Buyers Guide: What Is A Resonator?
Regularly in stock within the acoustic areas of any of our 8 shops across the north west, resonator guitars can often appear daunting to the beginner guitarist with their unusual metal bodies or sections. If you’re unsure of what a resonator guitar looks or sounds like, take a look at our recent review of the Gretsch G9200 Resonator Acoustic Guitar here:
A resonator differers from an acoustic guitar because of the way in which it produces sound. Where an acoustic guitar amplifies the vibrations of the strings through their contact with the wooden soundboard or top via the bridge, a resonator instead amplifies the strings through the use of one or more metal coils which are in contact with the underside of the bridge. Whilst creating a distinctively different tone to the instrument, a resonator guitar is also much louder than a regular acoustic guitar. This meant that they were originally a solution to playing guitar in larger venues or with larger and louder bands before the popularisation of the electric guitar. Since then they have become a separate instrument in their own right with their own styles of playing for different genres. With different variations on the design of a resonator guitar, it can sometimes become confusing choosing which one is right for you. We’ll look at some of these different varieties and what each are used for.
Neck Shape- Round or Square?
Many guitarists who are used to a conventional guitar neck will find it easiest to pick up a resonator guitar with a rounded neck. Like regular acoustic guitars, these necks can take the form of a D,C or even a soft V shape, making them very comfortable to play in the same way as any other guitar. As such they are normally played whilst standing with the fretboard facing away from the player like a normal guitar, or often in a spanish or other conventional seated position. Because of this similarity to the way other guitars are played, resonator acoustic guitars with a round neck are often tuned to standard tuning like other guitars. Due to their popularity in various forms of blues music, they are also placed in open tunings and played with a bottle neck slide. An example of an open tuning would be tuning to an open G chord, in which every string is tuned to a note in a G-Major chord. Starting from the low to high, this would be:
D | G | D | G | B | D
In styles such as country and bluegrass however, square necked resonators are much more popular and played in a lap steel style. This is not to be confused with a pedal steel guitar which is built on a stand with pedals and knee levers, as well as having more strings. Due to their square necks, this type of resonator has to be played in a seated position and is normally played with a slide rather fretting notes. Because of this, they are nearly always found in open tunings which lend themselves to this playing style. Due to the extra wood in their square design, the necks of this type of resonator are much stronger than a conventional guitar neck and can withstand a higher string tension. As such, where a player would normally tune individual strings down from standard tuning on other types of guitar, square necked resonators can be tuned up from this. As a result, an open G tuning might instead look like this:
G | B | D | G | B | D
Because the instrument will be played solely with a slide instead of fretting the notes, the high string tension will not negatively the players ability to play notes on the higher tensioned strings.
Body Material – Metal or Wood?
The body material used in resonators can vary from guitar to guitar. Many will use the same tonewoods used in a conventional guitar, while others may be made from thin sheets of metal that either match or compliment the resonator section of the body. A metal bodied model will usually be made of aluminium or steel, but brass is also used and they can either be painted, plated or left naked. Wooden bodies are also normally laquared, painted and treated in much the same way as other types of acoustic instruments. Whilst blues players as a rule have no bias towards either contruction material, bluegrass players nearly all exclusively play wooden bodied models as these can viewed as more traditional in design.
Resonator – Which design?
Whilst different designs exist from different manufacturers, there are 3 main styles of construction which the majority of resonators are based on. The first is the tricone design which features three metal coils, also known as the National design after the first company that manufactured resonator acoustic guitars in this style, it is these guitars that are often favoured by blues players. The second main type of resonator style is the Dobro style which incorporates a single inverted cone which is a attached to a spider style bracing coming from the bridge. Named after the initial company to produce resonator guitars in this style, this style of resonator is favoured by bluegrass and country players, with Dobro also being used as a colloquial term for resonator guitars in use in these music genres. This design is also louder than a tricone design, making it more popular amongst players who solely rely on acoustic amplification. The less popular of the three main types is the biscuit design, which uses a single resonator that is attached to the underside of the bridge via a biscuit shaped wooden disc for structural support.
Whilst there are many common practices for matching neck shape, body material and resonator design, there are many differing combinations which can be found and used for a variety of musical genres. As these music genres progress and borrow from each other, it is increasingly common to see a blues guitarist borrowing from country and playing lap steel style, or visa versa. With the additional rise of folk inspired acts such as Mumford and Sons making their way into popular music, the trend to break these rules is sure to continue. As such we would advice to choose the style of resonator that suits the music you play and how you play it best, but also to be open to trying something different.