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National & Dobro Resonator Guitars, Miner-Cello
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)

1. Jingle Bells                                 2. The Chipmunk Song 
(J. Pierpont, 1857)                                        (R. Bagdasarian, 1958)

   

 

Tri-cone Resonator Hawaiian Guitar - National Style 1, 1930

Dobro Resonator Guitar
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Regal No. 45, ca. 1935

Miner-Cello
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G. Miner & Kerry Char, 1994


 

Disclaimer to Internet readers: 
The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

From Volume I:

Eye-catching, strange-sounding, and truly original examples of American ingenuity - welcome to the weird and wonderful world of resonator guitars! And without further ado, here are two representative, classic examples - a metalbody squareneck National "Silver" tri-cone Hawaiian guitar and a woodbody roundneck (Spanish-style) Dobro made by Regal. Sound confusing? You cannot imagine! In fact, I'm dedicating an entire chapter to these instruments in the next volume (see below). For now, let's just discuss a few basics. The one common characteristic feature of this family of instruments is the resonator cone, an aluminum, bowl-like contraption under the bridge. Hidden by a separate coverplate, it vaguely resembles a loudspeaker - and, in fact, that was the intent - to make a louder acoustic guitar. To categorize them for the layperson, I think it's simplest to break down the features into three main areas of design with two basic options each: Metal or wood for the body of the guitar itself, a large single cone or three small cone set-up, and either a square unfretted neck (for Hawaiian-style playing) or a round neck with frets for "Spanish"-style (normal) playing.

From the late 1920s through the mid-'30s (when the first electrics appeared) these "amplifying" or "resophonic" guitars enjoyed tremendous popularity. Many styles found specific niches, such as the loud and brassy budget-model single-cone metalbody instruments as the choice of blues players (a case which has lasted up to the present). Today these guitars are once again extremely popular, though their roles have changed somewhat. Dobros have become a standard country and bluegrass instrument, tuned G,B,d,g,b,d' and played exclusively with a slide. Both squarenecks and roundnecks are used, the roundneck version using an extension nut to lift the strings off the neck so that they don't rattle on the frets (I did that for this piece). In fact, "Dobro" (a trademark name) now refers  as much to the style of playing as to generally any wood-bodied resonator guitar, regardless of the maker (the design of the cone, upside down from that of National's, also technically characterizes a Dobro). National's metalbody tri-cones, on the other hand, are still preferred for Hawaiian-style playing.

The playing techniques of the two are different, also - so much so that members of the opposing "schools" barely speak to each other. The Hawaiian players use a rounded "bullet" slide bar and a very loose, fluid left arm movement, while the Dobroist uses a square-end bar with a rigid, lightning-quick, perpendicular movement. Each makes fun of the other, but, quite frankly, neither looks especially cool (to look cool, you must play "bottleneck" blues, the guitar in normal playing position and glass slide on your little finger. I can't quite pull the effect off). Since I'm not biased toward either technique, I can play both styles - thus, this song features some psuedo-bluegrass and faux-Hawaiian styles (though representatives from both factions have threatened to beat me up).

What no one can tell me how to play is the Miner-cello, a rather unique instrument that I invented, designed, and helped build when I realized this song needed a bass part! Since no bass guitar corresponding to these instruments existed, I had to come up with something. The instrument consists of a wood body with aluminum resonator, strung in four double courses like a mandocello (refer to the Gibson Mandolin Orchestra page), but tuned to an open chord (BB,E,G#,B) and played with a slide, with optional frets. Way beyond my expectations, it was a work of art when finished, thanks to my luthier, Kerry Char, of Portland, Oregon, and his artists. More importantly, the finished creation worked - though I hadn't anticipated the challenge of playing three "slide" instruments together, a feat I don't believe anyone else has ever attempted. 

From Volume II:

While I described the instruments themselves in the previous volume, it's now time to discuss their nearly incomprehensible history.

The first resonator guitar was built by inventor John Dopyera in California in the mid 1920s. He and his four brothers, along with a couple other entrepreneurs, started the National Company to produce these "resophonic, amplifying" instruments (so-called because of the loudspeaker-like metal resonating cone assembly in the body of the guitar). The first models available were the striking metal-bodied "tri-cones", just like the one pictured here. Soon after, various models with a large single resonator cone hit the market. Then, despite the company's being an overnight success, a disgruntled John Dopyera left, leaving his patents behind. He immediately started a new company with his brothers which they named Dobro, after "DOpyera BROthers", producing John's new type of single-cone wood-bodied guitar. Within a few years both companies were feverishly building both wood- and metal-body instruments in a war to monopolize the marketplace, Then, ironically, in 1934, after intense legal battling, the two rival companies merged, though continuing the separate brand names. Now, to really confuse things: Earlier, Dobro had licensed the Regal Company in Chicago to build copies of "Dobros", using either the "Regal" or "Dobro" brand name. My Dobro has a "Dobro" decal, but is in fact a Regal (they very nearly fooled me). Other companies were also granted licenses to build "Dobros" - and don't forget the inevitable Sears and Wards brands. Later, National re-organized and became Valco (but still used the National brand name), the Dobro name was sold and resold umpteen times, and it was by now a "resophonic guitar" free-for-all. Today there are again two independent companies, National Reso-Phonic and OMI, producing both new and replica "Nationals" and "Dobros" (Gregg's note: And as of now, Gibson owns the "Dobro" name!). What's truly amazing is that these loud, strange-looking instruments, designed for the pre-electric era, survived at all. 

Copyright 2000
Miner Music