A Tone Like a River, Part 3 of 6: All Good Things
John’s Departure from National and the Creation of Dobro
The first few years at the newly formed corporation were intensely successful. By Autumn of 1927, the Chicago Musical Instrument Company (CMI) had secured the rights as National’s exclusive distributor in the central states and began advertising the instruments heavily. George was appointed as general manager, and John as factory superintendent. As chief investor, Ted was appointed President of the new company. Fuelled by Ted’s cash, George wasted no time in hiring some of the most talented craftsman to join the ranks of National as well as new equipment for the factory, which was located on West 64th Street in LA – just a stone’s throw from a certain Adolph Rickenbacher’s metal stamping shop. More on him later.
The success of National so immediately was partially due to the endorsements of popular musicians like Sol Hoopii and advertising secured through CMI, however it was of course due in no small part to the quality of the instruments themselves. The original line of Nationals included both Spanish and Hawaiian style tricones – Spanish with round necks, and Hawaiian with flat necks to be played lap-style – available either in the non-engraved Style 1 or rose-engraved Style 2. The company also manufactured a four-string tenor guitar, a mandolin and a ukulele – all with John’s tricone system. Soon after, two more models were introduced: the Style 3, which featured a “Lily-of-the-Valley” style engraving designed by John and his wife, Elizabeth, and the Style 4 “Artist’s Model” which featured an even more elaborate engraving designed by George called the Chrysanthemum pattern. Both the Style 3 and Style 4 were priced at the level of Martin’s premium models; yet still sold well.
By late 1928, National had blossomed into a vastly successful corporation. There were reports of wild parties on Santa Catalina Island, of National employees mingling with Hollywood elite, and National workers nipping on their “Green River” throughout the day – a flavoured syrup mixed with bootleg whiskey. The roaring twenties seemed to have found its embodiment in National.
By late 1928, however, John had become intensely dissatisfied with the corporation he had helped to establish. For one thing, John was a reserved, conservative individual with whom the decadent lifestyle of George and his ever growing band of National stockholders severely clashed; he complained that the factory workers were wasteful (a main source of his ire was apparently the profligate use of sandpaper on the factory floor). John saw himself as the “main spoke of the wheel” at National – as he confessed to Bob Brozman in 1973 – and regarded George as nothing more than a spendthrift and fruitless experimenter. Whether this assessment was true or not, the conflict between these two was reified in March 1929 when George filed a patent for a single cone resonator. John had already discarded the single cone as an option for the National lineup, regarding the sound as much too inferior to the tricone model. However, as the market became saturated with the original lineup, demand increased for a cheaper, more affordable guitar: both for potential buyers, and for the factory to turn out. Beautiful as John’s beloved tricones were, they were costly in both time and cash to manufacture; George thus spied within the single cone resonator the opportunity to increase National’s production and increase the turnover of the factory. Having already been humiliated by George posing as the “inventor” of the tricone for a 1927 music magazine, John felt that George’s patent application was the final straw: apparently victimized and betrayed by his business partner for putting into a design his own technology in a way he had expressly condemned.
It is unclear here how much of the single cone resonator rightly should be credited to George and how much to John. On the one hand, John had developed the resonating cone technology, and had put the work in to make the resonator sound the way that it did. However, he discarded the single cone design as too inferior to the tricone to be worth putting into production and it took George’s insistence to realize the single cone resonator as a commercial reality. Either way, John caught wind of George’s plan to make the single cone resonator part of National’s product lineup, and resigned from the company in January 1929.
It was an apparently emotionally charged resignation, during the course of which John inexplicably signed away his patent rights to the National stockholders. Brozman suggests that he perhaps thought the company would fail without his inventiveness, and regardless he had been working at home with his brother Rudy on a new style of single cone resonator: the Dobro guitar. He filed a patent for the Dobro resonator in June 1929 and put it under Rudy’s name, so that no one at National could claim to have been involved in the Dobro’s invention. The brothers quickly formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company, later renamed the Dobro Corporation, Limited, to begin manufacturing their new resonators. It is worth noting the origin of the name “Dobro.” The name was chosen for three reasons: first, as a contraction of “Dopyera Brothers”; second, as there are five letters in the name “Dobro” and there were five Dopyera brothers in total; and finally because “Dobro” translates to “good” in some Slavic languages. Whatever the auspicious nature of this new start for John, it would soon be marred by interference from the corporation he had left behind.
Before we get into the aftermath of John’s departure from National, it is worth outlining the differences between John’s original tricone National and his newer single cone Dobro. The main difference is of course the number of cones; however a key innovation for the Dobro is the so-called “spider bridge”. This is an eight-legged metal frame that sits on top of and makes contact with the resonating cone, which is concave (that is, the centre is lower than the rim, upon which the spider bridge sits). This spider bridge thus transmits the vibrations of the strings to the cone, and produces the mechanically amplified sound. This is in contrast to the National which has a so-called “biscuit-cone”. This cone is raised in the centre and lower around the rim, where a wooden disc – the “biscuit” – makes contact with the bridge. It is through this mechanism that the vibrations from the strings are transmitted to the cone. As the Depression on the early 1930s loomed it also became a cheaper necessity to use wooden bodies rather than metal bodies. It is interesting to note that John was always resentful of his Dobro, even late into life, bitterly regarding it as inferior to the works of art he pioneered at National.
Over at National, George was incensed by John’s Dobro design. He was convinced that the guitar’s genesis had been at National, and that John’s new single cone design violated his own single cone patent – a design that was John’s in the first place. What ensued was an intense propaganda war from National against Dobro, and subsequent legal action from the Dopyera brothers against National. George began to spin ever-wilder yarns – asserting, for example, that the spider bridge on the Dobro had in fact been his idea – that all were baseless and without evidence. This embroiled National in a particularly messy lawsuit that would simmer until 1933, when Dobro would drop its lawsuit against National, and make its repercussions felt until July 1935 when National and Dobro would merge into the National-Dobro corporation.
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