You’ve come to the right post if you’re curious about dobro history and the origins of the resonator guitar. This instrument has a long history. One of the most popular resonator guitars is the Dobro. It produces sound through one or more metal cones called resonators. As a result, dobro instruments are louder than regular acoustic guitars.
(You can learn more about the dobro guitar in my article comparing it to the slide guitar style too!)
They are popular in country, bluegrass, and blues music styles thanks to their distinctive tone. Today, there are two main types of resonator instruments called round neck and square neck. The round-neck dobro is a conventional guitar, while the square neck is a lap steel style. Let’s look at the history of this unique instrument to see its origins.
Musicians in the early 1920s wanted guitars that would cut through the reed and brass instruments of the orchestra. But, unfortunately, acoustic guitars during this time weren’t amplified to be used as lead instruments.
George Beauchamp, a musician and vaudeville promoter, wanted a guitar to use at his gigs. He asked violin luthier John Dopyera to build him a louder guitar than the instruments currently available.
John Dopyera tried building an early prototype that used one large aluminum single cone resonator. But, unfortunately, this instrument was not loud enough. So he refined his ideas and created a tritone resonator featuring three cones, which provided better amplification.
Beauchamp found the new tritone guitar design impressive and went into business with the Dopyeras family. They created tri-cone guitars in the workshop and called these instruments Nationals. Initially, they produced about 40 guitars before they started mass production. In 1927, these instruments were sold under the National brand name. The guitars featured tri-cone resonators with metal bodies. By 1928, business was booming.
Dobro History: First Players
Hawaiian steel guitar player Sol Hoopii is the first player know to have a recording using a National tri-cone. Blues player Tampa Red recorded with a National and used the classic bottleneck style, which is popular in blues today. Popular modern resonator players include Mike Auldridge, Josh Graves, Jerry Douglas, and John Hammond.
Fallout for the Dopyeras
In 1928 the Dopyeras became disgruntled with the management of the National company. The final straw was when John Dopyera found out that Beauchamp claimed the patent for the resonator for himself. As you can imagine, this created strain within the company, and in early 1929, John Dopyera quit National.
John Dopyera founded the Dobro Corporation with his four brothers. Dobro means ”good” in Slovak. They created a new type of guitar that had one single upward-facing cone. It was cheap to produce and louder than the tri-cone resonator. John Dopyera had worked with his brother Rudy on this secret project while still at National. They considered this single cone guitar to be superior to the tri-cone National. They called the new instrument the Dobro.
During the late 1920s and into the early 1930s, the Dobro Corporation created their new guitars. They had direct competition with the National brand. However, due to the depression, National began to see slumping sales, and their new guitar designs didn’t catch on with the public.
During this time, the Dobro Corporation had exceptional sales while National slumped. Finally, in the late stages of 1932, Regal of Chicago got a license from Dobro and produced guitars with the Regal and the Dobro logo for sale in Mississippi. In addition, Dobro supplied Regal with the metal parts necessary to make the instruments. All seemed well for Dobro, but things would change.
Dobro History: Dobro and National Downfall
The National String Instrument Company began to struggle and fail in 1934. The Dopyera family was soon in control of National and formed a new company called the National-Dobro Corporation. Both of the original resonator guitars were now under a single brand.
During the latter part of the 1930s, National Dobro also struggled as electric guitars became more popular, musicians had less interest in the brand name, and the headquarters moved from Los Angeles to Chicago. In 1937, National Dobro assigned all production to Regal, who continued to make these resonator guitars. National Dobro focused on all metal guitars and electric instruments.
Production halted during World War II to save resources. However, Valco bought the National Dobro name in the 1940s when production resumed. And the Dopyera family continued to make resonator-style instruments under other brand names.
A renewed interest in the Dobro brand started happening around 1964. In 1966, the family sold the name to Semie Moseley and then reacquired ownership in 1970. Eventually, Gibson acquired Dobro in 1993 with production moving to Nashville. Epiphone, a Gibson subsidiary, now creates the Dobro guitar. Older model Dobro guitars, as well as National guitars, are collectibles. These instruments can fetch a high price tag.
Dobro History: Conclusion
Dobro guitars are still popular. They are an excellent alternative to a regular acoustic guitar. They have a rich sound which is quite loud. This makes them perfect for finger-picking, bluegrass, blues, lap-steel, and similar styles.
Today, many use the term Dobro as a generic term for a resonator guitar even though this isn’t exactly accurate. However, these instruments have a rich history in the early days of popular music and are still enjoyed by musicians worldwide today.