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.
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.