Dobro/Resonator Guitar

Updated: February 28, 2011

Dobro is the brand name of a guitar-derived line of instruments owned by the Gibson Musical Instruments company, but the term is used generically for similarly styled resonator-equipped instruments from other builders.

Dobro is the brand name of a guitar-derived line of instruments owned by the Gibson Musical Instruments company, but the term is used generically for similarly styled resonator- equipped instruments from other builders. Appalachian musicians from the 1920s through the 1950s integrated Hawaiian and blues steel-guitar influences into a distinctively country style that not only informs modern-day electric pedal-steel playing but also plays an integral role in the primarily acoustic tradition-based dobro styles popular in Appalachia.

The resonator guitar was developed in California by Slovak immigrants John and Rudy Dopyera, who sought to mechanically amplify the acoustic flat-top steel-string guitar. In 1926 the Dopyera Brothers created the first resonator guitars featuring a metal body and three resonator cones. These were manufactured by the National String Instrument Corporation, from which the Dopyeras departed in 1929 to set up the Dobro Corporation. Most of the instruments produced by the latter company were wooden-bodied single-cone resonator guitars. Later, the generic nomenclature dobro was often employed in reference to all such wooden-bodied instruments. However, the Dobro Corporation also made steel-bodied instruments, and the Dopyeras used resonators on some of these as well.

With either twelve or fourteen frets on the neck beyond the body, resonator guitars come in square- and round-neck cross-section models, with the former suited exclusively for steel playing with a metallic slide. Generally, metal-bodied resonator instruments have been preferred in Hawaiian- or blues-influenced contexts, while wooden-bodied ones, with their mellower tone, have been favored in bluegrass and country music.

Cliff Carlisle, of Taylorsville, Kentucky, is generally regarded as the first resonator guitar player on country music recordings. He started out playing “lap-style” with a steel bar on a Martin flat-top guitar, then turned to a metal-bodied National guitar, before moving to a wooden-bodied Dobro. Carlisle backed up Jimmie Rodgers and also recorded prolifically on his own and with his brother Bill Carlisle, playing in a strongly blues-influenced style.

The early development of a distinctly country music style on the resonator guitar can be traced to the Hawaiian- style guitarist Dave Trask, who is credited with introducing the instrument to Appalachia in the mid-1930s after moving from San Francisco to Knoxville, Tennessee. Trask’s student, Clell Summey, of Sevier County, Tennessee, recorded the original dobro parts on two Roy Acuff hits, “The Great Speckled Bird” and “Wabash Cannonball,” in 1936, and in 1938 Summey became the first musician to play the instrument on the Grand Ole Opry. (He went on to pioneer the electric steel guitar on the Opry with Pee Wee King and to achieve greater fame as the comedic character Cousin Jody.) Summey’s replacement in Acuff’s group, Beecher Ray “Pete” Kirby (also of Sevier County and better known by his stage name, “Bashful Brother Oswald”), is more often credited with making the resonator guitar a part of the traditional acoustic country sound (he was playing a metal-bodied National guitar, not a Dobro, at the time of his recruitment in Acuff’s unit).

Over the next two decades, the widespread popularity of the electric steel guitar in country music relegated the resonator guitar to more traditional, acoustic-based music. Several Appalachian dobro players—including Speedy Krise (playing with Molly O’Day), Ray “Duck” Adkins (with Carl Story and Johnnie and Jack), and Deacon Brumfield (with Alex Campbell and Ola Belle Reed)—made significant stylistic contributions during this period.

The next significant development on the instrument was in 1955, when the dobro was first featured on a bluegrass recording. Buck “Uncle Josh” Graves, playing with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, gave the instrument a new fleshed- out sound by adapting three-finger banjo rolls learned from Scruggs to the resonator guitar. The dobro soon became an instrument strongly associated with bluegrass music.

The 1996 Grammy-winning album The Great Dobro Sessions brought Appalachian dobro pioneers Kirby and Graves together with significant subsequent stylists from across the United States. Influential Appalachian players who did not participate in the project, including multi- instrumentalist Norman Blake (from Chattanooga, Tennessee) and Ed Snodderly (of Johnson City, Tennessee), were acknowledged in the album’s liner notes. Another dobro pioneer, Tom Swatzell (from Decatur, Alabama), was honored with his own line of signature series instruments (as were Kirby and Graves) by the Gibson Musical Instruments company.

Ever since the advent of the cosmopolitan Nashville Sound in the late 1950s, which displaced earlier, more acoustic traditional country styles, the dobro has been utilized by producers and instrumentalists to create a more down-home sound. Accordingly, many accomplished country session musicians added dobro to their studio arsenals. Innovations on the instrument have continued. Some dobro players, including Paul Franklin, have recorded on an eight-string resonator guitar, and others, such as Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas, have utilized the instrument in interpretations of jazz, bossa nova, and Indian classical music. Several players have tried to bring some of the possibilities of pedal steel guitar to the dobro by adding pitch-bending pedals to the instrument. Virtuosos of other instruments have sometimes tried to capture the sound of the dobro, often through playing customized resonator-equipped instruments; such innovations have included Jesse McReynolds’s “mandolobro” and banjoist Allen Shelton’s five-string “dobro.”

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Dobro/Resonator Guitar," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 26 May 2018 <http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=72>

APA Style

"Dobro/Resonator Guitar." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved May 26, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=72

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