National Resonator (Steel) Guitar – development and history

Back in the ’20s, bluesman played the National Resonator Guitar. This guitar was 3 to 5 times louder than any guitar made of wood. It was also impervious to outside environments of tent shows and juke joints. This was because of its metal body which is what made it instantly recognizable to the fans of the Blues.

National Resonator (Steel) Guitar - development and history

Bluesman- The Delta Blues and the National Resonator

Back then the Blues artist had to make himself heard over the normal noise that occurred when the crowd assembled to dance and enjoyed themselves. These early jazz bands were large and were normally fronted by women singers, like legends Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey who had to be loud enough to cut through the crowded tent with no acoustics.

Most guitars back then were the catalogue type like the Harmony Stella Parlor guitar made of the heavy Birchwood. Even in recording, it was necessary that the instrument or the voice had to be as loud as possible to project enough sound to cut a 78 rpm master disk.

In 1928 the National Resonator came on the scene played by Tampa Red a black blues artist who recorded with the instrument. Soon everyone else followed. Besides the smooth sounds of Tampa Red there was the harder sound of the Delta Blues players like Bukka White and Son House who used a different model of National Resonator guitar.

The Single Resonator- Tricone and Guitar

These artists created powerful rhythms and slide work that would be a precursor to an artist like Bo Diddley and the rockers of the ’60s. The model Tampa used was called Tricone. The guitar Son used was a Single Resonator both had distinctive sound but had one thing in common, they were very loud.

The National String Instrument Corporation

National Resonator (Steel) Guitar

In the 1920s two men from Los Angeles used this cone principle to make a new type of guitar. George Beauchamp and John Dopyera experimented with different materials and came up with a very thin conical-shaped aluminum guitar design used in a set of three connected by a T bar in an all-metal body. Using 3 cones instead of 1, was not as loud but was less harsh and had more sustain. The Tricone guitar was patented in 1930.

The Single Resonator used by the Delta Bluesmen was manufactured after that and very popular, less expensive during what became the Great Depression. The National Resonator was originally intended for Jazz and Hawaiian Music but it became successful because of the blues and its players. Because of the success of the genre, other Guitar companies like Fender and Harmony have made Steel guitars.

The Gibson Dobro & National Tricone- Classic American Instruments

Blues is now considered the Classic American music and the National Resonator is considered the Classical guitar of that genre. Beauchamp and Dopyera split and Dopyera formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company which created a single Cone resonator with a new design that still bears his name. The two companies merged and became the National String Instrument Company In the late 80’s the trademark and patented guitars were bought and the name of the company is now called National Reso-Phonic Guitars The Dobro Trademark was bought by Gibson. who use the same design that guitar luthier John Dupyera patented.

With outstanding art-deco and solid craftsmanship, National Resonators and the Gibson Dobro make fine guitar collections. The Resonator has found a home in several musical styles including Bluegrass. The guitars played today have two styles of the resonator. A Square neck that is played in Steel Guitar style and Round neck played in Classical or Lap Steel Guitar style.

Get In Tune-The History of Guitar Tuners

Imagine twisting a stiff wooden tuning peg and trying to reach the correct pitch, as in this picture from Len Verrett’s early romantic guitar website, rather than easily turning the smooth geared guitar tuners we use today. The tapered friction tuning pegs used in the 1800s sufficed for the gut strings on early guitars, but their tendency to slip, difficulty in achieving precise and consistent tuning, and heavier string materials being introduced meant a better tuning system was needed.

Gear Up

Early in the 19th century not long after the industrial revolution, mechanical engineering advances made the friction peg guitar tuner obsolete and it was superseded by the worm gear mechanism still used in most tuning machines today.

steel guitar

Early geared tuners, still known as “tuning machines,” were used on classical guitars with the tuning knobs positioned behind the peghead, so as to be out of the way of the player. As steel-string acoustic guitars were designed and became popular with folk and country players, the tuning knobs were located alongside the peghead for ease of reach by the player.

In the ’20s Kluson designed their geared tuner, and in the ’30s branched out from Harmony Guitar Company in Chicago to supply tuning machines, as well as other parts, for Gibson, Kay and later, Fender electric guitars. Leo Fender is credited with helping them develop the “Safe-T” string post design using a hole and slot configuration that still secures strings on Fender guitars today. Grover is another well-known tuning machine and parts manufacturer that began during that same time and went on to create the first permanently lubricated enclosed tuner and continues to innovate with a self-locking design.

Tuning Your Guitar Today

Choose your guitar tuning technology from among the many suppliers now offering advanced tuning machines. Helmut Schaller started building amplifiers in Germany in the ’50s, then switched to a worm gear tuning machine design, and now has become an established supplier of high-quality tuners. Other additions to the roster of tuning machine manufacturers are Hip Shot, Planet Waves, Rodgers and Gilbert, with their many customizing options for creating your own tuner styles and colors. Classical guitarists can use the elegant hand-engraved gold plated tuners made by Fustero in Spain and imported by Fernandez Music.

Modernize your guitar using more recent breakthroughs in guitar tuning. Along with the well-crafted Sperzel locking tuners is a gearless design by Steinberger that pulls the string downward securely into a recessed well. Go back to the future with the Gibson Robot Guitar, a traditional Les Paul styled solid-body guitar that uses an ingenious computerized electro-mechanical system combining digital circuitry and motor-driven tuning machines. This amazing instrument not only automatically tunes the guitar to standard pitch, but nut also offers a variety of preset tunings selectable by a knob and is programmable for custom tunings.

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