From Son House to Eric Clapton, resonator guitars have always been at the forefront of blues music. They’ve been a featured in some of the most influential albums ever released, and you would be hard pressed to argue that that the resonator guitar hasn’t become a valid and important sub-type of the acoustic guitar.
The only problem is that it’s definitely not easy figuring out how to choose the best resonator guitar for your preferences, rig, and price point. Thankfully if you’re having a hard time trying to figure out what resonator guitar is right for you, you’ve come to the right place! This article will give you all the information that you need to make an informed purchase, as will as five great recommendations to help aid you in your search.
- Resonator Guitars 101
- What Should I Look For In A Resonator Guitar?
- The Top Five Resonator Guitars
Resonator Guitars 101
A resonator guitar can kind of be thought of as a regular acoustic guitar with a metal speaker built into it. The bridge (which looks more like a banjo bridge as opposed to a regular guitar bridge) carries the vibrations from the strings into one or more metal cones. These cones then amplify the sound, resulting in a much larger amount of overall volume then you’d get from a standard acoustic guitar. You also get a different tone by playing a resonator guitar. Where an acoustic guitar is woody and warm, a resonator guitar is more metallic and piercing.
This type of guitar was actually one of the three designs (you could argue that there were more, but there are only three that really took off at a consumer level) that sought to increase the volume of the acoustic guitar to the point where it could compete with the big band orchestras of the day. There was the acoustic arch-top and the resonator guitar in America, and then in Europe there was the Selmer style guitar that was popularized by Django Reinhardt.
All three of these guitars were later abandoned by most musicians following the advent of electric instruments, though they were later adopted by other artists for a variety of reasons.
Back to resonator guitars, there are actually two different kinds: square neck resonators and round neck resonators.
Square neck resonators are played more like a lap-steel. The guitar is played on the lap and “fretted” with a slide, though instead of fretting the guitar you move the slide over the strings and dampen the notes that you don’t want to play with your fretting and picking hand.
Round neck resonators are played either with a slide or by fretting like a standard guitar (or a combination thereof), though played in a position similar to that of a regular guitar.
There are really two genres where resonator guitars are historically popular. The first is blues and certain sub-genres of blues, and the second is bluegrass.
The previously mentioned sub-genre of the blues can be thought of as the types of acoustic based slide songs that require a resonator tone in order to faithfully reproduce the feel of the original work. A good example of this would be Son House’s song Death Letter Blues.
Of course you can play these songs on any guitar, and tons of really great musicians have done so, but if you want to play a version of the song that’s similar to the original you will need a resonator guitar.
For modern bluegrass, if you use a resonator guitar it will almost always be square neck. When used in bluegrass, the square neck resonator guitar is essentially played like a combination of the lap-steel and a banjo. You play rolls (a quick series of eighth notes plucked with the fingers) and the melody simultaneously, though you’re somewhat limited in what you can play based on the tuning of your resonator guitar. Resonators definitely does help fill out the instrumental sound of the group. For a good example of what amazing square neck resonator playing sounds like check out Jerry Douglas’s playing below.
What Should I Look For In A Resonator Guitar?
Just like any other niche instrument, purchasing a resonator guitar requires a bit more care than buying a more popular instrument. Guitar manufacturers like Ibanez or Fender can make a really good instrument on the cheap because they can take advantage of something called economies of scale. If you’re selling a million Telecasters a year you can afford to make $20 per instrument because you’re selling so many. However, if you’re only selling 20,000 a year you have to charge more because you’re not working with the same amount of volume. That’s one of the reasons why arch-top guitars (good ones) are so expensive relative to other guitars.
So when you purchase a resonator, you have to be sure to spend a bit more than you normally would to get good results. The only exception to this is a guitar that’s going to be played plugged in exclusively, because there’s not really going to be as noticeable of a difference when you’re using a pickup on different resonator guitars. Also, when you play a resonator guitar be sure to listen for any rattling noises. This is a dead giveaway that there are issues with the cone, which can effect the overall tone and feel of you instrument.
The Top Five Resonator Guitars
As always, our lists are made to ensure that everyone who is interested in playing a particular instrument can find one that will work well with their rig and budget. So while we know that nine times out of ten a more expensive guitar is going to be the objectively better instrument we also recognize that it doesn’t matter how good an instrument is if someone can’t afford it. So keep in mind that the best option for you may not be the best option for your fellow musicians, and vice versa.
The five recommendations below are a great place to start. Happy pickin'!
Gretsch Honey Dipper
National Reso-Phonic Style O
Rogue Classic Spider Resonator
Dobro Hound Dog Roundneck
Fender FR-50 Resonator