May 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part III

Here we are again with the 3rd in a series of articles telling the long story of the guitar. Part I (→ read here) started over 3,500 years ago, emerging in the Middle East and gradually developing before dispersing across continental Europe and Asia. Eventually, the embryonic guitar found a home in Europe during the early Renaissance where it began to exhibit the characteristics and features that we recognise today. Part II (→ read here) expanded on the humble beginnings and evolved the acoustic instrument into a (generally) standardised form that we are familiar with, as well as focusing on some key 19th Century innovations in acoustic guitar design. This instalment looks at key 20th Century developments that will ultimately lead to the widespread introduction of the electric guitar.


The story from c.1900 is not only reasonably well-documented elsewhere but also fairly involved, so the pace slows compared to previous parts and also becomes richer in content. I would encourage anyone with a serious interest in guitar heritage to explore the hinterwebby thing for further information, along with all the usual caveats about the accuracy and believability of what’s out there.


Modern Era (1900-present)

At the end of the 19th and during the early part of the 20th Century, before the introduction of the electric guitar, musicians sought ever‑louder instruments, leading to various creative adaptations to the basic construction of the acoustic guitar. While the acoustic guitar continued to be popular for classical and traditional folk music, many guitarists were struggling to be heard as the trend for ensemble, ‘big band’ or swing orchestras became popular at the time. The issue with volume in a group context meant that the guitar essentially became consigned to a rhythm, rather than lead role, especially when competing with percussion and horns. In order to adapt to demand, a radically new approach to guitar design was needed. Thus, the fundamental divergence from traditional nylon strung classical and steel-strung acoustic ‘folk’ guitars had begun.


Guitars at the beginning of the 20th Century were, though, still entirely acoustic instruments. However, two key innovations were about to take place in America that would bridge the gap from acoustic to amplified electric guitars, which would began to appear in the 1930s. The first development involved the emergence of the acoustic archtop guitar on the east coast while, on the west coast, the second invention to appear was that of the resonator guitar.


Guitars weren’t the only ubiquitous chordophones at the start of the 20th Century; far from it. The mandolin, banjo, harp and violin also had periods of great popularity and fashion. However, it was during the first quarter of the 1900s that the guitar started its elevation from just another part of a band or orchestra into being the pre‑eminent instrument it is today. Arguably, in addition to the standardisation of classical and steel strung acoustic guitars, it was the introduction of archtop and resonator guitars that contributed towards that success. As is often the case in these matters, the path to success was more complicated than it seems at first and it would be far from a smooth transition with many pitfalls along the way.


Acoustic Archtop Guitars

The acoustic archtop guitar incorporated some of the basic components of the steel string acoustic guitar with a body style that bore some design and construction similarities with classical orchestral stringed instruments. An archtop guitar may be defined as, a stringed musical instrument with a convex curved top, formed either by carving a solid piece of tone wood or by heating a sheet of laminated wood in order to  mould it into the curved shape.


Most flat top acoustic guitars up to the end of the 19th Century used a single integrated bridge/tailpiece mounted to the surface of the top soundboard, meaning that the strings exert not only significant horizontal pull but also lift because of torque. In order to prevent the bridge from lifting and/or twisting, particularly with the greater tension required by metal strings, the thin flat acoustic soundboard required strong internal bracing. Heavily braced tops had the effect of reducing resonant vibrations and inhibiting overall volume. One solution was to make guitars bigger, an approach used by C.F. Martin in the 1930s with the introduction of the company’s sizeable X-braced D-series dreadnoughts, as covered in the previous part of this series of articles. Archtop guitars took an entirely different approach.

1898 Orville Gibson Archtop


Unlike acoustic guitars, most orchestral stringed instruments had a long history of using a carved arched top featuring a separate moveable bridge and fixed tailpiece. The main advantage of using separate structures is that they serve different functions. The non-adjustable tailpiece is used to anchor the strings at that end of the instrument and deals only with the longitudinal stresses caused by string tension. The separate ‘floating’ bridge (meaning that it was not fixed and could be repositioned if needed) supports the strings and is used only to control string height (action) and intonation. The solid carved top of the soundboard was arched upward, as on a violin or cello, in order to counteract the downward pressure that the strings exerted on the bridge, thus providing a stable and resonant structure. The major benefit of this type of design is that it needs less internal bracing which allows the instrument’s soundboard to vibrate more freely, thereby producing a noticeably louder sound.


It was therefore not really surprising that, at some point, enterprising guitar builders would seek to exploit some of the characteristics of other instruments and incorporate the best of these into guitar design. While there may have been numerous examples of experimentation before this time, the enduring convergence of classical stringed instrument construction and acoustic guitar design resulted in the advent of the acoustic archtop guitar from the beginning of the 20th Century.


The Rise of Gibson Guitars

Although not the only innovator in guitar design at the turn of the 19th Century, certainly one of the key pioneers that popularised early archtop guitars was American luthier Orville H. Gibson (1856-1918), who was born in Chateaugay, New York. Gibson started making mandolins in his home workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1894 as ‘O.H. Gibson, Manufacturer, Musical Instruments’.

Orville Gibson
Orville Gibson Workshop


Gibson himself was, by all accounts, somewhat unconventional, being described as an obsessive, eccentric genius as well as an extreme perfectionist. He apparently held other, more traditional, instrument makers of the time in contempt and he was determined to do things differently and in his own way. Orville Gibson, the person, remains somewhat of an enigma and appears to have suffered from mental illness throughout his life, spending several periods in mental institutions before his death in a psychiatric asylum in New York.


Gibson started out by adapting European violin designs for use in mandolins and then, subsequently, guitars. By 1897, Gibson had made his first hollow archtop guitar with a relatively thick carved solid wood top, back and sides, cello style tailpiece, floating bridge and steel strings. His early designs retained the traditional acoustic guitar sound hole, although oval in shape. He used spruce wood for the top for its resonance and maple for back and sides for strength and density. Unlike traditional flat top acoustic guitars of the time, Gibson’s archtop guitars did not use internal bracing, as he felt this would hamper both volume and tone. When played hard, Gibson’s relatively un‑stressed design was more capable of projecting the loud, bright and ‘percussive’ acoustic volume that guitarists were seeking at the time.


Orville Gibson submitted his only patent application in 1895 for an archtop mandolin design (also applicable to the guitar), which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in February 1898. The patent covered archtop construction comprising carved, tops and sides cut from solid wood, rather than the acoustic guitar’s braced flat top and bent wood sides. While earlier guitar/mandolin patents by James S. Back in 1893 and A.H. Merrill in 1896 may lay claim to the first archtop designs, it was Gibson that converted his own visionary concepts into a successful business enterprise.

Gibson Mandolin US Patent 1898


On 11 October 1902, Orville Gibson, along with five local business partners founded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. in Kalamazoo. The company soon started building archtop guitars using the techniques Gibson had patented for the mandolin. However, Gibson was paid a $2,500 lump sum and monthly income to step back from day-to-day business where his overt, pedantic idiosyncrasies tended to affect production.


While the Gibson F-2 mandolin was a major milestone in the instrument’s history and is now considered a classic landmark design, mandolins generally were beginning to lose favour with musicians. In addition, Gibson had initially followed the trend for tenor banjos in the late 1910s before guitars became the mainstay of the business. Gibson was also known to make complex but not widely used harp guitars, such as the Style U.

Gibson Stationery Logo (1906)
Gibson Mandolin Label (1902)
1900s Gibson F2 Mandolin
1907 Gibson Style U Harp Guitar


Gibson’s Style 0 archtop guitar design proved better suited to the jazz and swing orchestras of the time than the flat top acoustic guitar. As a result, Gibson guitars became very popular in the early part of the 20th Century up to the 1920s, particularly amongst the jazz fraternity. The Style 0 archtop, which retained the oval sound hole beneath the strings, is often referred to as the direct precursor to the archetypal jazz acoustic archtops that followed. The hand‑carved guitars were, however, very resource intensive to build, so supply fell short of demand and there was a growing need for an instrument that was quicker, easier and cheaper to build.


Orville Gibson finally left the company he founded in 1916 to live in upstate New York until his death in 1918 at the age of 62.

1911 Gibson Style 0


In the same year, 1918, composer, musician and engineer, Lloyd Loar (1886-1943) was hired by the Gibson company as acoustic consultant and advisor. After a break to entertain WWI troops in Europe, Loar re-joined Gibson in 1919. Loar went on to design many of the company’s new instruments in an attempt to turn around disappointing sales. While Loar wasn’t a luthier by trade, he led a design and construction revolution at the company during the 1920s, growing the company’s enviable reputation for building fine professional guitars, mandolins and other stringed-fretted instruments.

Lloyd Loar


One of Loar’s first and best‑known guitar designs, released in 1923, was the Gibson L5 ‘Master Model’. The L5 is widely recognised as the first commercially produced ‘jazz’ guitar. In 1923, the L5 featured all the fundamental characteristics that we recognize in a ‘jazz’ guitar; a carved archtop fully hollow body, separate tailpiece and floating bridge, etc. It was also the first commercial archtop guitar to employ f‑holes that are now synonymous with the style of guitar. The L5’s neck incorporated other innovations, including an adjustable truss rod, designed to counteract string tension, and the body used an adjustable bridge to set the height of the strings above the fingerboard. These key improvements enabled guitars to become more streamlined and therefore easier to play. The L5 was a trendsetter and gained a strong following in the jazz community. Early adopters included the popular guitarist Eddie Lang, comedian/singer George Gobel, and jazz virtuoso guitarist Wes Montgomery.

1924 Gibson L5


The L5 is now considered to have been pivotal in acoustic archtop guitar design. As if to evidence its standing, the perennial L5 remains in production well into the 21st Century, proving the soundness of Loar’s original concept. Lloyd Loar did not stay long at Gibson, leaving in 1924. During the 1920s and 1930s, Gibson became the leading manufacturer of archtop guitars. The perennial Gibson L5 will resurface again later in the guitar’s story.


Gibson archtop guitars remain in production today, including some faithful reproductions and improvements on the classic designs that began in the 1920s.


The Competition

Gibson wasn’t alone in the market and its competitors included Stromberg, Epiphone, Gretsch and Hofner were also making high quality instruments. In addition, from 1932, American luthier John D’Angelico (1905-1964) started producing very fine archtop guitars from his workshop in New York City. In 1965, his apprentice of 12 years, Jimmy D’Aquisto (1935-1995) took over D’Angelico’s work and continued to produce fine acoustic archtop guitars after his master had passed away. Original examples of these guitars are seen by many to represent the pinnacle of the jazz guitar era.

1948 D’Angelico Excel
1930s Stromberg


In order to provide ever‑increasing demand for volume, the size of archtop guitar bodies increased from the 16” L5 up to 18” or even 19” measured across the lower bout. Gibson’s reaction to competition was to produce one of the brand’s most famous archtop guitars, the classic Super 400 in 1935.

1935 Gibson Super 400


Arguably, classic archtop guitar designs provided a strong link between traditional steel strung acoustic guitars, through hybrids (electric archtops) to the emergence of later solid body electric guitars. The introduction of electric archtop guitars in the mid‑1930s enabled the transition from acoustic to electric guitars and is covered later in the story.


With the widespread uptake of electric guitars allied to the massive growth of blues and rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s, the pure archtop guitar with its strong jazz association struggled to remain popular. Manufacture and sale of archtop guitars fell dramatically and suffered a nadir in the 1990s. However, in the 21st Century, many guitarists are rediscovering the aesthetic and sonic qualities of classic ‘jazz boxes’. Sales of new archtop guitars have picked up due to a new generation of musicians either seeking an alternative to mainstream instruments or wishing to recreate the sights and sounds of the past with a degree of authenticity.


Many current‑day archtop guitars incorporate pickups to make them more usable in contemporary situations. Modern manufacturing processes including CNC machines used to carve the tops also help to reduce cost and make archtop guitars relatively affordable. Alternatives to solid wood are also abundant today, including the use of formed laminates to create the curved tops.

2018 Ibanez Artstar Prestige AF-200


Acoustic Resonator Guitars

While the concept of archtop guitars was one response to the need for louder instruments a discrete branch of guitar evolution was taking place on the west coast of the U.S.A. In the time before amplified guitars, manufacturers had to respond to the demand for greater acoustic volume during the golden ‘jazz age’ of the ‘roaring twenties’. This particular alternative to the archtop guitar is broadly categorised as the resophonic or resonator guitars. Hereafter they are called simply resonator guitars for brevity.


A resonator guitar in this context is still a hollow acoustic guitar. Resonator guitars differ from previous designs because of the way that mechanical string vibrations are transferred not to the guitar’s sound board but via the guitar’s bridge to one or more spun metal cones incorporated within the guitar’s body. It is these resonating metal cones that produce a louder sound than the traditional wooden sound boards of flat top or archtop acoustic guitars. Musicians also favoured the flexibility of resonator guitars over banjos, which were popular in the early part of the 20th Century.


The unique construction of resonator guitars also produced a very distinctive thin, bright, metallic sound with little sustain, very different from other acoustic guitars. The distinctive resonator sounds were adopted by blues, bluegrass and country guitarists of the time and have produced many of the characteristic sounds of rural American music over many decades, especially when played with a bottleneck slide. It should be noted that, while resonator guitars are widely associated with the blues, and particularly with Mississippi delta blues guitarists, they have been used in a diverse range of musical genres.


General resonator guitar designs tend to fall into two separate types: square-neck Hawaiian lap steel resonators tend to be played horizontally with a slide and round‑neck resonators that can be played either horizontally, lap-steel fashion, or conventionally. The height of the strings above the fingerboard varies considerably depending on whether the guitars are used for slide, hybrid or regular fingerstyle use. In addition to lap‑steel and Spanish‑style guitars, resonators have been used in many diverse instruments including, ukuleles, banjos, basses and mandolins. Resonator guitars remain popular today, principally for their unique sound and the musical styles they inspired. English guitarist, Mark Knopfler’s iconic 1937 National Style 0 resonator was famously featured on the sleeve of their classic studio album, ‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985).

Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms (1985)


Some famous guitarists are associated with resonator guitars, including Tampa Red, Son House, Bukka White, Bo Carter and Blind Boy Fuller.

Son House


The Rise of National and Dobro Guitars

Probably, the most significant contributor to the development of the resonator guitar was a Slovakian immigrant to the U.S., John Dopyera (1893–1988). The Dopyera family moved to California in 1908 and John followed in his father’s footsteps, starting a business in the 1920s making and repairing musical instruments.

John Dopyera


The crucial catalyst in resonator progress was provided by a Texan Vaudeville performer and musical experimenter, George Beauchamp (1899-1941). Once Beauchamp (his surname was pronounced ‘Beechum’) had moved to California, he approached John Dopyera in 1925 to design a guitar loud enough for use in a dance orchestra. Beauchamp had seen examples of some sort of external megaphone‑style horn arrangement to project a guitar’s volume. Dopyera’s initial prototype, involving a stand‑mounted amplifying horn proved far too bulky and was considered a failure. Undaunted, Dopyera and Beauchamp’s creative solution was to invent the resonator guitar.

George Beauchamp


Recognising the potential of the new resonator guitar design, John Dopyera and George Beauchamp founded the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927, based in Los Angeles, California to manufacture resonator guitars and other instruments under the National brand.

National Resophonic Logo


National’s first major instrument was a metal‑bodied guitar using three inward‑pointing suspended spun aluminium cones connected by a metal T‑shaped bracket to the bridge. The arrangement was, perhaps unsurprisingly, called a ‘Tricone’. String vibrations were acoustically amplified by the cones, acting like passive loudspeakers, giving the guitar its distinctive resonator sound. Dopyera filed a patent application for the Tricone design in April 1927, granted in December 1929. The ground breaking early National Tricone resonator guitars from the late 1920s are now highly collectable. The first engraved metal bodies were made of copper and zinc alloy (often called ‘German silver’ or ‘white brass’) before changing to traditional brass which was cheaper and more plentiful, then finally to steel.

National Tricone Resonator Patent
National Tricone Resonator

1939 National Tricone Resonator


John Dopyera was concerned about the manufacturing cost and retail price of the complicated tricone design and proposed a cheaper, simpler single cone alternative. When the new design was presented to National’s board, it was rejected. His new single-cone design comprised an arrangement where the strings passed over a bridge that sat on a small circular wooden mounting disc (called a ‘biscuit’) that was in turn attached to the apex of the inward‑pointing spun metal cone. Although it wasn’t taken up at the time, Beauchamp, through National, went on to patent Dopyera’s single cone ‘biscuit’ resonator design, filed in March 1929 and granted in June 1931.

National Single Cone Resonator Patent
National Single Cone Resonator


John Dopyera, having become frustrated by National’s internal politics, left the company in 1928. Crucially, to keep his options open, Dopyera remained a major shareholder in National. Along with his four brothers (Rudy, Emile, Robert and Louis), John Dopyera founded the Dobro Manufacturing Company to compete with National. The Dobro name comprises the ‘Do’ from the family’s surname and ‘bro’ as a contraction of ‘brothers’. The term ‘dobro’ has over the years come to be used as a generic term in common parlance when talking about single resonator guitars. Conveniently, and perhaps intentionally, the word dobro also means ‘good’ in Slovakian, leading directly to the company’s early motto using a play on words, “Dobro means good in any language”.

Dobro Logo


As National owned the resonator patents to-date, early Dobro resonator guitars had to differ from the single cone design made by National. The new Dobro guitars used a wooden body and a single inverted (outward‑facing) resonator cone with guitar strings passing over a bridge attached to an 8-legged cast aluminium ‘spider’ (resembling a spider’s web) that in turn was attached to points around the edge of the spun metal cone. Unlike the National single cone design, the Dobro cone projects outwards, thereby increasing volume. Dobro filed a patent in February 1932 for Rudi Dopyera’s resonator design, which was granted in February 1933. National objected to Dobro’s resonator design, resulting in several contested law suits between National and Dobro, which lasted for several years.

Dobro Resonator Patent
Dobro Single Cone Resonator
1932-34 Dobro Model 175 Deluxe Special


The advantage for guitarists was that the Dobro was both louder and considerably cheaper than the complex and costly National Tricone design. In addition, Dobro cleverly licensed their designs to brands such as Regal to extend their reach into an eager customer base. National responded to competition from Dobro by introducing their lower cost resonators, the Triolian in 1928 and Duolian in 1930. Also in 1930, National released their nickel-plated, steel‑bodied, round necked Style 0 resonator guitars, which featured Hawaiian scenes sandblasted into the guitar’s finish and are now considered iconic. In an attempt to cover all bases, both companies also produced resonator mandolins.

1930s Dobro Model 27
1930s Regal Dobro Model 27
1931 National Triolian
1935 National Duolian
1930s National Style 0


In 1932, with National in financial difficulty, the Dopyera brothers secured a controlling interest in both National and Dobro companies. The companies subsequently merged in 1934 to form the National Dobro Corporation, thereby ending the feud and eliminating the fierce competition between the two. Beauchamp was fired by the new company for his involvement with newcomers, Rickenbacker, who were developing new ideas for electric guitars. The National Dobro Corporation moved operations to Chicago in 1936 where it manufactured resonator guitars until it ceased production in 1941, shortly after America entered World War II. Aluminium was needed to support America’s war effort, making the raw material for resonator cones scarce and the demand for tooling machinery high.


Post-War Resonator Guitars

The remnants of the pre‑WWII National Dobro Corporation were later reorganised to become Valco in 1942, which eventually reintroduced resonator guitars under the National brand in the early 1960s. American company Mosrite bought the Dobro brand in 1966 before going bankrupt themselves in 1969. A new company, National Reso‑Phonic Guitars was formed in 1989, based in California, to produce resonator guitars based on original pre‑war designs as well as some all-new designs, including electro-acoustic resonator guitars.

National Reso-phonic Resolectric


Taking a different direction altogether, Emile and Rudy Dopyera formed the Original Musical Instrument Company (OMI), based in California in 1967 to make resonator guitars using the brand name Hound Dog. In 1970, OMI secured the Dobro brand name from the bankrupt Mosrite, which meant the Dopyera family could once again manufacture Dobro guitars using their original name. OMI was subsequently acquired by The Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1993 and they currently produce Dobro branded resonators, including Dobro Hound Dog budget models through their Epiphone operation in China. In an attempt to secure the heritage, Gibson has stated that they will defend their exclusive right to use the Dobro name.

Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog Deluxe


While many variations of resonator guitars have been manufactured by a large number of companies over the years, National and Dobro, along with Dobro-licensed Regal, are the names most associated with pre‑WWII resonator production. The influence and legacy of these brands is significant in historical terms and 21st Century popularity of resonator guitars suggests that they are here to stay with a bright future ahead. Many modern resonators now incorporate either electro‑magnetic or piezo‑electric pickups, enabling them to be amplified, just like other electric guitars, while retaining their distinctive acoustic tone. Given the reason why resonators were invented in the first place – to increase acoustic volume – the concept of electric resonators seems a touch ironic today.


End of Part III

I will stop at this juncture, just before the dawn of the electric guitar. In terms of the overall amount of material, Parts I-III cover about half the story I have to tell.


I must mention that this part of the story proved particularly convoluted and I apologise if it comes across confusingly. It was a major challenge to untangle the web of misinformation and distil a meaningful chronological narrative. I hope that you are able to make some sense of the various interweaving threads. The information for the next part proved even more tortuous and I’m still trying to simplify and condense it for the serial article format. As with previous parts, I am happy to amend any factual errors that may well have crept into the timeline thus far.


Before we get back to the next decisive milestones in the guitar’s long story, Part IV will be both a temporary and necessary diversion from the core subject matter. The next episode focuses on two key innovations upon which the electric guitar is entirely dependent. You will have to wait a while to see what unfolds. There is a great deal of background material to wade through, so it will be a challenge to cut down the full version in order to keep the story moving. However, once that contextual reference material is in place, the modern electric guitar in all its splendour can finally be unleashed, hopefully in Part V and thereafter.


Thank you or looking in. As interesting as the story may be, it’s now time for me to stop typing and get back to more important matters; playing (vintage) guitars. Until next time…


CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Dancing, even in silence, is literally the embodiment of music.”


© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.


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