5 Best Resonator Guitars: Gear Guide for Lap Steels and Resonators
By Mason Hoberg
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 do 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
Founded in 1883 by Freidrich Gretsch, Gretsch Guitars has proven itself to be one of the most pervasive and influential manufacturers of musical instruments in the world. The company has been at the helm of some of the most important moments in music history, and its wide variety of instruments (this includes banjos, archtop guitars, acoustic flattops, drums, mandolins, and tambourines) have been played by some of the most influential musicians in the world.
Recently, Gretsch has been reinventing their past through their roots series. The revitalization of Americana music in recent years has sparked a new interest in Gretsch’s old instruments, so in order to cater to their market they’ve revitalized some of their earlier designs. You may have seen their banjos or mandolins, but what you may not have known is that they’ve also once again started manufacturing resonator guitars.
One of the more notable members of the lineup, the Gretsch Honey Dipper is inarguably one of the best values on the market today. The only question is: Is the Gretsch Honey Dipper the right fit for you?
The first thing you need to know about this guitar is that metal bodied resonators sound very different from their wood bodied counterparts. Wood bodied resonators combine the tonal characteristics of a flattop guitar and a resonator, having the more musical quality exclusive to wooden instruments while retaining the metallic bite you can only get with a resonator.
Metal bodied instruments on the other hand emphasize the ring and metallic elements of a resonator’s tone. They’re not subtle guitars by any means, and some players find that they’re overly sharp for most settings. We’ll get more into this later, but if you’re looking for a more understated sound you may want to consider a wooden bodied resonator (Gretsch also makes this variation of resonator guitars).
This guitar is a round neck resonator, which means that it’s intended to be played in the same position as a standard acoustic guitar. However, because of how these bridges work it’s not intended to be fretted up and down the neck. These guitars don’t have the same ability to intonate as flattop guitars due to their design. This is why this type of guitar is generally played with a slide.
For those of you who are more in the know about this type of guitar, the body is nickel-plated brass. This isn’t going to mean much to the majority of you, but musicians who specialize in this instrument tend to have very particular preferences in regards to the materials used.
Lastly, on online storefronts the Gretsch Honey Dipper is only available in one finish. This may change in the coming years, or it may not. However, the finish used is reasonably attractive and representative of the style generally used on older instruments of the same type. For those of you who have a preference in regards to fretboard material, the Gretsch Honey Dipper has a rosewood fingerboard.
As previously stated, this guitar is a metal bodied resonator. This means that it’s going to have a sharp and piercing tone with a very unique metallic ring. This guitar is also going to have plenty of volume.
This type of sound is really good for delta-blues, as when used in conjunction with a slide the piercing quality of the instrument takes on an almost glassy tone. The high-end emphasis also helps to makes more complex finger-picking passages (like what you’d find in a lot of resonator based blues music) very clear and articulate. The volume is also a big plus, because it helps to ensure that you’ll be heard when you’re playing more delicate passages, or if you prefer to play without fingerpicks.
As far as overall quality is concerned, the Gretsch Honey Dipper is representative of Gretsch’s other offerings in this price range. The Gretsch Honey Dipper provides an excellent value for guitarists looking for an affordable metal bodied resonator guitar, and it features a tone that compares favorably to vintage instruments.
Recording King Dirty 30's
Though the brand has experienced a recent resurgence, the original incarnation of Recording King actually started as a house brand for Montgomery Ward. The brand was a great example of the funky American instruments that were produced following the explosive popularity of early rock and roll. Some of the more notable musicians who’ve used the instruments include: Edward Sharpe, Justin Townes Earle, John Fahey, and Mark Spencer of Son Volt.
The modern revival of Recording King focuses on delivering vintage inspired designs the benefit from modern manufacturing and quality control. They brand has received critical acclaim from musicians the world over, offering some of the most affordable options in quality vintage inspired instruments currently available.
A perfect example of this is the Recording King Dirty 30s Resonator, which is easily one of the most affordable resonator guitars currently available. However, before you make a decision as to which resonator is right for you be sure to check out the following sections.
The most notable thing about this resonator guitar is that it’s one of the smaller sized resonator guitars available. Most resonator guitars have dimensions more similar to that of a dreadnought, which many smaller bodied musicians find uncomfortable to play. Women, younger musicians, and smaller bodied men should definitely consider this guitar for that fact alone.
Another interesting thing about this guitar is that for its price it packs a lot of great features under the hood. The bridge (the wooden part, not the configuration) is made from maple topped ebony. The bridge is the first part of a resonator guitar that many musicians upgrade, so by having a better quality bridge from the factory Recording King is saving prospective buyers of this guitar a lot of effort.
The fretboard of this instrument is also rosewood, which while that’s a pretty standard feature on many instruments it’s a surprising inclusion for this price point. The guitar is also topped with spruce, which while this has a limited effect on the tone of a resonator it is a nice inclusion. The back and sides of the guitar are made from white wood, which while white wood is a cheaper material with limited acoustic value it is just as durable as any other laminated wood.
Lastly, the Dirty 30s Resonator is only available in the matte finish pictured on the various storefronts where you can buy it. So if you do like the finish you’re in luck, but if you’re not a fan of it you don’t have any options besides the stock finish.
The Dirty 30s line of instruments is solidly in budget territory, and while they’re good for their intended purpose they’re never going to sound like a $1000+ vintage instrument. This resonator is also not going to be as loud as bigger bodied resonators, though depending on what you intend to use this guitar for you may not really need a lot of extra volume. It’s still going to be significant louder than a flattop, so it should serve the majority of you perfectly well for solo play, performance, and practice.
The tone of the guitar is also well representative of what it aims to achieve. It’s dry and throaty, and it has the response that one would expect from a resonator guitar. It is a bit thin, but that’s to be expected considering you can easily pick one up for half the price of other budget resonator instruments.
As far as quality is concerned, the Dirty 30s Resonator actually seems to be have a better track record with quality assurance than other instruments in the series. There’s not a lot of reports of musicians who’ve found structural problems with the instrument, and so long as you purchase the guitar from a reasonable dealer you shouldn’t run into any problems. Just be sure to inspect the cone after you purchase the guitar, as due to the nature of the instrument it’s incredibly easy to damage.
The Dirty 30s Resonator may not have the volume or breadth of tone that you’d find in a more expensive instrument, but it’s easily one of the best options available for a musician looking to add some resonator flavor to their repertoire without breaking the bank.
Rogue Classic Spider Resonator
There’s not a guitar player alive who hasn’t fallen in love with resonator guitars at one point in time. This type of guitar is so unique, and it offers a sound completely unlike any instrument in the world. It can straddle the line between sharp and rootsy, and metallic and warm. This uniquely American instrument is an incredibly important part of music history, and has been wielded by everyone from the venerable Jack White to arguably one of the most influential blues musicians ever Robert Johnson.
However, just like mandolins or banjos guitarists don’t really understand these instruments. They’re actually not just acoustic guitars with a big chunk of metal, the construction used in these instruments is incredibly different from your standard flattop acoustic guitar.
If you’re looking at a resonator guitar you may have stumbled across the Rogue Classicc Spider Resonator (this review in particular concerns the sunburst model). If you’re still unsure whether or not this resonator guitar is the right fit for you, check out our take on it below.
Right off the bat, this is an inexpensive resonator guitar. A proper resonator is going to cost you at least $700, and that’s still on the lower end of the spectrum. These guitars are a niche instrument, so in order to remain viable commercially companies have to charge more for these instruments.
With that being said, the Rogue isn’t bad for its intended purpose. The guitar isn’t supposed to be the best resonator in the world, it’s supposed to be a cheap way for guitarists to experiment with the resonator guitar. It has all the characteristics of the instrument, and provided it receives a good set up it will play and sound adequate.
Another thing to note about this instrument is that it’s available in both round and square neck configurations. A square neck resonator has a square neck, and it’s played on your lap with a bar-type slide. This instrument is generally used in bluegrass, and it has a similar role to that of the banjo. A square neck resonator also generally doesn’t have frets, instead it has white markers to help guide you. A challenge with these instruments is making sure that you have good intonation, because without frets you have to rely on your ear a lot more.
A round neck resonator has a neck more like that of a standard acoustic guitar, so it’s a bet easier of a transition for most musicians. This type of guitar is generally used to play delta-blues slide, though it’s also seen in things like Dixieland jazz. The only downfall of this type of instrument is that it generally suffers from poor intonation because of the bridge. The saddles for the strings are generally a flat line, which isn’t a big deal if you’re playing slide but it does somewhat limit the utility of the instrument.
This guitar is topped with spruce and features mahogany back and sides.
So before we get into this section, this guitar does sound like a resonator. With that being said, it has much less volume and a thinner response than a higher-end instrument. However, it will still function well in a solo setting. If you mike this guitar you’re also going to be able to EQ the instrument to sound a bit warmer, and the volume well also become less of an issue.
Because it is a resonator it will be a good fit for genres that require this type of instrument. Most people are really not going to notice the difference between a cheap resonator and a more expensive one unless they’re well versed in the instrument, which your general audience isn’t. The square neck version won’t fit into a bluegrass setting as well because it’s not going to be loud enough to cut through the other instruments easily, but this can be compensated for depending on your technique and the volume of your bandmates.
This guitar is a good value for the money, and it does compare favorably to other instruments in its price range. You should be able to buy this guitar relatively confidently.
The round neck version of the Rogue offers a good value for musicians, though the square neck variety (while sounding fine) may not have enough volume to be heard over a full bluegrass band.
Dobro Hound Dog Roundneck
Dobro has colloquially become a term that encompasses all resonator guitar (though you do see this phenomenon more in bluegrass than any other genre), originally the term referred solely to a brand of American made resonator guitars.
Dobro itself is a contraction of two words, Dopyera and brothers. Dopyera is actually the surname of the two brothers who founded the company, John and Emil Dopyera. Interestingly, the name also means “goodness” in the brothers’ native Slovak dialect. This is actually why one of the company’s early mottos was “Dobro means good in any language.”
Another little known fact about the company is that the Dobro was actually the third resonator design created by the company, and the first to have a single resonator cone (as opposed to the tricone design that was more popular at the time).
Given the fact that there are several different resonator guitars available at this price point, you wouldn’t be remiss in wondering what separates the Dobro Hound Dog Roundneck from its competition. Thankfully, this review will give you all the information that you need to make an informed purchase.
The most important thing to note about this resonator is that it is made with a single cone, which sounds pretty different than a tricone design. The main difference between the two is that a tricone resonator is a bit more bell like, where the single cone has a harsher bite and significantly more volume.
This makes this type of cone a great fit for delta-blues, though it does somewhat limit its utility for other genres. This guitar is available in a square-neck configuration, and while it does cut through a mix well it does not have the sweeter tone you find in modern applications of the instrument. We’re going to get more into the tone in the latter sections of the review.
A good thing about this resonator guitar is that it does have features that help make it a bit easier to fret, which depending on you approach to the instrument can be a lifesaver. There are actually a variety of songs that use a hybrid technique, where the player frets and uses the slide (sometimes also fretting behind the slide).
The Dobro Hound Dog also features a TUSQ nut. TUSQ nuts may be a bit controversial, but they really aren’t an objectively inferior material. The great thing about TUSQ is that you know that you’re going to be getting a nut without any defects. Because TUSQ is a synthetic you never have to worry about getting any dead spots in your nut, which can affect your overall tone.
The hardware on the instrument is all nickel plated, which while that doesn’t have much of an effect on the tone it does mean that the hardware will keep a pristine appearance for longer than non-plated hardware.
Lastly, this guitar is able to be purchased with electronics. The electronics that come with the instrument have been well received, but it should be noted that the guitar does not have any volume or tone controls. So should you choose to use this guitar during a live performance you will have to rely on your soundman to get a good tone.
Because this guitar is a single cone resonator it’s going to have a lot of volume and high-end bite. Because these are features that are already common to the resonator some musicians may find that this type of cone is too aggressive for a lot of situations. However, the good thing about this instrument is that slide and/or finger picking passages are going to have a lot clarity. It’s hard to beat the articulation that you can get with a single cone resonator, even if the high-end emphasis can make the instrument a bit piercing.
The Dobro Hound Dog Resonator provides a great value to musicians that are on the hunt for an affordable resonator.
Dean CE Acoustic-Electric Resonator
Founded in 1977 by Dean Zelinsky in Chicago, Illinois, Dean has arguably become one of the most diverse producers of musical instruments in the country. The company was actually started by Dean when he was just 19 years old, and it was through his innovation and dedicated work ethic that the company established the wide consumer base and market reach that they enjoy today.
Though Dean did eventually end up parting ways with the company, Dean has still maintained a commitment to providing musicians with unique and affordable options. Though the company established themselves by selling instruments aimed at hard rock and metal musicians, they’ve actually developed and marketed a wide variety of different instruments.
There’s no better example of this than the Dean Resonator Cutaway/Electric, which is inarguably unique. The question is: Is it just a novelty or is it an instrument worth your money?
An important thing to note about this guitar is that it isn’t a true resonator guitar or a pure electric instrument. It does have acoustic value, and it is capable of plugging into an amp or a p.a., but it isn’t a guitar that’s attempting to replicate a classic tone. It’s a unique instrument in its own right, which you should recognize before you think about buying this guitar. We’re going to get more into the tone of this instrument in the following section.
The guitar itself is made purely from mahogany, which is going to have a limited (if any if we’re being honest) effect on the tone of a resonator. The neck is also mahogany, and features 21 frets. The true standout feature of this instrument that differentiates it from similar instruments is the cutaway, which for a lot of slide word is going to come in handy. Later proponents of slide guitar tend to utilize the upper registers, which means that playing more modern slide work on a non-cutaway resonator can prove to be a pretty difficult task. The guitar also features Grover tuners, which definitely do a lot to help the guitar remain in tune.
The Dean Resonator also uses a lipstick pickup, which has a moderate output and a warm response. This helps to keep the guitar from sounding shrill when it’s plugged in, though should you plan on spending the majority of your time playing this guitar through an amp you may want to switch to nickel strings. While bronze strings do offer a better acoustic tone and a larger amount of volume, they don’t play very well with magnetic pickups.
Lastly, the guitar does come with a volume and a tone control. This helps to increase the overall flexibility of the instrument when its plugged in, and because the guitar is a resonator it doesn’t limit the acoustic tone to an excessive degree.
This guitar is a good approximation of a resonator’s tone, but it doesn’t have the volume that these guitars are known for. The true utility of this instrument is that it makes plugging into an amp significantly more convenient, which really does make it a pretty solid option for those of you who plan on gigging with the instrument. The only unfortunate part of this is that it means that this guitar isn’t going to sound as good when it’s recorded acoustically, though this can be compensated for depending on the equipment you have available as well as your proficiency when using it.
This guitar does a good job of fulfilling its intended purpose. It’s intended to be a hybrid instrument, so most reasonable musicians aren’t going to expect it to sound like a 1930s National resonator. Although not a good fit for someone looking for a more traditional sound, this Dean Resonator offers a unique take on a classic design.