A Tone Like A River, Part 1 of 6: The Story of National Resonator Guitars
Enduring in the popular imagination from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album cover, the image of National guitars is one of a strangely futuristic yet simultaneously old-timey all-metal guitar that is as shiny as it is instantly recognisable from its unique, biting tone. Though rarer to see than your standard acoustic guitar, resonator guitars in general have enjoyed surges of popularity up to the present day, with electric and acoustic models produced by companies such as Eastwood, Gretsch, Epiphone, Danelectro, Recording King, and of course National themselves. Check out the National Reso-phonic guitars we have on pre-order and in stock for a taste of these beautiful instruments.
In the course of this six-part series I will primarily explore the history of National, which of course means going right back to the roots of the resonator. It is a complex story and will require us to touch on the development of other instruments and brands (such as Rickenbacker and Dobro), as well as some turbulent life stories. The source for this post is the fabulous “The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments” by the superb Bob Brozman – himself a lifelong player of Nationals, who passed away much too soon at the age of 59 in 2013. I can thoroughly recommend getting hold of a copy of this book for those interested in some more in-depth information; the book contains some wonderful photographs of many rare and exotic early Nationals, as well as scans of the original patents for the burgeoning resonator technology. For now though, we’ll dive into the history of National and discover why their instruments still resonate so profoundly today.
Part 1: The Story Begins
National as a brand started life back in 1927 in Los Angeles, California. The company itself was the brainchild and confluence of two very different individuals: the meticulous and fastidious inventor, John Dopyera, and the heavy-drinking, exuberant performer George Beauchamp (pronounced “Bee-chum”). The meeting of these two characters – their cooperation, their revolutionary work, and ultimately their calamitous falling out – would produce the resonator guitar as we know it today and its various iterations, as well as lead to the development of the first commercially successful electric guitar.
John Dopyera was born in Strazia, Austro-Hungary on 6th July 1893. The family emigrated to the US in 1908 with the spectre of WWI looming, eventually settling in Los Angeles, California. John initially took up work for Pacific Door and Dash along with his brother, Rudy, and his Grandfather, from whom he had learned the basics of violin craftsmanship. They were a musical family, with John and his grandfather playing violin and Rudy playing the bass. Other brothers Louis, Emil and Bob all played viola.
During the 1910s, John and his father established a furniture store that repaired cabinets and the occasional musical instrument. This combined with the seeded interest in playing music led to John and Rudy building their own banjos that they sold in the furniture shop. It was during these early tinkering years that John began to set himself apart as an inventor: filing for various patents related to a myriad of different problems, from a 1916 patent for a shipping crate, a 1917 patent for a machine used in making picture frames, and a 1923 patent for an improved banjo design (one that John would employ in the banjos constructed with Rudy). While it is unclear how many of the Dopyera brothers’ banjos sold, it was profitable enough for the shop to become exclusively focused on musical instruments. It was around this time, in the middle of the roaring twenties, that a certain George Beauchamp would wander into the Dopyera’s shop on 50th and Broadway.
George Beauchamp was born on 18th March 1899 in Coleman County, Texas and as a boy took violin lessons. In the early 1920s he took a series of steel guitar lessons and began performing on the vaudeville circuit and playing professionally around 1923. He was booked with the prestigious William Morris Agency, and performed either in a trio with his brother Al and a friend named Slim Hopper (billing themselves as “The Boys from Dixie”) or in a duo with Slim (“Grasshopper and George”) in the Los Angeles area. Though an extremely talented player – and even the later acrimonious John Dopyera would acknowledge George’s playing ability – George still had to supplement his income as a part-time house painter during the 20s.
Around 1925 Beauchamp had begun pursuing the possibility of a louder guitar. The demand of the day was for Hawaiian music, so George frequently performed lapstyle on a flat top Martin with a raised nut enabling him to play harder – and therefore louder – with his steel bar. Crucially, this was still not loud enough. George was not alone in his frustration at the lack of volume inherent in the acoustic guitar. Orchestra guitarists, relegated to the rhythm section of their ensembles, had long desired guitars that could cut through the horns and competing strings as well as a banjo without sacrificing the smoother tone of the six strings. Casting around for a solution, George noted the two available methods for amplifying his guitar: mechanical amplification, or electrical amplification. The technology was not quite ready for electrical amplification; George would have to wait until his encounter with a certain Adolph Richenbacher in 1931 to pursue this course. Mechanically, there had already been a couple of attempts. In 1860 England there had been filed a patent for something similar to a resonating cone, however the attempt to put this into practice had been abandoned. Stroh, an English violin manufacturer, had enjoyed the greatest success so far in this field. They had created the Stroh violin, or Stroviol: a bizarre looking instrument that drew its inspiration for mechanical amplification from the breakthroughs of Edison and Victrola phonographs. They featured an aluminum cone and a large metal horn to project the sound. Strangely comical, they were seen occasionally on the vaudeville circuit which is where George happened upon one. Intrigued, he contacted several instrument makers in Los Angeles to find someone that could help him to make a self-amplifying guitar based on the principles of the Stroh violin. Such was the way in which George and John would first meet, with John’s inventor’s curiosity piqued enough to accept George’s strange commission.
Click here for Part 2: The Road to National