Each and every genre of music has its own distinctive guitar sound. Jimi Hendrix Fender Stratocaster in the 60s and in the 70’s the Les Paul was the guitar of choice for many hard rock guitar-slingers. Back in the 1920’s and 1930s things were altogether different. Without the benefits of amplification, guitar players had one very special requirement, they needed to be LOUD to cut through the noise of the people in a crowded saloon or house rent party. Which is why the National Resonator guitar has been more closely associated with the blues than any other; a National was around four times louder than a conventional wooden guitar, pretty handy if you wanted to make yourself heard on a street corner, in a tent show or against the noise of a juke joint.
In the mid to late 1920s three men in Los Angeles created the National Resonator guitar. George Beauchamp, an LA musician, had the original idea of taking a Hawaiian guitar, sitting it on a stand and attaching a horn to the bottom. Two brothers, John and Rudy Dopyera, started to work with him, but Beauschamp’s first idea failed, as the brothers knew it would. John experimented with a design that used three very thin conical-shaped aluminium resonators inside an all-metal body, he applied to patent his ‘tricone’ guitar in 1927.
Beauchamp found the investors, and the National String Instrument Company was formed. Production soon began and by 1928 they were producing hundreds of guitars each week; at the peak, nearly 50 instruments a day were made. In 1928 Tampa Red was the first Blues artist to record with a National steel resonator-type guitar. Listen to ‘Denver Blues’ from 1934 to appreciate the man they dubbed ‘The Guitar Wizard’.
Problems soon emerged when Dopyera rejected Beauchamp’s idea of making a guitar with a single resonator. Beauchamp thought this the perfect design for a lower cost instrument and with the Depression just around the corner he was proved right. The single cone type, patented by Beauchamp in 1929, saved National from bankruptcy.
Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits were National lover’s.
The National was originally intended for Hawaiian and Jazz players but it became the favoured guitar of the great Blues guitar players. Beauchamp’s patent caused a rift between the two parties and Dopyera left National. In 1928, John Dopyera began to work on a wooded-bodied guitar with a single cone. He called this the DOBRO; made up from Do(pyera) and bro(thers). However, in depression hit America times were tough and in 1932 the companies merged to the National-Dobro Company. The cones of a National were volcano-shaped, while a Dobro was dish-shaped. The wooden-bodied Dobro were marketed as an inexpensive alternative to the metal Nationals, with Dobros becoming associated with acoustic country music and artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff.
Cliff Carlisle was the first to record playing a Dobro.
The cost of a National in the 1930s varied according to the model. A Duolian cost $32 to $35, a Triolian $45 to $50 and a Style O around $65. The tricone has a smoother tone, with greater, richer, sustain (the notes last longer). The single resonator had a sharper, and clearer sound, it had much more attack.
Tampa Red – Tricone guitar
Son House – single resonator, either a Triolian or Duolian
Bukka White – square neck tricone
Bo Carter – Style N
Blind Boy Fuller – Duolians
Peetie Wheatstraw – Tricone
Scrapper Blackwell – Triolian
Bumble Bee – Style O
Black Ace – Tricone
Reverend Gary Davis – single cone
Oscar “Buddy” Woods – A Tri-plate
This is Son House on his National guitar playing Death Letter Blues: