Published in PM May 2008
People + Opinion : Industry / Music Biz
Probably the best column in the world... Transcribed by Gary Cooper.
Performing Musician: Here's one for you — Dobro! When's it a Dobro and when's it a National? Hey! Come back! There's a beer in it!
Pub Genius: Have you any idea what you've just asked?
PM: Um... no?
Pub Genius: Someone once asked Lord Palmerston about Schleswig-Holstein, contested by Prussia and Denmark in the 19th century. He said, "There were only three people who understood Schleswig-Holstein. One is dead, another one went mad, and I have forgotten." Dobro's like that, but worse.
PM: Crisps as well, then? Stoat & Vinegar? Your favourite?
Pub Genius: On your own head be it! It is 1925, or 1928, or 1929 (probably), there are no amplifiers and a lot of very frustrated guitarists demanding to be heard. Enter five Czech brothers called Dopyera, who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. One of them, John Dopyera (later changed to Dopera) had been a repair man. Asked by guitarist, George Beauchamp, to find a way of making a louder guitar, he came up with the idea of using a metal cone in place of a normal soundboard. As the strings vibrated through the bridge, the cone resonated, a bit like a conventional loudspeaker.
PM: So far so good. Can I try one of your crisps?
Pub Genius: I wouldn't.
Pub Genius: Told you. That's the only good thing about them. No one steals my crisps once they've tasted them. Anyway, after much experimentation, Dopyera decided that spun aluminium produced the best sound, but he needed help learning how to work with it, so brought in his nephew, Paul Barth, to help. As production got going, they hired Adolph Rickenbacker — yes, that Rickenbacker — to handle production for them. They called the company The National String Instrument Corporation — hence National guitars.
PM: Was it a success?
Pub Genius: Apparently so! According to Dopyera, they were making 50 a day more or less from the beginning.
Pub Genus: Bear in mind that we're talking about 1925 — a straight National cost $125, so they were quite expensive.
PM: Wow! So they were doing well?
Pub Genius: They were, and already the potential for decorative engraving on the metal fronts had been exploited — some of the really elaborate ones sold for as much as $185. But within a couple of years they started falling out, and that set a pattern of chaos and confusion that makes this one of the most difficult stories to follow. Despite the success (and they'd already had approaches from Gibson), Dopyera fell out with his partners and stumped off to form the Dobro company, with one of his brothers, Rudolph.
PM: So that's where the name comes from!
Pub genius: Yes, from DOpyera BROthers, but for complex legal and patent reasons, John didn't put his name on the patent applications made for the resonator plates used on Dobro guitars (which were different from the cone system on Nationals) — he used his brother Rudolph's name.
PM: I'm lost!
Pub Genius: Suffice it to say there were two makers, National and Dobro, both making resonator guitars in the late 1920s.
PM: OK... Does it get easier to follow now?
Pub Genius: Not really. There was tremendous squabbling within National, and around 1932 the two companies finally merged, so now you get National Dobro. Four years later, they moved up to Chicago, where they were at the heart of the US musical instrument business. Now it gets really bad. Along the way, incidentally, Paul Barth and George Beauchamp had invented the 'frying pan' guitar, which they took to Adolph Rickenbacker to manufacture. That may have been the world's first electric, though some say National made an electric Spanish guitar beforehand. It's all very confused and anyone who knows the truth is long dead.
PM: OK. So National Dobro are now in Chicago making resonator guitars?
Pub Genius: Indeed, but 'making' may not be quite the word. They had already been buying bodies from Harmony and fitting their hardware to them, and they had also sold resonator parts to Regal who, in return, also sold bodies to National. Exactly who was making what was now getting quite complicated.
PM: I'm even more lost!
Pub Genius: I did warn you. Now enter Gibson, who joined a merry band including Harmony, Regal and Kay in using National Dobro's resonator parts!
PM: How do you date one of these, then?
Pub Genius: I doubt you can in many cases. With makers like Gibson, Supro, Harmony, Kay, Grestch, Stella, Silvertone, CMI as well as Regal and National Dobro themselves all making resonator guitars, it becomes a complete nightmare unless you've dedicated years to this one subject.
PM: It sounds as if Dobros were the biggest thing out there!
Pub Genus: No, but they certainly were popular! They worked well for street players (and still do), they were fabulous for blues — especially slide guitar — and they were even starting to make inroads into bluegrass, where they have since become an institution.
PM: So National Dobro must have been steaming away!
Pub Genius: They were doing well — although Regal obtained the exclusive rights to make Dobros in 1937 — but then came the Second World War. The guitars used metal which was needed for (arguably) less peaceful purposes. Aluminium, in particular, was vital for aircraft so, in 1941, production ceased.
PM: And after the War?
Pun Genius: After the War, Leo Fender and Elvis and Chuck Berry...
PM: So that was the end?
Pub Genius: Not at all! By the late 1950s, folk and blues were getting some recognition again and production of resonators was restarted by Emil Dopyera (they had been sold as Valcos for a while), but by the mid 1960s the name was sold to Semie Moseley of Mosrite fame.
PM: I used to think it was the alcohol that had rotted your mind. Or those crisps. But it's really this stuff, isn't it?
Pub Genius: I must finish. It's nearly last orders! Until the mid 1990s, more or less anyone who built a resonator guitar, whether it had a wood or metal body, a square or round neck, whether it used the 'biscuit' bridge or the 'spider' bridge (don't ask), called them Dobros. But finally Gibson won the prize they had been after for decades, bought the name and threatened to go medieval on anyone else using it.
PM: I get the sense this a very abbreviated history?
Pub Genius: It certainly is! But if you could possibly drag your weary body over to the bar before they ring the bell? I'll have a pint of Broadside — and don't forget the crisps....
PM: You... actually like those?
Pub Genius: I like bluegrass Dobro, too.
PM: Stoat & Vinegar crisps? Bluegrass Dobro? Is there no end?
Pub Genius: Just a stop tailpiece. 0
Published in PM May 2008
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