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James Mayer


From:
back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 7:36 am    
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...in a small town museum and they had no idea what they had. I told them how it was invented by a Slovak immigrant, which is coincidentally relevant to that region* and that "Dobro" means "Dopyera Brothers". They now want me to do a presentation on it that focuses on it's history.

I figure I need to at least demonstrate what it sounds like. I have never played a resonator and I will need to change the ancient strings and clean up some rust on the tuners. I can play a little bit of C6 lap steel but I mean just a few licks from memory.

As best I can discern from the serial number (S4812) and other features, it's a Style-O from 1933. It has a Hawaiian motif.

Any suggestions on what I should try to pull off in this presentation with only a few days to prepare?

* this is a museum in Stuttgart, Arkansas, which is twelve miles from the tiny town of Slovak which is the only town in the world outside of Slovakia that has a name reference to that country. Many people there still identify with that heritage.






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Madeline Dietrich


From:
Virginia, USA
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 8:25 am    
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How long will the presentation be?
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James Mayer


From:
back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 8:35 am    
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Madeline Dietrich wrote:
How long will the presentation be?


10-15 minutes or so. It's one part of a larger presentation. I figure I can give the history and maybe show some famous people playing it to show it's influence on popular music. Maybe a short clip of Son House, or a slack-key player, bluegrass?

That'll eat most of the time, but I would like to do more than a strum to show the sound of this guitar. I can play standard guitar as well, but I thought big Hawaiian-sounding C6 chord and maybe a few slants across a harmonized scale would be more distinct and exotic than a blues bottleneck sound.
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Madeline Dietrich


From:
Virginia, USA
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 8:41 am    
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I would suggest you actually play for 3-5 minutes if you have that much up your sleeve. Not all at once. 30 seconds here, a minute there. Aim for contrasting styles. You can offer commentary as you go. Whatever you decide, I'm sure you'll be great. Good Luck!
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James Mayer


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back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 9:24 am    
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Thanks! Next question. I want to put a nut raiser on it and play in C6 (CEGACE) or another tuning with the same ratio like A6 - A C# E F# A C#

But I don't know what string gauges to get for a resonator and I don't want to risk damaging it. Any suggestions or should I create a new thread about it?
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Noah Miller


From:
Rocky Hill, CT
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 9:31 am    
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You really don't want to go with heavy strings on a biscuit-bridge guitar; there is no spider or T-bar casting protecting it, so the cone may crumple or crease. I would not attempt to play an pre-War National round-neck as a steel unless the neck were already bowed beyond economic repair.
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James Mayer


From:
back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 9:37 am    
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Noah Miller wrote:
You really don't want to go with heavy strings on a biscuit-bridge guitar; there is no spider or T-bar casting protecting it, so the cone may crumple or crease. I would not attempt to play an pre-War National round-neck as a steel unless the neck were already bowed beyond economic repair.


Does the raiser create more tension? I couldn't just put a light set of strings on it and tune to a lower ratio?

I've been reading about how it takes a certain amount of pressure to "activate" the cone.

I don't have the instrument with me and there are no local music shops there that I could find. So, I need to buy some strings in the next two days and fly with them.
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Noah Miller


From:
Rocky Hill, CT
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 9:46 am    
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No, the nut riser doesn't affect tension; people just tend to use heavier strings for steel than Spanish playing.
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Dave Mudgett


From:
Central Pennsylvania and Gallatin, Tennessee
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 10:22 am    
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Yeah, it's a Style-O for sure. Of the single-biscuit resonator Nationals, I think it has the best sound for steel, but not really a steel guitar sound to me. But one of the great slide guitars. Over the years, I've had a couple of old ones, and a new NRP reissue. I concur with Noah's suggestion to be careful with an old biscuit resonator guitar.

I personally would demo a guitar like this in standard and/or a typical slide guitar tuning like Open E, Open D, or Open G (low D on bottom), which is what most people play on these. But I think if you want to use C6, A6, or whatever, with a raised nut, I think that should be OK as long as the guitar is structurally sound and you maintain a reasonable string tension.

I think the first thing you need to evaluate is the condition of the neck and neck joint. Is the neck joint solid and the neck fairly straight? If those are good, I'd clean it up a bit and try some moderate-tension strings. I use this string gauge calculator - https://tension.stringjoy.com/, and the usual scale length is 25", but I'd measure it. I've had some Nationals that varied.

I'd start out at no more than 22-25 pounds per string to start, and that's assuming the neck joint looks nice and solid. 22 pounds per string is 132 pounds overall tension, and that's about the tension of an Extra Light set of acoustic guitar strings, which is something like 11-15-20w-28w-38w-50w for standard guitar tuning. I personally prefer nickel strings on a biscuit resonator, but brass/bronze are fine too. But it is an acoustic guitar, so the general standard is acoustic guitar gauges, not the super-light electric guitar gauges most people use these days. I'd go even tension across the strings to give a reasonably taut tension on each string while minimizing the overall tension. I don't think it matters what tuning you use, as long as you follow that general approach. A typical light electric guitar set (10-46) will, IMO, be too light on the top strings, and way too heavy on the lower strings using, for example, C6 = C3-E3-G3-A3-C4-E4. I just use singles of the right gauges. The string gauge calculator gives something like 12-32 for C6 at 25 pounds per string, so you can see that standard guitar sets will not work at all.
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James Mayer


From:
back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 10:30 am    
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Dave Mudgett wrote:
Yeah, it's a Style-O for sure. Of the single-biscuit resonator Nationals, I think it has the best sound for steel, but not really a steel guitar sound to me. But one of the great slide guitars. Over the years, I've had a couple of old ones, and a new NRP reissue. I concur with Noah's suggestion to be careful with an old biscuit resonator guitar.

I personally would demo a guitar like this in standard and/or a typical slide guitar tuning like Open E, Open D, or Open G (low D on bottom), which is what most people play on these. But I think if you want to use C6, A6, or whatever, with a raised nut, I think that should be OK as long as the guitar is structurally sound and you maintain a reasonable string tension.

I think the first thing you need to evaluate is the condition of the neck and neck joint. Is the neck joint solid and the neck fairly straight? If those are good, I'd clean it up a bit and try some moderate-tension strings. I use this string gauge calculator - https://tension.stringjoy.com/, and the usual scale length is 25", but I'd measure it. I've had some Nationals that varied.

I'd start out at no more than 22-25 pounds per string to start, and that's assuming the neck joint looks nice and solid. 22 pounds per string is 132 pounds overall tension, and that's about the tension of an Extra Light set of acoustic guitar strings, which is something like 11-15-20w-28w-38w-50w for standard guitar tuning. I personally prefer nickel strings on a biscuit resonator, but brass/bronze are fine too. But it is an acoustic guitar, so the general standard is acoustic guitar gauges, not the super-light electric guitar gauges most people use these days. I'd go even tension across the strings to give a reasonably taut tension on each string while minimizing the overall tension. I don't think it matters what tuning you use, as long as you follow that general approach. A typical light electric guitar set (10-46) will, IMO, be too light on the top strings, and way too heavy on the lower strings using, for example, C6 = C3-E3-G3-A3-C4-E4. I just use singles of the right gauges. The string gauge calculator gives something like 12-32 for C6 at 25 pounds per string, so you can see that standard guitar sets will not work at all.


Great info here. thanks!
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Lloyd Graves

 

From:
New York, USA
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 10:45 am    
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There was a guy around here (It's, NY) that played one of those as an bottleneck blues guitar. But every set he'd play a song or two on his lap, Hawaiian style, but without the nut riser.

If you can manage something like that, your show both worlds. Didn't King Benny play one of these lap style?
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Jeff Highland

 

From:
New South Wales, Australia
Post  Posted 15 Feb 2024 1:01 pm    
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If it's a roundneck, and your experience with lap steel is limited, just put on some standard strings and play it spanish (armpit) style. That's how it was intended to be played.
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Andrew H. Brown


From:
Amarillo, TX
Post  Posted 16 Feb 2024 12:17 pm    
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Since it is a round neck resonator with a single cone biscuit bridge I would demonstrate it as such. A lot of fine music was made on these as "Spanish" Guitars and should not be overlooked. Bukka White was a National Guitar devotee and had a song called "Pinebluff Arkansas" which is right down the road from Slovak. The song is in open A or as easily open G and is classic delta blues slide. It was the flip side to "Shake 'Em on Down" which is as close to a Mississippi Delta anthem as you can get. Any good blues, or ANY MUSIC STYLE really, (country, folk, bluegrass, western swing, Motown, New Orleans R&B, classic rock, jazz) anything that is already in your repertoire is going to SOUND GREAT ON THAT GUITAR! Modern example; Dire Straits Romeo and Juliet.
If you go the route of a raised nut to demonstrate "Hawaiian style", before returning the guitar to the museum for display I would suggest returning the set up to the standard round neck set up with regular or light gauge acoustic strings, just for the long term well being of the neck.
Be sure to mention that production of the metal body Nationals ended in the early-mid 1940's due to the factories all being converted to wartime and munitions efforts. After the war electric guitars became the thing, negating the need for "louder" acoustic instruments. However, the Dopyera Brothers formed a new company called "Dobro" and made wood body square neck instruments played Hawaiian or lap style with another of their inventions, a style of metal cone and bridge called the "spider style" cone, that became the standard instrument in Country and Bluegrass and to this day is still heard all over the radio!


Last edited by Andrew H. Brown on 6 Mar 2024 4:41 am; edited 1 time in total
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Dave Mudgett


From:
Central Pennsylvania and Gallatin, Tennessee
Post  Posted 16 Feb 2024 2:25 pm    
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Andrew H. Brown wrote:
Also John Ely's site hawaiiansteel.com is the go to for tunings and string gauges.

This is the string gauge page - https://www.hawaiiansteel.com/learning/gauges.php

I think that chart very reasonable for a squareneck or solid-body steel guitar. But the point here is that this is an 90-year old roundneck biscuit resonator guitar. I and most of the posts I've seen here caution against putting that kind of tension on a guitar like this without really making sure that it can handle it. My guess is that it might not handle typical steel guitar string tensions well at all. Besides - it's not James' guitar. I think extreme caution is in order.

I also see absolutely no disadvantage to using a string gauge calculator, as linked above. You get past all the generalizations, and can tailor the set to get individualized tensions for any scale length. The tensions on that page (e.g., 13-15 for E4) for a 25" scale guitar like the one James has are more in the ballpark of 30-35 pounds per string. That is pushing 200 total pounds on a 90 year old cone. I do not recommend this.

As far as how to demo the guitar - I also stated that I personally would probably demo in standard and/or open tunings as a fretted or slide guitar. However, I think it is entirely reasonable to demo as a steel guitar with or without an extension nut. It is totally reversible, and can even be removed during the demo.
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John Hyland

 

From:
South Australia
Post  Posted 16 Feb 2024 9:26 pm    
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As previously said, putting a nut raiser doesnt increase the string tension but move the axis of tension further from the neck. This puts more bending strain on the neck and the joint to the body.

If the raise was modest it would probably be ok but on a vintage instrument I don’t think I would do it.
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Dave Mudgett


From:
Central Pennsylvania and Gallatin, Tennessee
Post  Posted 17 Feb 2024 8:11 am    
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Properly fitted onto the top of the nut, typical commercial extension nuts raise the string height no more than 1/8-1/4". I have one sitting in front of me - it measures just a bit more than 1/8". This doesn't add a lot of angle, relative to the plane of the top of the neck.

I've put extension nuts on old round-neck National steel guitars for 35 years. My first 'lap steel' was a late-20s wood-bodied round-neck National Triolian with an extension nut. But of course - carefully check the neck joint before doing anything. If the neck joint is not solid, practically anything can mess it up. And definitely keep the string tensions reasonable, and bring the strings up to pitch gradually while paying attention to how the guitar is reacting. Back off immediately if you see or hear anything amiss.
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Fred Treece


From:
California, USA
Post  Posted 17 Feb 2024 9:09 am    
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Do an eyeball check on the neck. If it’s bowed, you’re already in trouble because it won’t play in tune anywhere, especially beyond fret 3. Pretty sure there’s no truss rod on those guitars (?) so there’s no way to put it it back in shape without a good bit of time and some really good technique with some really good tools.
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James Mayer


From:
back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 3 Mar 2024 8:53 am    
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Well, I checked out the guitar and it is in remarkably good shape for its age. I could see where the fretboard was worn on strings 1-3 on frets 1/3 and the finish was a bit worn on the back of the neck. I didn’t even need to do anything to the tuners besides give them a few rotations to loosen then up.

I strung up the guitar with a light gauge set and slowly brought it up to pitch in standard tuning with no issues. However, there was no truss rod and the frets are tiny so it was really difficult to play what I had planned which was my fingerstyle arrangement of a traditional Slovak melody. We are actually shooting a documentary about the nearby Slovak settlement (my wife is of Slovak heritage) and I am scoring the soundtrack so I had this piece well rehearsed. Finding it unplayable, I tuned it to Open D (didn’t want to raise any strings to get Open E) and played it with a stevens bar. It sounded amazing. I eventually settled on DADGAD and demonstrated by playing some improvisations over droning low strings. I also quickly learned the intro to “Breaking Bad” to demonstrate they had all heard a “Dobro” before. As well, I showed them some clips of the Looney Tunes intro and The Kinks’ “Lola” which showed what appears to be the same model, palm trees and all, but with a different headstock logo that I can’t read. Of course, I also had a presentation of the Dopyera history with photos.

It all went over well and I left the museum without the guitar, of course. When I returned back to Portland, I contacted a friend who has two resonators and he brought them both over. One is a Regal RC-51 Tricone and the other is a Getsch Alligator with a wood body and a biscuit. I’ve got them both with me now, tuned to DADGAD and, while both sound good, they don’t have the wild ambiance that the old National had. I could pluck a harmonic on the National at the 12th fret and it would ring all day. These newer models have considerably more fundamental sustain (especially the tricone) but they sound restrained and, well, less resonant. They sound like they are going through the motions.

I’m really see this tone working nicely on the soundtrack. My question now is how do I find something similar to the old National? What made it sound so good for simple single-line melodies? Do I just need to look for a metal-bodied biscuit model as it seems metal bodies would be more consistent from instrument to instrument? This was a mid-level instrument in 1933 so surely I don’t have to throw thousands at a current model to get a good one, right?
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James Mayer


From:
back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 17 Jun 2024 7:17 am    
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We went back for another shoot in Arkansas and the museum let me borrow the National to record a track in a small chapel.

I had the priest sing an ancient Slovak pagan chant about burning a winter witch to usher in the springtime. I arranged it for what I was hoping would sound like a "delta blues" hybrid. I'm not sure that I was successful in that attempt but I think it came out great and my team now wants to use it for the main soundtrack theme.

After having played several modern and affordable biscuit resonators, I can confirm that the vintage blows the others away. I found a used Chinese copy of a National Style-O in a local shop. It even has the sandblasted palm trees but the body joins at the 14th fret instead of the 12th. It has a similar voice to the original but not as resonant. It was only $350 and seems to be built well (the neck is actually much better than the vintage National's tiny-fretted and truss-less neck). The brand is Imperial (now known as Royall). I figured it would be a good one to experiment on to see if I can get it up to the level as the vintage one.

NOTE: There is no reverb or effects here. It's just two vocal tracks (near/far) and one guitar track. Having a nice room, a nice instrument and a decent mic is everything.
https://shorturl.at/k9ngu
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Bob Shilling


From:
Berkeley, CA, USA
Post  Posted 17 Jun 2024 10:48 am    
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That sounds great! I hope your Imperial does as well.
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Joseph Lazo

 

From:
Wisconsin, USA
Post  Posted 17 Jun 2024 6:57 pm    
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Great story, and I really like the mashup of the priest's singing with the bluesy riffs!
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James Mayer


From:
back in Portland Oregon, USA (via Arkansas and London, UK)
Post  Posted 18 Jun 2024 7:24 am    
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Thanks, guys! An interesting (to me) note on my arrangement: I'm only using four strings tuned to two notes. The tuning is Dm (DADFAD) and I'm only using DAD--D. I also recorded a solo version where, at one point, I play the melody in a lower octave but it still only uses those four strings. I tried more complicated arrangements of the melody across all the strings but it just didn't sound as good.
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Mark Eaton


From:
Sonoma County in The Great State Of Northern California
Post  Posted 18 Jun 2024 12:37 pm    
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Andrew H. Brown wrote:

Be sure to mention that production of the metal body Nationals ended in the early-mid 1940's due to the factories all being converted to wartime and munitions efforts. After the war electric guitars became the thing, negating the need for "louder" acoustic instruments. However, the Dopyera Brothers formed a new company called "Dobro" and made wood body square neck instruments played Hawaiian or lap style with another of their inventions, a style of metal cone and bridge called the "spider style" cone, that became the standard instrument in Country and Bluegrass and to this day is still heard all over the radio!


It’s water under the bridge now, but I missed Andrew’s post above the first time around prior to the thread being revived. In the interest of historical accuracy, here is what happened.

Dobro began production in 1929 with the spider bridge “Ampliphonic” guitars invented by John Dopyera after he left National around 1927 due to a falling out with his partners in that company. Several years later Dobro actually acquired National and the companies merged to form The National Dobro Corporation.

Production of National and Dobro guitars ceased around 1941 just prior to the U.S. entry in WWII because metal was needed for the war effort, and was not available for building the guitars. During WWII the National/Dobro people (which became Valco) made parts for aircraft.

There were no Dobro guitars built after late 1941 until around 1959 when the began building them again in small numbers.
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Noah Miller


From:
Rocky Hill, CT
Post  Posted 18 Jun 2024 2:40 pm    
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National production never entirely ceased. The resonators were dropped about 1940, before the US entered the War, because National was already transitioning to electric instruments and was having trouble selling existing stocks of resonators. They continued to produce electric steels and amps through the War, just on a greatly reduced basis.
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Mark Eaton


From:
Sonoma County in The Great State Of Northern California
Post  Posted 18 Jun 2024 4:28 pm    
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Noah Miller wrote:
National production never entirely ceased. The resonators were dropped about 1940, before the US entered the War, because National was already transitioning to electric instruments and was having trouble selling existing stocks of resonators. They continued to produce electric steels and amps through the War, just on a greatly reduced basis.


I was referring strictly to the resonator instruments since they were the ones containing a lot of metal - I should have made that more clear.

I’ve studied Dobro history over the years a lot more than National history, and not to split hairs, but in reading multiple sources, I have seen mention of National, like its “cousin” Dobro, was still producing resonator guitars in 1941.

At some point in 1937, all Dobro production was handled by Regal of Chicago until the end of the era in 1941.
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