a piece of advice that totally changed my world, made my technique accelerate at lightning speed, and eventually made me the player that I am today. Many musicians making a switch from guitar—steel guitar, for example—apply the same light picking technique to resonator and then they wonder why it doesn’t sound exactly right. You need to make sure that you are projecting as much power with your right hand as you can! These guitars have the thickest strings out of all instruments in that size/range category, and the only way to make them sound the way they are designed is to power through every note you’re picking. It may seem uncomfortable and even hurt at first, but after you relax your hand, find your rhythm (starting at the slow tempo), and dedicate a good amount of time to it, you will be amazed at the new level you’d find yourself playing. Oh, yeah, and your speed will increase drastically.
8. R.J. Ronquillo, 39
Ronquillo, who sometimes performs as Lonesome Joseph, plays mostly Delta and Piedmont blues on his National Triolian Polychrome and Republic Highway 61 travel-sized resonators. His major influences are Son House, Blind Boy Fuller, Bob Brozman, Ron Thompson, and Chris Whitley.
I think I’m attracted to the resonator’s range of sounds, which are much different than any other style of guitar. It can go from real brash and percussive to mellow and sustain-y.
Experiment with different types of slides. Different materials, thicknesses, and weights not only sound different, but will make you play different. My current favorites are heavy brass and thick-walled glass slides.
9. Fredrick Joseph Evans IV, 36
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Guitarist for the bands Left Lane Cruiser and King Mud, Joe Evans’ main resonator is a thin-body Galveston, but he also owns several vintage classics that his uncle, Gary Hessler handed down to him, including a 1932 National, a very early Dobro, a Regal, and a Johnson. Evans’ biggest influences are his uncle, his dad, their collection of Rolling Stones and Muddy Waters records, as well as Son House, Johnny Winter, and John Hammond.
I play the dirty blues. I play a lot of slide guitar. I also fingerpick a lot. The resonator is the perfect guitar for those things. Resonators have a big, raw, heavy sound. I love how they rattle and buzz when you beat on them.
My advice to resonator players would be to play ’em loud and play ’em dirty. Crank the treble down and the bass up. Let it rip with some fingerpickin’ blues. Open tunings for life. Don’t mind the high action or the rattles and buzzes. It all adds to those ancient sounds rolling around those reso cones.
10. Hat Fitz, 48
Cootharaba, Queensland, Australia
One-half of the Australian duo Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson, Fitz performs vintage blues and folk with a hill country flavor on his single-cone resonator built by Aussie resophonic instrument maker Greg Beeton. Fitz’ two biggest influences are Bukka White and Bo Carter.
I like the raw attack of its sound. It brings an authenticity to my playing that no other guitar can emulate, acoustically or mic’d. It can go from a banjo-like attack to a sweet, mellow, folk feel. I find that it’s a finger-picking machine. With finger picks, it can have that rapid banjo attack, but without finger picks it also maintains a lovely, melodic sound with the right overtones.
I was able to take my banjo playing and adapt it easily to the resonator. Having been playing since the mid-’90s, I’ve found that it has changed my style of playing for the better.