The American Tradition of National Guitars: tricone guitars, vintage guitars, single cone guitars, resonator, baritone guitar
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National Resonator Guitars:
An American Tradition
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Ordering a NEW National Guitar

Bob has designed the Baritone Guitar with the National Reso-Phonic Guitar Co. This special model has a longer neck, with a 27-inch scale length for lower tunings. Several models are available. More info.

The National line of metal-bodied resonator instruments are the most uniquely American guitars ever made, representing America's cultural melting pot, as well as the transition from acoustic to electric guitars. Invented by Slovakian immigrants (John Dopyera and his brothers) and made in Los Angeles from 1926 to 1939 - and now being made again in California - these loud, shiny instruments were built to satisfy the need for a louder guitar for jazz bands and recording. They were intended for use by Hawaiians and white dance orchestra guitarists, but wound up in the hands of black blues performers, white hillbilly performers jazz and various ethnic guitarists. National made nickel silver, Hawaiian guitars, mandolins, tenor guitars, and ukuleles. Their design shows a strong Art Deco influence, very modernistic, and a true blending of art and industry. No Nationals were made between 1942 and 1989, when Don Young and McGregor Gaines started the National Reso-Phonic Guitar Company. Nationals have a much wider dynamic range than either electric or conventional wooden acoustic guitars, with a profound tone that is unique among instruments.



National resonator guitars have fascinated me (and rendered me useless for any other work besides music) since I was a young boy. The original Nationals were always the best resonator guitars from the golden age of American instrument history, but they stopped production in 1941. My book, THE HISTORY AND ARTISTRY OF NATIONAL RESONATOR INSTRUMENTS, details the entire tangled story. Never in my wildest dreams as a kid did I think there would ever be a day when these profound instruments would be made again and available anywhere. Back in the 1980s I met Don Young and MacGregor Gaines, who would become the founders of the new National Reso-Phonic Guitar Company, and in those days we disassembled and measured a lot of my old instruments. The dedication these guys have to musicians and to their carefully built guitars is unmatched in the guitar world.

The thing that makes these instruments so compelling to play and to listen to is their HUGE dynamic range. With a normal flat top guitar or any electric guitar, the difference in sound between a soft touch and a forceful attack on the strings is very slight. On a National, the difference is enormous - thus enabling much more range of expression and feeling when playing. The fascinating look and feel of these instruments still affects me the same as it did when I was a boy.


What about the question of OLD vs. NEW Nationals? I am asked this all the time, and I use both old and new, so I feel I can give an honest answer. Yes, the old ones have a certain "mojo" that all older instruments have, but unfortunately many old Nationals are either in poor condition for playing, or have been set up improperly or wrecked by the efforts of amateur "repairmen." And quite often they are overpriced by sellers who haven't seen many of these, so they assume their instrument is in better condition than it really is. If you are lucky enough to locate a vintage National in perfect condition, congratulations, but even in perfect condition, the old ones do not play perfectly in tune as you go up the neck - a common problem with many vintage instruments. Whenever I play with OTHER musicians, I would rather use a new National than an old one for this reason. Today's guitarists demand a more accurate intonation, and this is an issue that is addressed head-on by the new ones.

I am often asked: are there any differences in SOUND between old and new? If you have a perfect old National, it may sound better than a new one out of the box. However, after a one-to-three month period of playing the new ones, the sound opens right up and becomes BETTER than the old ones. I have had the opportunity to play unsold mint-condition vintage Nationals, and they, too, open up after a few months of playing. This is a phenomenon of all new guitars, and though Nationals are mostly metal, they do "settle in" as all the parts vibrate together and "unify."


The two basic types of National resonator configurations are the Single Cone (9 1/2" diameter), and the Tricone, which has three 6" diameter cones.

Single cone models are available in wood (the Estralita and the Radio Tone), steel (the Delphi) and brass (the Style O and the Style N). The tricones come in steel (the Polychrome) and in brass (Styles 1, 2, 3, & 4). The style numbers 1, 2, 3, & 4 refer to levels of engraving and inlay; all have the same sound.

Many people are not sure which model would be right for their style, so this page will explain the differences and relate them to musical style. To hear the differences in sound of the National models, please order the NATIONAL CATALOG, which includes two audio CDs, so that you can compare and contrast the different models.

Of course the best way to go is to have a single cone and a tricone! But, if two guitars are not an option, then the styles of music you play will help determine your choice.

National Reso-Phonic Guitars

Ø If bottleneck slide and open tunings are your MAIN focus, then the tricone is absolutely the best choice.
Ø If standard tuning, fingerpicking, rhythmic playing, and NOT playing slide are your main interests, then a single cone is the better choice.

Here is the basic reason for this: The tricones and single cones have essentially EQUAL overall volume, however the ATTACK of the single cone is stronger than the tricone, and conversely, the SUSTAIN of the tricone is much longer.

Now, these are not absolute contrasts, so of course there is overlap in the sounds and capabilities of the two instruments, and either one CAN do the job of the other, and still be much better than a normal acoustic or electric guitar. In fact, many people are quite happy playing slide on a single cone, or playing standard tuning on a tricone. Finding the right adjectives to describe the sounds is tricky, but when cornered I would say:
Single cone: loud, punchy, funky, bluesy, and reverberant
Tricone: loud, long-sustaining, complex, sophisticated, but also bluesy, more musical, reverberant

Another approach would be to hear the music of these 1920s-30s recording artists:
Vintage Single cone artists: Blind Boy Fuller, Son House, Casey Bill Weldon, King Benny Nawahi…
Vintage Tricone artists: Tampa Red, Oscar Buddy Woods, Black Ace, Oscar Aleman (jazz), Sol Hoopii…


I am often asked about the differences between the steel body and brass body models. The quality of workmanship is equal on both, and the very subtle sound differences are described below:

Most tricone models are made from brass. The Polychrome Tricones are made from steel - a NEW concept pioneered by National Reso-Phonic, in order to get that tricone sound into the hands of working musicians. There is no difference in the quality between a steel- and a brass-bodied guitar - only the type of metal and finish. The steel models are finished with a cool industrial powdercoat enamel in several colors. The brass-bodied models are nickel plated, with various ornamental engravings available. The finish makes NO difference in the sound, and the body material makes about a 5% difference in sound - not better or worse, JUST DIFFERENT. Again, if pressed, I would venture to say that the steel body has a very slightly more blues tone. The brass body has a very slightly more sophisticated tone, which INCLUDES that blues tone, but may work a little better than the steel when playing Hawaiian, jazz, or other kinds of music.

The single cones also come in steel or brass. The difference again is very subtle, just like with the tricones. The steel-bodied Delphi has a bit more of the blues sound, as do the brass-bodied Style O & Style N models. The very slightly more sophisticated tone of the brass models makes them sound great for swing, ragtime and other styles. In addition, if you are deciding on a single-cone model, but still want to play slide, you will find a small amount more sustain on the brass models. The wood body single-cones have all the snap and punch of any single cone, but the wood does mellow the sound a little, which some players may prefer.


A brand new design yielding a THIRD type of National tone has just been developed by the fine folks at National. The Reso-Rocket is sonically a hybrid between the single cone and the tricone sounds! (60% single/40% tricone). It is a single cone guitar, but the tricone-like upper grilles and the more closed coverplate both change the way the air flows above and below the cone. It seems that the more open upper grilles contribute a lot to the tricone sound. Another GREAT feature of this guitar is the cutaway allowing access to all the highest frets. This instrument is VERY loud, and it has tremendous “cutting” power, making it a great axe for all kinds of music, even Django-style swing! There are three different versions—in steel with Polychrome finish, in nickel-plated Vintage Steel, and in shiny nickel-plated brass. Of course, custom engravings are possible, too. This instrument is not a reproduction of an existing vintage National, but it is something completely new and innovative!

National Baritone Tri-cone, custom-designed 

In 1996, I came up with the idea of a longer-scale neck that would enable lower tunings. Don and Mac built me a prototype baritone tricone, with the neck dimensions I had specified: a 27" scale-length, and a nearly 2-inch nut width, to accommodate bigger strings (normal scale length is 25"). I strung it up with super heavy John Pearse strings, and tuned it 3 frets lower than normal - for example, an open G-type tuning, sounding in the key of E: (B E B E G# B). I road-tested this guitar rigorously for nearly a year, until I received my custom engraved "Pour Servir La Grande Beauté" signature model baritone tricone. This guitar produces incredible bass, but also plenty of clarity and "snarl" in the bass and mids. It can be strung several ways, from extremely heavy (18, 21, 32, 42, 62, 76) to standard baritone (15, 19, 28, 40, 53, 65), right up to concert pitch with light strings. While electric baritone guitars can go down a fourth or a fifth, I feel that 3 frets down from standard is best for the resonating cavity of the acoustic guitar body. Remember, open tunings are often already lower than standard tuning, so that the bass strings in open baritone tunings actually are down a fourth or fifth from standard concert E. The baritone neck can be ordered on any tricone or single cone model. John Pearse makes 2 different baritone string sets, standard and resophonic (heavy). Like any other National, custom features can be designed and arranged. On the handrest of my Baritone model, which I can see while playing, I had the following sage advice engraved: "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." It keeps me honest on stage!


National's shop has some of the world's best metal engravers and inlay artists. Custom features such as special engravings (simple names all the way to a complete artistic design) and inlays can be designed with Bob and are priced on a per-case basis.


Email for details and any other questions.

Catalogue of National Reso-Phonic Instruments, including 2 CDs and full-color photos

Other Instruments at