The Resonator Guitar: An Interview With Aaron Lewis
By David Hoffman
Aaron Lewis is a luthier who makes resonator guitars and other fine instruments in his workshop in Pennsylvania. He’s also a guitarist and musician who has researched the history of the resonator guitar. We are pleased to present this interview with Aaron where he discusses the history of the resonator guitar and its future.
Aaron, I’m really glad you found some time to answer my questions! First off, tell me a bit about your connection to the resonator guitar. Your shop – The Eastwood Shop – sells many different kinds of instruments, not just resonators, so what led you to choose that particular instrument?
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with me! My connection with the resonator goes back to childhood. I grew up listening to all kinds of music on my Dad’s record collection – from Bluegrass to Jimi Hendrix – and one of the records that really caught my attention was “Down Home Blues” by Elmore James. Elmore played a steel National Reso-phonic guitar on that album, and it was just such an incredible sound that I never forgot it. Many years later I rediscovered the National and started looking into
In the early 20th century, the resonator guitar became a mainstay of blues and bluegrass music. Today, it is a much-loved instrument in Americana, country music and other genres.
In this week’s podcast, I talk to Aaron Lewis, co-producer of the National’s upcoming documentary film “Resonant Motion: The History of the Resonator Guitar.” We discuss the history and significance of this iconic instrument.
Lewis has worked with the National on a variety of films since 2006. The group was looking for a new project when they got the idea for this one from Mumford & Sons banjo player Winston Marshall.
They interviewed several famous musicians about their love for the resonator guitar, including Robbie Robertson of The Band, Ralph Stanley and Vince Gill. They also talked to collectors, builders and historians about its origins, history and impact on music.
I first became aware of a resonator guitar when I was in 6th grade. My good friend’s dad played a National Style O. I started collecting them in college.
I think the resonator guitar is one of the coolest instruments ever invented. It has a really unique sound that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s very versatile and can be used for many different styles of music including blues, country, pop, bluegrass and rockabilly.
The early 20th century was a time when people were interested in sound amplification and the electric guitar was being developed. The resonator guitar was created as an alternative to the electric guitar, which required an amplifier to make it louder than other instruments being used at the time. It was first introduced at the same time as radio and phonograph records in the 1920s to compete with these new technologies.
The resonator guitar has been featured in many styles of music over the years including blues, country, jazz and rockabilly. Today it continues to be popular with players from around the world who enjoy its unique sound and versatility.”
“The resonator guitar is a type of guitar which produces sound by carrying string vibration through the bridge to one or more spun metal cones, instead of to the sound board (the top of an acoustic guitar). Resonator guitars were originally designed to be louder than regular acoustic guitars which were overwhelmed by horns and percussion instruments in dance orchestras. They became prized for their distinctive sound, however, and found life with several musical styles well after electric amplification solved the issue of inadequate guitar sound levels. The body of a resonator guitar may be made of wood, metal, or occasionally other materials. Typically there are two main sound holes, positioned on either side of the fingerboard extension. In the case of single-cone models, the sound holes are either both circular or both f-shaped, and symmetrical.”
Q: What is a resonator guitar?
A: A resonator guitar is a metal bodied guitar with a large cone inside. The bridge of the guitar is placed on the center of the cone, and like a speaker cone it resonates when plucked. In addition to the cone and bridge, there are one or more ‘biscuits’ that resonate sympathetically with the soundboard. This gives the instrument its characteristic timbre.
Q: When were resonator guitars first built?
A: The first resonator guitars were built around 1926 by John Dopyera and George Beauchamp who formed National Stringed Instrument Company in Los Angeles. Resonators would have been created earlier but for the ban on metal-bodied instruments in the 1910s. Before that time, all guitars had wooden bodies.
Q: Who plays them today?
A: Resonator guitars are popular with country blues, bluegrass, Hawaiian music enthusiasts and players of lap-steel guitars. They are popular with people who want a loud instrument like an acoustic guitar but don’t want feedback problems associated with amplified guitars.
In the world of acoustic music, resonator instruments have been a part of the landscape for nearly 90 years now. They were developed in the late 1920s by John Dopyera and George Beauchamp, who were trying to make an electric guitar (they failed).
The first resonator guitars were made of brass, but they weren’t loud enough. So they developed one out of a metal called German Silver, which was loud enough. The first National guitars made their debut in 1927.
The National guitar is what you would consider the classic resonator guitar. It has a distinctive cone-shaped resonator that gives it that booming sound. The Dobro also has a cone-shaped resonator but it’s not as big and doesn’t project quite as much sound as the Nationals do.
There are many different types of resonators on the market today. But if you want to know what a resonator guitar sounds like, just listen to Hawaiian music or any slide guitar work from the ’20s and ’30s.
A resonator guitar or resophonic guitar is an acoustic guitar that produces sound by carrying string vibration through the bridge to one or more spun metal cones, instead of to the sound board (as in traditional acoustic guitars). Resonator guitars were originally designed to be louder than regular acoustic guitars, which were overwhelmed by horns and percussion instruments in dance orchestras. They became prized for their distinctive sound, however, and found life with many styles of music as their popularity grew in the 1930s and 1940s.
Conventional acoustic guitars are commonly referred to as “flat tops.” The first commercially successful resonator guitars were marketed by the National String Instrument Corporation under the brand name “National.” They produced a range of metal-bodied guitars from the mid-1920s to the 1950s. A few companies still produce resonator guitars, but they are now usually sought by blues and bluegrass musicians rather than jazz players.