If you’re wondering what type of musical instrument a dobro is, then we’d better take you to its roots. Don’t feel foolish for asking this question since most people are just as dumb-founded as you are. It’s an anomaly to most, a brand name for many, and a generic playing style for some. So, what is it exactly?
The dobro guitar has a long track record of being played by some of the most noted musicians in history. Mike Auldridge and only a few others are considered the most legendary dobro players of all time!
So here’s a toast to the dobro standard setters as we dive into what it means to be a dobro bro!
An Intro to the Dobro Guitar
The Resonator Guitar
A dobro guitar is a type of resonator guitar. So, what’s a resonator guitar?
It’s those funky looking gits that look more like a piece of artwork than an actual musical instrument like this Regal Metal Body Tricone Resophonic resonator guitar! But, its looks have a lot to do with its playing ability.
A resonator guitar is an acoustic guitar, and can even be similar in shape, although the shape has little to do with sound on a resonator guitar.
It lacks the traditional soundhole on an acoustic, and instead, it has a round, perforated plate cover in its place. It will feature two sound holes on each side of the fingerboard, either in round circles or f-style holes.
Dobros usually have round sound holes like on this Rogue Classic Style dobro guitar, but the f-style holes are becoming more popular on dobro guitars.
The plate has a built-in bridge where string vibrations are carried through some form of system to be amplified by a cone or several cones, the resonators.
Resonator guitars were designed to be louder than acoustic guitars and they produce a very distinguished banjo-like sound often sought after by bluegrass, blues, folk, and country players.
What is a Dobro Guitar?
So, where does the dobro come in? Resonator, dobro, and steel guitars are sometimes used interchangeably, but there’s a difference.
Since a dobro is a type of resonator guitar, let’s get into the specifics of a dobro. The dobro is an actual guitar that was created by the Dopyera Brothers, one of whom was the inventor of the resonator guitar. Since then, it’s also become a brand name for this type of guitar now owned by Gibson Guitar Corporation.
The Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog is a good example of one of Gibsons’ more affordable dobro guitars.
The dobro has very specific features that makes it a dobro.
- Single, inverted cone design
- 8-legged spider system
- Round, perforated, metallic plate
- Center-set bridge
How does the signature sound of the dobro work?
The string vibrations are transmitted via the center-set bridge and resonated throughout the perforations on the plate and the sound holes through the eight-legged spider system that reverberates through the inverted cone design. This provides sonic amplified sound with a bright, metallic tone.
Types of Dobro Guitars
When it comes to types of dobros, the sound and design system is the same, the differences you’re looking for is in the shape of the neck.
The square neck dobro guitar is typically played “lap-style”. It lays in your lap with the strings up.
The strings have high tension so fret playing isn’t usually done. Instead, a steel slide is typically used on a square neck dobro.
This Gretsch Boxcar is an excellent example of a square-neck dobro. While it does feature f-holes instead of the traditional round soundholes, the cover plate and the spider inverted cone stays true to the dobro design.
Round neck dobros, like this Washburn Resonator guitar, are played in the conventional playing manner but can be played lap-style.
They’re often used with bottleneck slides to produce that Delta blues whining.
Finger picking is also very popular with dobros. Many modern guitarists are playing outside of the box with alternate tunings, action levels, and various slides to accommodate their music genre.
Dobro vs Steel Guitar
Now that you know what a resonator guitar is and how a dobro fits in there, what’s with the steel confusion?
There are two types of guitars when people refer to steel guitars.
The first is more of a playing style with a steel bar used for glissando, portamento, and slide techniques with a steel slide. Steel guitar players use steel slides with high action tension.
The second is a steel resonator guitar that’s constructed out of steel. A perfect example of this is the Gretsch Honey Dipper Metal resonator guitar.
A steel guitar or a guitar that’s used with a steel bar isn’t a dobro unless it has the noted dobro features.
The Honey Dipper Metal guitar mentioned above may look like a dobro, but it’s a resonator guitar with a biscuit style cone design – not a dobro, just another resonator guitar.
So, can a steel guitar be a dobro guitar?
Be a Dobro Bro!
Gibson is restricting the use of “Dobro” for their brand line, so if you’re looking for a dobro guitar, it doesn’t necessarily have to be labelled a dobro, although Gibson is a brand worth buying from! Just look for the signature characteristics of a dobro by identifying the single, inverted, spider cone and you’re good to go!
If you want to be as good as Josh Graves, Pete Kirby, the “King of Blues” B.B. King, and even Mike Auldridge, then you better get to being a dobro bro!