A Tone Like a River, Part 6 of 6. National Reso-phonic Guitars: Resonators for the Modern Day

By Adam Leaver: July 20, 2022

The story of National thus looks to have concluded in 1943. The final tricone National built was cobbled together in 1942 from pre-war parts. George would ultimately pass away in 1941, at only 42 years old, after a freak heart attack while deep-sea fishing off the coast of Los Angeles. Dobro would resume business after the war and continue to make wooden-bodied and even some metal-bodied resonators today, though they are now owned by Gibson (since 1993). John would ultimately pass away in 1988 at the age of 94, having elected to stay in Los Angeles while his brothers and his business moved to Chicago in order to continue building and tinkering with his instruments. 

The story of National however did not terminate in the early 40s. Ever since the original company was dissolved, players have migrated back to the sound of the resonator for its unique tone, appearance, and durability. Blues players such as Bukka White and Son House were rediscovered in the 1960s and played their Nationals; Dire Straits in 1985 would release their huge-selling Brothers in Arms which featured a Style O National on the cover; complete with its Hawaiian scenes. They have thus remained in the public consciousness and in the hearts and minds of musicians.

In 1961, a ten year old named Don Young saw a tricone in a pawn shop window. This sparked his interest in resonators that was only fuelled at age 15 when he heard a record by bluesman the Black Ace, and was stunned by the sound of his slide against the strings of a National tricone. In 1969 he acquired his first guitar – a Dobro – and, in need of a job, called the number on the warranty card. Soon enough he was sanding necks, and after a year and a half began experimenting at home with building his own Dobros. In 1972, Don was fired for “insubordination,” after he repeatedly complained that the frets weren’t secured properly on the fretboard. The owner of the company, a Dopyera nephew named Ron Lazar, had invested a lot of money in a hydraulic fret press which didn’t work as well as it might have done; he didn’t react well to Don’s criticisms.

Don would spend five years as head repairman at a music shop yet would retain his interest in resonators, and particularly vintage Nationals; even tracking down National’s original tricone dies to a scrapyard where they had unfortunately already been fed to a smelter. He would meet McGregor Gaines in 1981, a manufacturer who had worked his way up from the construction industry, to carpentry, cabinet making and ornamental woodworking. He was fascinated by the craftsmanship required to build the guitars Don had made at home.

In 1988, Don left Dobro in order to start National Reso-phonic guitars with McGregor: a company with the express goal of resurrecting the original National (where they judged Dobro to be falling short). They began out of a south California garage; however since 1990 they have expanded their operation into a factory located in San Luis Obispo, California. The company currently produces more than 600 guitars annually, and makes use of both the original national resonator technology, and the inverted cones found in John’s Dobros. Don would unfortunately pass away at the age of 63 in 2016; however his successor, Jason Workman, continues to maintain the high standard of craftsmanship and quality established by Don. By all accounts, they are remarkably identical to the original Nationals; a fact proven by their continued success and the ever-growing popularity of their inventory amongst aficionados (including Bob Brozman) and newcomers alike.

Here at Guitar Village, we are delighted to be receiving some of these lovingly hand-built instruments for presentation to the public. We are expecting guitars from the “Raw” series, unfinished metal bodies designed to distress over time, 12 and 14 fret examples of National Reso-phonic’s Style O guitars (for all you Knopfler fans), and finally National Res-phonic’s reproduction of the “Don” resonator. All in all a fabulous selection from a company doing some incredible and truly historic work; the author is particularly excited to welcome these guitars’ arrival to the shop.

You can check out the full selection of Nationals we have available here.

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