Bluesmen And Their Love Affair With National Guitars

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Tampa Red photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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:

Format: Union Jack flagUK English


  1. Philip Pinsent

    June 30, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    I have been listening to the blues, bluegrass and country since the 60s and have actually strummed a Dobro. I used to have a Gibson J45, but it was stolen.I love all the old bluesmen and Jimmy Rogers, the brakeman, too.

  2. Kathy

    June 30, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks for the history of this important invention. I have recognized the unique sound on records, but I had never actually seen the instrument until Mark Knopler used it on “Brothers in Arms”.

  3. Lefty Phillips

    June 30, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I love my Republic; it’s beautiful to look at, makes a unique sound that is perfect for acoustic Blues, and boy is it ever loud! Folks can hear me from across the street when I’m busking, even when traffic is heavy. Many thanks to George Beauchamp and the Dopreya brothers!

    • Harley Mackenzie

      July 1, 2014 at 1:49 am

      I too have a Republic and love it and it seems Cindy Lauper does too as she has a photo of the model I have on her recent blues CD. It really seems to suit open G tuning but I must admit finding good tutorials and tabs for that style of blues and guitar is proving to be difficult.

      • Dan Labrie

        July 4, 2015 at 7:17 pm

        Check out some of the lessons on the Gibson website, Arlen Roth has some very informative stuff.

  4. scott Moore

    July 13, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Guitar design history is fascinating. It is great that every new guitar design since the resonator has generated a following of loyal users and styles. The history of guitars runs parallel to the understanding of musical styles in guitars. The R&R H.O.F. has a grand display of historical guitars, my favorite is the Les Paul Log.

  5. John

    October 15, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    The first line of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” is “The Mississippi Delta was shining / Like a National guitar.”

  6. Roger M

    October 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Like Philip P. I didn`t know what it was until Brothers In Arms but then could identify it with so many Bluesmen from E C to Tamper Red. My guitar teacher Tony Underwood from the Alligators has a wooden bodied resonator guitar for slide playing which sounds similar but not as crisp. Have had an Osawa steel guitar myself, but just couldn`t get on with it..Slide/Bottle neck can be played on any guitar!

  7. gregg woodcox

    October 16, 2014 at 12:54 am

    I have a 1928 National tricone style 2.5 serial # 400 I been told it was Mark Knopflers when he was in his 20’s. Anyone know him let him know and I would be happy to give it back to him. Peace from Mississippi

  8. Michael Berrymsn

    October 16, 2014 at 8:24 am

    This must be the George Beauchampwhi in the early 1930’s invented the first electric guitar that was manufactured by Rickenbacker.

  9. sal

    July 4, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Somebody Loan Me A Dime.

  10. Bryan Woy

    June 28, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    I’ve always appreciated Blind Bot Guller’s music, despite its rarity.

  11. blackhorse

    November 4, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    Tampa Red, Bo Cater, Davis, and Fuller had Nationals during 30s. Bukka White and Son House made their original recordings on flattops. Didn’t get Nationals until the folk revival.

  12. lord hams

    November 29, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    Why is it necessary to mention Dire Straits in an article about blues musicians? Possibly the world’s most unexciting band.

  13. Sistina Z.

    November 30, 2017 at 10:53 am

    Rory Gallagher – the late great Irish guitarist and musician – loved his (1930s) National Guitar too .Used it always onstage !!!

  14. jonk

    November 30, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    My understanding is that Tampa Red played slide in standard tuning – anybody confirm?

    • Phil Thorne

      December 12, 2017 at 6:34 pm

      No Red [played in Vasterpol tuning (same intervals as open D)

  15. Ollie W

    December 11, 2021 at 9:54 pm

    Bukka White “square neck tricone” wtf you high? Hardrock is no tricone or squareneck my dude. Its biscuit through and trough. Very similar to Knopfler’s Duolin tbh

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