The topic of today’s post is to discuss factors to be considered when buying a resonator guitar. I’ve discussed much of this previously because I love resonator guitars. But the goal of this article is to talk myself out of purchasing another resonator.
Let’s start with the answer to a basic question every guitar player knows. How many guitars do you need? Obviously, at least one more than you currently own. That said, I’m retired, downsized, and have neither the physical space nor the funds I once had for guitars. I can afford maybe two more in terms of space. And, I do have money put aside for guitar gear. But I’m nearing the point where I will have to stop buying guitars.
When I downsized before moving south for retirement, I sold a National Resophonic Style O resonator guitar. I’ve regretted that ever since. The Style O was a 12-fret, nickel-plated, bell-brass body with etched Hawaiian scene; a single cone, biscuit bridge guitar. New Style O’s currently are selling for over $3500, so I’m not going to replace it with another.
I now own a Royall wood body tricone from Imperial guitars. They call this model the Trifonium but it’s quite similar to the National M-1. I don’t want to get rid of my tricone but I miss the loud punch of the Style O.
Tricone, single-cone biscuit bridge, and single cone spider-bridge resonators each have a unique sound. Likewise, bodies of bell-brass, steel and wood each add a different character to the sound. The size and shape of the guitar also influence what the guitar sounds like.
Other factors don’t affect the sound but still have an impact on playability. These include scale length, string spacing (nut width), body size and weight as it affects comfort and other factors such as neck shape.
A few weeks ago I was considering ordering a parlor sized single-cone, biscuit bridge resonator guitar. These are available in brass, steel and wood from several companies. In the USA, the two primary sources are Republic Guitars and Royall Guitars which now has its own website separate from Imperial where I bought mine. The guitars from these two companies are so similar you might include they are identical. They’re not. But both companies import their guitars from China.
Republic Guitars sells guitars made by Aiersi, a Chinese company who has a US website to order direct. But otherwise you would have to deal with customs and international shipping.
The Republic Parlor Resolian is like a tiny Style O. The cone is a standard 9.5 inch diameter size, the same as almost all single-cone biscuit bridge guitars. The first thing that put me off about the guitar may be minor to you, but the scale length is listed as 24.5 inches. It’s an unusual length, shorter than is common. When I looked up parlor resonators on the Aiersi website I discovered the scale length is 628 mm which is just under 24.75 inches. I’m confused as to why the discrepancy. Did Republic round the values or was there a problem in translating from metric values? In any case, I want a 25 inch scale length (or 25.5) but not a short-scaled guitar.
Royall also sells parlor resonators and they have a bit longer scale length. Based on my research, I presume Royall import their guitars from a Chinese company named Jonathan. The scale length listed on Alibaba.com for the Jonathan parlor is 634 mm which is just under 25 inches. The going price is about $700.
Scale length got me to investigate where these guitars were made, but the thing which convinced me not to get a parlor resonator was the sound. If I had money and the space to house the guitars, of course I would by a parlor resonator. They’re a fun size for sitting on a porch or at the beach. But after listening to sound samples online, I realized the parlors don’t have the sound I miss from my Style O.
This week, I could find few if any bell-brass, nickel plated, 12-fret, single-cone resonators for sale in the US. Most of the new guitars listed are for 14-fret guitars. The difference is subtle, but the larger body of a 12-fret instrument does result in a fuller sound. Further, many of the guitars I found were steel, not brass. Republic and Royall both have depleted their stock of instruments that have the characteristics I am looking for in a resonator, at least if I want a brass body.
Another option I’ve considered is a wood body single-cone biscuit bridge resonator guitar. Wood bodies can sound sweet but they are not as loud. I am undecided except that if I were to get a wood body guitar it couldn’t be a parlor and would have to sound good. Since none of the nearby guitar stores have the guitars I want, the only way to evaluate is by listening to others online.
The following are guitars that do not meet my criteria:
Recording King Metal Body single-cone resonators: all are 14 fret
Regal RC-2 is 14 fret
Gold Tone Paul Beard 12-fret metal body resonators are made of steel, not brass. Paul Beard makes a single-cone biscuit bridge wood body guitar but it costs over $2000. Beard’s guitars are a top choice if you want a spider-bridge single cone but if I’m spending over a thousand dollars I rather get a National biscuit bridge guitar.
Guitars found online June 2020
Gretsch Honey Dipper
Gretsch has been selling some well-reviewed resonator guitars for at least ten years. These, as all low-cost guitars, are made overseas. The Honey Dipper is one of the models that come closest to a brass body, biscuit bridge resonator that meets my specifications. It is a 12-fret, bell-brass single cone guitar. Listening to samples in isolation it seems to have a sweet tone that I might like. But when compared to other guitars it seems to be missing something. This may be unfair because the player and the equipment and setup used to record the guitar makes one-to-one comparisons difficult. I would rate this a maybe. Without a hands-on trial though, I hesitate to commit to the guitar. Still, based on many reviews and videos, this might be the right guitar for you. The current street price is about $650.
Recording King Rattlesnake
This is a wood body single cone guitar from Recording King. They have a less expensive line, the Dirty 30’s, but this one looks and sounds better. I put this in my maybe list. It is nearly identical in price and appearance to the Gretsch Alligator. Both of reptile names to evoke something they hope you associate with the blues. I wish someone would do an online A/B comparison between this and the Alligator. See my Alligator comments for more on this. Street price about $450.
The alligator is a round-neck, wood-bodied single-cone biscuit bridge resonator guitar. Like the Honey Dipper, it has many good reviews over many years. As mentioned above, it is nearly identical in specifications and appearance to the Recording King Rattlesnake above. For all I know, they are made at the same Chinese factory (but I have no knowledge of this one way or the other).
Although I could find no videos comparing the guitars side-by-side, I listened and watched as many videos as I could find. In my opinion, the Gretsch Alligator sounded better than this Recording King Rattlesnake. It might be that everyone who made a video on the Gretsch had better microphones, more skill recording, and were the guitarists were more talented. But until I see a direct comparison, I would choose the Gretsch over the Recording King. The Rattlesnake didn’t sound as if it had as much bite, more muted, and quieter than the Gretsch—which might be what you want. Between the two, I prefer the Gretsch. It too is about $450 without pickup.
Royall Triolian Wood Body
The first triolian guitars were made from wood bodies when National guitar introduced them in the 1928. They quickly changed the guitars to painted steel bodies. The guitars were much less expensive than the top-of-the line tricones made from bell brass and plated in Nickel Silver (German Silver) or even the Nickel plated Style O.
Modern interpretations of these guitars are chosen for a different sound from wood than steel. The larger body of the 12-fret guitar gives a fuller volume than a 14-fret neck join would. One of the few companies to offer a 12-fret wood-bodied triolian guitar and have it in stock this June is Royall Guitars. It is about $550.
Get a Mule
Sure, I could have gotten a Mule or a Beard or another National like the Style O I had owned. Instead I purchased a Gretsch Alligator. It’s a wonderful guitar for under $500.
Are you still happy with it after a year or would you prefer something else? I’m driving myself nuts doing research on these things. I also am downsizing, or so I tell myself. I almost got the Alligator and then saw a Gold Tone. I still don’t know which to get. It’s not like you can go to your buddy’s music store anymore.
I would have been happiest if I’d never sold my National Resophonic Style-O. I am least happy about the Royall Trifonium Wood Body Tricone. As for the Gretsch Alligator, I still love it. The body size is closer to a parlor but most of the tone is there. BTW, nothing is wrong with my Tricone but I prefer the sound of the biscuit bridge, single cone Alligator. I’m not sure I need both a wood body tricone and a single cone resonator guitar.
I’ve had the same dilemma. Brass I feel has better resonance and is not such a tin-can type sound. I recently played a National Pioneer. Hands down the nicest resonator guitar I’ve encountered. More of a traditional guitar neck, with electronic pickups of two varieties. A traditional humbucker (passive) and a peizo Highlander (active). Goodness! Tone blending I have never encountered, on any guitar! You want that resonator sound and the ability to shape it, hands down the real deal. I also have a 14 fret brass single with both types of P/Us installed. Sounds good but the Pioneer is the modern meow..
Thanks for posting this. It’s helped me understand more on the lower end (under 1K USD) world of resos. And it’s help me settle on my path to my holy grail tricones (holy grail in guitar sense is in the eye / ear of the beholder) and its cool to hear someone’s story on it. I like my Gretsch Honey Dipper. Since you want to get your hands on it, sometimes Guitar Centers have them (you can fake placing an order and set any guitar center as your home sometimes it will say same day pick up, so they have it in stock, or call and ask if they have one ).
Under $1200 USD range, metal resonators, I find that one must pick tone or playability (like the 80’s / 90’s early 2000’s era for acoustics / electrics under 1K but 2019 one could pay $400 USD and get tone, playability, and great set up, quality guitar). Between tricones from Gretsch, Recording King, Republic, the RK has best tone but worst playability, King of TOne but King of unplayability lol . . . the Gretsch’s have the fastest and easiest necks but tone pales to the RK. Republics sit in between . . . And my friend who owns multi Nationals and Mules, well those guitars have both in spades. Which I will be saving up to grab one of those (maybe both) .
I will grab a Royall tricone when / if they get them cuz if it gets close to the RK with better playability
My resonator quest . . . turns out my personal preference is brass body and tricones, 12th fret (where neck meets body). I prefer less the 14th fret or steel. Steel tends to sound brighter to metal box clang / ting or if its well made, it sounds blended and closer to a standard acoustic.
I got into resonators by hearing the old school blues, and there was a picture of a blues cat with a chrome resonator guitar. In college there was a blues grass band that one of the guitarists had a metal dobro.
Fast forward to now, I like the metal resonators (and electric) due to less dependence on climate / and weatherization efforts and because its unique. Everyone has a taylor or martin or yamaha wood / wood-ish back / side / top acoustic
Unlike electric and acoustics (2019 was a golden era, where one could find dozens of brands for $400 USD electric or acoustic that actually played well, could be set up, quality build, and had decent to outstanding tone, they stil exist today but that $400 range is now actually $ 1K + for 2022). Metal resonators, not so much. Of all the under $1200 USD brands, I have that old school 1990’s to early 2000 issue that plagued electric / acoustic, where I either had to choose between something with good playability or tone. Above $3K USD, I start to find metal resonators that have both.
So far, the champion of tone is a Recording King brass with nickel chrome polish round neck tricone. I got this from a Guitar Center (before my city actually got other Recording King dealers) when RK first announced them.
I notice its different from their newer ones (mine has 1.9 inch neck vs the current RK round neck tricones now have 1.75 in neck). My friend who owns both several Mules and Nationals (he comes from old money, and instead of collecting planes, trains, or automobiles like his forebears did, he’s into guitars. He has a collection that would make Gruhn / Bonamassa / Gibson garage guy, the lawsuit video dude . . . freak out over) and he raised his eyebrow at how close my recording king sounds like his mid tier National tricones (he has high, mid, low tone tiers for his collection). It is 12th fret.
Strange thing, I have seen RK roundneck tricones in Guitar Centers and RK dealers, but they all have the 1.75 in neck and the tone falls short of mine, but their necks are set better so its doesn’t slope out so the 12th fret is high).
THe Recording King, has this baseball, chucky chunky C neck, and though fretboard is just a bit wider than his National, it doesn’t play as well. The tone is close to that creamy bell chime that the National tricones are known for.
The main issue is the RK is it plays hard. First three frets its double credit card string height, but goes to double pencil height by the 12th fret (standard no 2 like elementary kids in the early 1990’s had, well some schools had mechanical ones but mine had regular ones). I shaved the saddle as low as it can go . . . It has that slope and I took it to a guy (the right guy) and he confirmed what I suspected after I lowered the saddle . . . said he’d have do a neck reset. The work would cost as much as I bought the guitar ($600, today the new ones sell for $1100). And the possibility of it sounding different, but he could re cone and replace the T bridge and saddle with the ones nationals use, but would add extra 300 ish on it. He told me it would be better to use that a down payment on a new national . . .
So the RK is my tone / struggle guitar.
I’ve tried both Gretsch Bobtail (steel spider) and Honey Dipper (brass single cone) . Both Gretsch’s sport regular 1.75 in neck and v to soft v necks (Fender telecaster / stratocaster vintage v) but dang that neck is fast and so easy to play. The Honey Dipper nails that Delta, banjo, raw tone. The Bobtail sounds good but sounds too close to a regular acoustic. The Honey Dipper doesn’t have the sustain nor chime cream bell tone that the Recording King commands. Still though, on its own, it does sound nice.
The RK has standard tuners and Gretsch are the vintage open back tuners / tuning peg style. Currently for gigs the Gretsch’s come out (Bobtail has a acoustic pick up for plug in and its good enough for the masses).
I have a Republic roundneck steel tricone and it has 1.75 in neck, standard acoustic c, and it sounds nice. It sounds better than the bobtail but the strange thing is like the bobtail, it sounds more like a regular acoustic. It’s parter in crime is a brass tricone (nickel chrome with engraving) tricone, same neck, and both have the tuner rollers side mounted / classical guitar style machine head . . . The brass Republic does have that cream bell chime, but not as a good as the recording king. But both of them play really great, but not as fast as the Gretsch’s. I would use these to gig but I got them before I gigged so sans pick up, I have to use the stick on slim humbuckers and its more a hassle than the built in ones . . .
I’ve had other resonators but they were sold off. Currently I am saving up for a National brass or german silver tricone and a brass Mule (they make only tricones now) with pick ups. When I have them, I’ll probably sell off the rest of them (except the RK cuz it has that first guitar status) . I have since moved away from my hometown, but everytime I’m back, my friend lets me play his Mules and Nationals, and I feel even his “lower tier” Mules and Nationals would be enough for satisfy my resonator need.
I wanted to grab a Royall tricone but I just found out about them on Jan this year . . . they are out of stock (COVID). But now having web site issues (dunno if COVID after efx is hurting them more or the war and massive increase in shipping) however their insta and facebook still is up as of 4/9/2022
Thanks for a great web …page or site. I look forward to poking around more later. I can relate to most all of what I’ve read so far, except that I … ok, maybe my mind isn’t totally “made up” but, I prefer spider bridges. I love the crispness of the biscuit, but I like the space or reverb if you will of the spiders and the resulting overall tone. I wouldn’t be surprised if I played a really top notch biscuit, that I’d recant.
I am more of a telecaster blues guy, (I grew up in downtown Chicago) but I dig almost all guitars and their styles. Having seen Jerry Douglas (as well as Sonny Landreth and David Lindley) more times than I can remember, there’s just no way a dobro wouldn’t be one of the 10 guitars I’d “need” on a desert island, but that would mean I’d have to leave behind more than 20 other guitars.