Resonator guitars

November 7, 2012 12:25 PM

Been thinking about getting a resonator of some kind - but never played one and I know fuck all about them in terms (a) of quality and (b) whether, for instance, the fully metal bodied ones are better than the ones that are wood/cone. They also tend to look a bit knocked-out-in-a-shed-by-a-geezer-up-the-road and might be a bit nasty to play - high action etc? Any advice/experience would be appreciated.
posted by MajorDundee (7 comments total)

Oh, how long have you got?

Resonators are fantastic. They come in many flavours. Don't waste your time looking at square necked ones -- they are meant to be played like a lap steel, held horizontally not vertically and are impossible to play fingerstyle.

Round necked ones are meant to be played like a regular guitar, but often ship with a crazy high action to be played with a slide. You can lower the action yourself, but you have to take them apart and shave down the bridge (which isn't too hard -- I've done it), and adjust the truss rod.

Basically, they're all nasty to play fingerstyle until you do something to them... it's how they're designed.

You also probably want to string them with lighter strings if you're not going to play slide, again truss rod time.

The metal ones aren't necessarily 'better', but they sound different. Mark Knopfler on Romeo & Juliet.

I bought a cheap Chinese one -- a Morgan Monroe -- and, yeah, it's cheap and Chinese but it sure as hell gets the job done. I tend to play it in Spanish tuning although it really wants to be in Open G. The first thing I did was take it apart, figure out how it all worked, lower the action, and put it all back together again.

The good thing is that parts are easily available for them and once you figure out how they function mechanically, they're easy to work on yourself.

If money wasn't an object I'd buy one of the metal ones. There are some pretty good Chinese metal ones but the cosmetics didn't appeal to me.

The best thing about them is that if you are singing and playing fingerstyle, you get a ton more projection. They're also a bit easier to record in my experience because they're louder, and they tend to cut through a mix a bit more.
posted by unSane at 8:33 AM on November 8, 2012

Thanks muchly for that unS. Seems to me that I'd best try to play a few before a shell out....
posted by MajorDundee at 11:48 AM on November 8, 2012

Yeah. I bought mine sight unseen but I did a lot of research first. It's one of those odd situations where I'd recommend buying either a really cheap or a really expensive one. You're never going to lose much money buying a top-notch National, say, and you're not going to feel too bad mucking about with a decent Chinese one. The danger area is the grey middle.
posted by unSane at 7:49 PM on November 8, 2012

(When I was in London in the summer there was a place on Denmark St. that had some nice resonators, definitely worth checking out if you're in the smoke).
posted by unSane at 7:52 PM on November 8, 2012

I have a metal tricone Regal RC-51 that I got used for about $250. The action was awful and it was essentially unplayable for a couple years. A year ago, I sank another $150 or so having the neck reset and the bridge shaved down, which made it nice and playable (though the intonation was way off past the 12th fret or so). The action has risen quite a bit in the meantime, but I'm done sinking money into something that I really only keep around for when I'm playing unamplified in a large group of folks, need to project, and don't feel like playing the banjo. My advice would be to NOT buy one without playing it extensively, all up and down the neck, and preferably with another guitar there for reference.

That said, they make you look pretty badass and are a cash-magnet for busking.
posted by The White Hat at 2:51 PM on November 12, 2012

In some ways the rez does have more in common with a banjo. The intonation issue is real and is intrinsic to the way the instruments are built. They are designed for HEAVY strings and high actions, so if you rejig them for lighter strings and a lower action, the intonation does go to shit. But below the 12th fret they're mostly fine.

Lowering the action is not that hard. What you do is take it to bits, file down the bridge, and adjust the truss rod. There's a bit of trial and error involved but it wasn't too nail biting. I wouldn't do it on anything collectable but short of snapping the truss rod through idiocy there's not much you can do that a luthier couldn't put right in a few minutes.

I really do like mine a lot and it gets played all the time. And there are always oohs and aahs when it comes out. I'd love one of those metal Nationals.
posted by unSane at 7:10 PM on November 12, 2012

I've got one of those metal Nationals. There's nothing that sounds quite like it. Pretty hard to be subtle with it. And yeah, the action's a little high, but it's a guitar that really wants an open tuning and a slide on your pinkie. And a smoke-filled juke-joint to play it in.
posted by DaveP at 4:59 PM on December 7, 2012

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