A Resophonic Primer

by Catfish Keith

Back in the early days when I started playing guitar and my interest was being sparked by the wonderful world of fingerstyle acoustic blues and slide guitar, the dynamic sound of the National made a mighty deep impression. Pivotal experiences included listening and soaking up with every pore the excitement and depth of sound displayed by so many National-twanging artists:

Robert Petway singing Catfish Blues.
Son House and his Death Letter.
Booker White Fixin’ to Die on his way to Aberdeen.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe‘s God Don’t Like It.
Bo Carter with his Banana in Your Fruit Basket.
Tampa Red and his Duck’s Yas Yas Yas.
Sol Hoopii like a jazzbo Hawaiian God Himself.
I Am the Black Ace, I Am the Boss Card in Your Hand.
Oscar Buddy Woods pleads Mama Don’t You Sell It, Papa Don’t You Give it Away.
Oscar Aleman, every bit as hot and sweet as Django Reinhardt himself, and many others…

Then there are the modern touring resophonic heroes, people that have become like an extended musical family of fathers, brothers and sisters:

North American artists Johnny Shines, Henry Townsend, John Jackson, Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Steve James, Doug MacLeod, Robert B. Jones, Geoff Bartley, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, Roy Book Binder, Robert Armstrong, Del Rey, Honeyboy Edwards, Rich Delgrosso, Paul Geremia, Rory Block, Stefan Grossman, Woody Mann, Frank Fotusky, Paul Asbell, Arlen Roth, Cindi Cashdollar, Rich Jones, John Cephas, Tom Hall, Leroy Pearson, Terry Garland, Michael Roach, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Spencer Bohren, John Mooney, Sonny Landreth, Diamond Jim Greene, Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, Harlem Slim, John-Alex Mason, Dave MacKenzie, Bob McCarthy, Mike Dowling, Kent DuCheine, Toby Walker, Dave Moore, Greg Brown, Joe Price, Bo Ramsey, Dustin Busch, Junior Barber, Pete Grant, Steve Creter, Fruteland Jackson, Mary Flower, Frank Corso, Hawkeye Herman, The Original Snakeboy, Jeremy Lyons, Scott Perry, Colin John, Steve Arvey, John Hasbrouck, Dakota Dave Hull, Kari Larsen, Cam Waters, David Evans (former musical partner with Jessie Mae Hemphill), Robert Lucas, Tom Feldmann, Robert “One Man” Johnson, Wes Lee, Libby Rae Watson, Jack White, Bill Steber, Ramblin’ Steve Gardener, Dan Phelps, David Jacobs-Strain, Pat Donohue, Mike Dowling, John Maxwell, Shari Kane, Roy Rogers (Chops not Chaps), Johnny Winter, Paul Olsen of Scrapomatic, Guy Forsyth, Lightnin’ Malcolm, Matt Woods, Luther Dickinson, Ben Powell, Rick Franklin, Nathan Rivera, Shine Delphi, Jessie Andra Smith, Micah Kesselring, Jerron Paxton, Steve Dawson, Tim Williams, Kelly Joe Phelps, Kenny Pauze, Guy Drollinger, Rob Lumbard, Zak Izbinsky, Derek Trucks, Peter Keane, Johnny Depp and many many others.

UK artists Kevin Brown, Sam Mitchell, The Hokum Hotshots, Lee Bates, John Crampton, Gwyn Ashton, Eddie Martin, Chris Watkins, Dave Arcari, The Blues Band’s Dave Kelly (and his sister the late great Jo Ann Kelly), Michael Messer, Mark Makin, The Notting Hillbillies’ Steve Phillips and Mark Knopfler (also of Dire Straits), Jim Murray, The Hokum Hotshots, Ian Siegal, Adam Franklin, Roger Hubbard, Chris Martin, Dave Foster, Martin Simpson, Mr. Downchild, Perry Foster, Rag Mama Rag, John Pearson, Dave Peabody, Round Eyes Ray of the Hot Licks Cookies, Gypsy Dave, Paul Cuddeford, Aussie artists Jeff Lang and C.W. Stoneking and the late Irish legend Rory Gallager and many more all have had their lives altered irrevocably by this unique instrument.

In the Beginning

Invented in the USA by the Czech immigrant John Dopyera, Sr. in the 1920’s, the first (and ultimate) National resonator instrument, the tricone guitar, was introduced to the world in 1927. Based in the Los Angeles area, the National company had a colorful, fascinating history and produced their most prized and beautiful guitars up until around WWII. In the 1930s you could purchase a single-cone National guitar for 25 whole dollars!

An essential and very beautiful book about vintage Nationals (as well as Dobros, Supros, Valcos and others), is Mark Makin‘s 423 page, hardbound “Palm Trees, Senoritas and…Rocket Ships! – The vision of the Dopyera Brothers and the art of National, Dobro, Supro and Valco Musical Instruments.” This book is self-published and available directly from Mark Makin at: www.markmakin.co.uk/shop.html This is a must-have book for any National nut!

A New Era

The modern company, National Reso-Phonic Guitars, Inc. has taken the spirit and sound of National’s best guitars of those halcyon years of the 20’s and 30’s and have created a line of guitars that are unrivaled in beauty of tone, playability and the very finest workmanship. Don Young and McGregor Gaines, the original owners of National Reso-Phonic Guitars, worked for the OMI-Dobro company in the 1980’s. Don had started making replacement parts for Nationals when he and McGregor decided to make National guitars. They set up shop in Don’s parent’s garage and initially made wood body instruments (the Islander, JazzBlues, M1 Mahogany and ResoLectric). In 1992 they started to make the brass body Style O. Their combined talent, drive and creativity have made a huge impact on the guitar world and their small factory in San Luis Obispo, California has now produced over 23,000 instruments in the three-plus decades since the company’s inception.

In 2008, after the death of Marie Noerdlinger Gaines (MacGregor’s wife and National’s Office Manager), MacGregor Gaines left the company to pursue other interests. Don Young retired in 2014, and opened “Don’s String Shop” in the small seaside town of Los Ojos, California. Sadly, Don passed away in April of 2016.

The business currently belongs to National’s sole owner, Jason Workman. Jason has worked at National since 1996 and continues, hands on, as Shop Foreman. Before that, National was run and owned for a few years by Eric Smith, who had worked at National since he was 14 years old.

The quality of the guitars is the greatest they have ever been, and the adventure continues!

The Instruments

National Reso-Phonic has reissued the vintage classic models including the single cone brass bodied Style O, in 14-fret as well as 12 frets to the body, and the engraved Style 3, and brass bodied tricones Styles 1 through 5. All models made after 1994 have excellent adjustable double trussrods.

National Reso Lectric Revolver

Innovations include many new models inspired by the classics: The Delphi was the first, the steel-bodied equvalent of the early Duolian and Triolian single cone guitars, with several cool colors with a powdercoated “industrial” finish. The NRP and Triolian Tricones are the fantastic steel bodied tricones, which have replaced the heavy Polychrome Tricone of previous years.

In 2009, both the National NRP and the W-Series Triolian were introduced, in 12 and 14 fret models, which have replaced the Delphi in the product line. These come in several finishes. Standard are handpainted ‘burst finishes, and the NRP also has black, ivory and “black rust” finishes, and are made of a lighter gauge steel, much closer in tone and feel to the 30’s Duolians and Triolians. New in 2011 was the “Steel” rubbed nickel finish on steel bodied instruments, and the stunning Dueco steel body guitars in Silver and Gold (My own Gold Dueco Baritone Tricone is pictured above left), and in 2013, the “Vintage” Dueco finish was introduced.

The Polychrome Triolian (pictured below) is another stunning 30’s single cone reissue guitar, with goldish painted thinner gauge steel body, maple neck, and on the back, the classic black palm tree and orange setting sun stencilled design of the original models.

Although the name is confusingly similar, these are very different from the Polychrome Tricone of earlier years; Triolians are single cone instruments, Tricones have the three smaller cones.

Triolian Polychrome Super

The Estralita Deluxe and M2 Mahogany are wood bodied single cone guitars that incorporate some of the best of the warmth and beauty of several of the vintage wood bodied models. The unique body-shaped El Trovador has been reissued, becoming National’s best selling model for the last several years. The El Trovador 12-String and the El Trovador Baritone have also been issued. The Triolian WB and the NRP WB are both made with a maple body. 14 fret wood guitars are the M14 and Estralita Deluxe 14 Fret.

The M1 Tricone is a knockout revelation: the first-ever wood bodied tricone, with an all mahogany body (including a mahogany well). Beautiful!

Cutaway bodied new Nationals include the ultra-cool groundbreaking Reso Rocket and the new Tricone Cutaways.

The Reso Rocket is a fantastic, versatile new design that incorporates a cutaway and tricone-style grille soundports in a single cone guitar. The result is possibly the loudest single cone National with a powerful, cutting, yet sweet tone. Now in wood and metal.

One of my personal favorite new Nationals are the Baritone Tricones (in steel, brass, German Silver and Mahogany bodies) which offer a longer neck (27″ scale) and can be tuned as much as four or five half-tones lower for that extra-deep, gonad-rattling tone unrivalled by most any other guitar. This is a life-changing instrument for a guy like me. I absolutely love these, and would not do a show without one. Most any tricone National can now be made as a Baritone guitar!

Great 12-strings are offered in most all models. One of the ultimate National 12 strings is the El Trovador 12 String. The National ukulele is the cutest (big-sounding) little thing and comes in both metal and wood bodies, with concert necks. They have a fabulous, unique mandolin. Electric players are delighted by the ResoLectric and the new Reso-Tone. One-of-a-kind custom art guitars are sublime.

The Hollowneck is a groundbreaking design that takes the squareneck classic tricone sound to new, super-reverberant heights. The National Hollowneck Tricones were all handbuilt, and wonderful, but are now discontinued.

Spidercone guitars have been represented in the National line with the Model D for many years. Then National introduced their own, separate spidercone brand, Smith & Young, making a steel bodied and a Maple bodied model. When National began making Scheerhorn guitars in 2014, they decided to discontinue Smith & Young to concentrate on Scheerhorns as their sole spidercone guitars.

National will now also make Tenor guitars; they have the small single cone guitar (not pear) body shape from the old days and custom variations have included bouzouki, octave mandolin, and piccolo guitar versions, using the same tenor body.

In 2017, the new RM-1 Pioneer steel bodied two-pickup single cone electric guitars as well as the M14T Thunderbox models were introduced. The Thunderboxes are Mahogany bodied, and feature a 4″ deep body, in Demin Blue, and Revolver Black finishes.

The T14, the innovative 14 Fret Tricone Cutaway was introduced in 2018. The stock version is steel bodied, with a Weathered Steel Finish.

Also the very cool Weathered Steel Style Os made a big splash, a steel bodied, Maple necked variation of the Style O, with the classic palm tree scene etched into the darker Weathered Steel finish.

The latest innovation in their product line is the Raw Series. These are single cone guitars with no painted or plated finish, just the rubbed, raw steel or brass, or German Silver. These are beautiful, and very powerful instruments. Any metal National can come in a Raw version, and also is a few hundred dollars cheaper than their plated or painted versions.

So Much is New at National

Radio Tone Bendaway – Return of the maple bodied, slot-soundholed, cutaway with paddle headstock!
Dueco 12 & 14 Fret – New color:”Vintage” duco finish on the NRP steel body guitar is stunning.
Reso Rocket WB – The great Reso Rocket, now made with an all Mahogany body.
M1 Tricone Cutaway – The very popular Mahogany M1, now with easier access to the higher frets.
Sheerhorn L-Body Guitars – National now builds three production models designed by the great Tim Scheerhorn!
RM1-V Vintage Maple Mandolin – Maple contruction with “Steel” rubbed nickel metal parts, sieve coverplate.Trancendant Mandolin!
The Revolver ResoLectric – ResoLectric with translucent black finish with pearloid pickguard and headstock overlay.
Hollowneck Tricones – In steel, brass and German Silver. Most resonant tricone squareneck lap guitar on the planet!
The Collegian – Cool round ring of “bullethole” soundholes on the coverplate make this 14 fret reproduction unique.
M14 Mahogany – All mahogany 14 fret single cone guitar, with black binding and unbound ebony fingerboard, National banner logo on headstock, bright nickel coverplate and tailpiece.
Estralita 14 Fret – Figured maple sunburst top, walnut back and sides, ivroid binding on neck and body, bright nickel coverplate and tailpiece, National banner logo on headstock.
NRP Steel 12 Fret and 14 Fret – Beautiful new Rubbed Nickel Finish on the fantastic Duolian reproduction, the steel-bodied NRP.
Reso-Tone – Great new version of the Reso Jr. with Hotplate in Red, Seafoam Green, Black and Ivory finishes.
RM1 Maple Mandolin – All beautiful figured maple with rubbed Antique Bronze finish on too-cool slotted coverplate and tuners, with Hotplate option.
M1 Tricone – A National first: a wood bodied tricone! This one is all mahogany with super deep and rich and clear tricone qualities, and weighs 3.3 pounds less than a metal tricone. Also available as a Baritone.
Triolian Polychrome – Goldish painted single cone with black palm tree stencil on back, another suped-up reproduction, and it sounds GREAT, just like the NRPs and W-Series Triolians.
Triolian Uke – Cute, wonderful sounding uke with the W-Series gold-to-brown burst.
National NRP Tricone – With similar specs as the NRP single cone, the NRP Tricone is a knockout guitar. Lighter gauge steel bodies now bear the standard at National; not only does this make the guitar lighter in weight, but brings an added vintage ring and sparkle to the tone. Just when I thought “What could they do next?”, National raises the bar yet again!
National NRP – A reproduction of the 30’s Duolian, with lighter gauge steel body, arched back, stamped f-holes, handpainted silvery-green ‘burst finish, ebony fingerboard and nut, mahogany neck, slotted headstock with “NATIONAL” stamped on it, just like the old Duolians…with the great ring of the vintage models! In both 12 and 14 fret models.
National NRP WB – Maple bodied version of the NRP.
W-Series Triolian – Also made with a lighter gauge steel body, arched back, stamped f-holes, handpainted “walnut” burst finish. In 12 and 14 fret models.
W-Series Triolian WB – Maple laminate version of the 12 fret Triolian!
Triolian Tricone – Gold-to-brown ‘burst finish on the steel tricone, formed back, ivroid-bound rosewood fingerboard, maple neck, slotted headstock.
German Silver Tricone – Nickel plated German (or Nickel) Silver bodied tricone. Stunning. Really, the ultimate tricone…the same body materials as the greatest early tricones that started in 1927; it offers richer low-mids and smoother highs than the regular brass tricones.
The Don – Limited Edition 14 Fret single cone, German Silver, Deluxe neck.
Style N German Silver Single Cone – 12 frets to the neck, super-shiny guitar with more present low-mids and smoother highs than a brass guitar.
Reso Jr. II – The Reso Jr. is back, this time with a sublime natural wood finish., also now in sunburst finish.
Hotplate – Hot new coverplate with pickup and volume controls, can be installed on any single cone National.
Hot Rod Cones – A new alloy makes the heart of the instrument sound even better; it’s now stock on all new Nationals.
14-fret Style O – Very popular, a reproduction of the 1937 model, replete with “chicken feet” coverplate and etched palm tree design.
Tricone Cutaway – A modern innovation of the classic tricone design.
The El Trovador – A real beauty; all mahogany bodied, f-holed single cone guitar with a unique, larger and deeper body shape, now in 12 string and Baritone versions.
Lefty Tricones – finally available, and, at no extra charge.
Antique Brass Finish – Available for all metal bodied instruments. It’s beautiful! (Pictured above left.)
Baritone Guitars – Most all single cones and tricones can now be ordered with a Baritone neck. My favorite.
12-Strings – Available by special order for most all National guitars.

Can you tell I love these guitars?

I play and record with several different new models myself; the latest is a 2018 NRP Exploding Palm Baritone Tricone, and a 2014 Gold Dueco Baritone Tricone, both of which are what I’m using on tour now.

Rik Besser at B-Fanatic Guitarworks did the frosted dueco finish on the Gold Dueco, and the guitar has a gorgeous look and feel with a figured Maple neck, peghead headstock, diamond-shped inlays and Waverly tuners. Wow, what a guitar!

My Baritone Polychrome Tricone had been my primary touring and recording National since I got it in 1999. In 2011 I got the new M1 Baritone Tricone, which I’ve recorded and toured with. It is fantastic, and very, very beautiful. I’ve been having a blast with the brave new world of the 12-string on both my brass bodied, brass plated 2002 Style One 12-string Tricone and my 2010, mind-blowing El Trovador 12 String. I have special uses for a 2003 Custom Baritone Estralita (also known as my Sister Rosetta Tharpe Guitar) which is so beautiful looking and sounding, I can hardly stand it. My 1998 Radio Tone Bendaway (pictured right) and 1998 Blue Delphi get their workouts too.

I started my resophonic journey in 1979 on a 1930 Duolian. This is a great guitar, which has been refurbished by Don and Mac and the gang. I had dropped this guitar in the ocean (not recommended!) back in the early 1980’s while living on a sailboat in the Caribbean in my wayward youth, and when I sent it in to National it was a very sad looking, rust-bucket of a guitar. It came back reborn with a vintage, trippy crackle or “frosted duco” finish and new fingerboard. The guitar and I had a very emotional private reunion, songs coming back, seemingly playing themselves from over 20 years ago. Ultimately, a happy ending to what began as an unfortunate story.

The advantages of new Nationals over vintage Nationals:
1. New Nationals have very good intonation, many vintage Nationals that have not been properly maintained have intonation that can be off.
2. New Nationals have fully adjustable truss rods in the neck. The vintage Nationals have no truss rods at all. New guitar’s necks are solid as a rock and tend to stay wherever you adjust them.
3. New Nationals have a lifetime of music ahead of them. Vintage ones, though quite a few are great instruments and have the legendary mojo of the olden days, need much more care, maintenance and are already ninety years old. Guitar players, by and large, tend to prefer new Nationals.
4. New Nationals have superior cones; vintage cones can be crushed, muted and banjo-like in tone from years of dust, playing and other (ab)use. Don and McGregor and Eric and the craftsmen at National have really perfected the spun aluminum resonator, the heart of the instrument. If something untoward happens to your cone, such as a hefty drop of the guitar, you can easily get new replacement cones at a nominal cost. You can keep your original vintage cone, and they can be reshaped, but probably, the best sound comes from the new ones.
5. New Nationals are Warrantied to the original owner. National stands behind their instruments 100%, and the quality really is the best they have ever been.
6. The staff at National are friendly and very responsive to the player’s needs. If you ever have a technical question, you can give National a call and talk to a real human being who will help you.

Please do email or call me at 319-338-3614 anytime, and I can get you prices and answer any questions.

Ask about custom features, too, including inlays, engraving, special finishes, custom headstock options, etc.

All Nationals and Scheerhrons can have pickups installed at the factory.

Also the new Hotplate is available as an upgrade for single cone guitars as well as on the RM1 Mandolin; it’s got volume knobs and “lipstick” pickup built within the coverplate. Great design!

The Slimline is available too.

The Charlie Christian Lollar can be installed into the guitar top, it’s a wonderful magnetic pickup, currently installed on the BLACK RUST DELUXE models. You can also get aP90 installed.

Note: Pickup and strap button installation is available on all instruments, done at the National Factory. If you buy an already completed instrument and want pickup and/or strap button installed, extra charges are incurred (a labor rate charged by the hour), because the instrument requires being taken out of it’s case, taken apart, work done, then being reconstructed. Please ask! It is a much better deal to have pickup and strap button installations BEFORE the instrument is completed. National does a wonderful job; it’s best done at the Factory.

Please, note that my prices listed are the cash price (which includes checks, cashier’s checks, and money orders). See the “How to Order” page for more details.

Thanks for tuning in!

Yours truly, Catfish Keith