The difference between a Dobro and a resonator guitar is one of the many things that amateur musicians—particularly in the realm of folk and country music—are confused about. It is understandable because almost everyone, including professional resonator guitar players, uses both terms interchangeably.
And, perhaps, you are here because you, too, are baffled about what exactly sets these two guitars apart.
To put the record straight, there is no solid difference between a Dobro guitar and a resonator guitar and is almost the same thing. It is because Dobro is simply a brand of the resonator guitar. A dobro—emphasis on the small letter “d”—could also be the other type of resonator guitar known as the wooden-bodied acoustic guitar.
On the other hand, do note that not all resonator guitars are dobro. Or, to put it plainly, a Dobro is a resonator guitar, but not all resonator guitars are dobro.
Then continue reading. This article covers everything you need to know about dobro vs. resonator guitar.
What Is a Resonator Guitar?
Also known as resophonic guitar, a resonator guitar is a type of acoustic string instrument that produces sound by transferring the vibrations of string via the bridge to a metal cone or a resonator which is found inside the guitar’s body. Unlike standard acoustic guitars whose sound come from the instrument’s sounding board. In fact, resonator guitars are originally designed to sound louder than standard acoustic guitars.
In terms of its build, the instrument could be made of metal and wood. It usually has two main sound holes placed either on either the right or left side of the fingerboard extension. Single-cone designs, for instance, typically have f-shaped holes, are circular, and even symmetrical. Older tri-cone models, on the other hand, has asymmetrical sound holes.
Moreover, resonator guitars are instruments used mainly for making bluegrass music—a tradition-based modern style of string band music. It is also used in blues and other subgenres of jazz.
Years went by and several designs and variations of resonator guitar came out under different guitar brands. And a few of these are the Dobro (which I will talk about later), Gibson, and National.
Dobro As a Resonator Guitar Brand
As mentioned earlier, Dobro is an American brand of the resonator guitar. Currently, Gibson owns it while it is manufactured and distributed by its subsidiary company Epiphone.
Originally, it was a guitar manufacturing company named “Dobro Manufacturing Company.” It was established by the Dopyera brothers and was launched with the aim to compete with existing resonator guitar brands such as National String Instrument Competition.
When it comes to design and built, Dobro has a single outward-facing resonator cone. It is typically wooden-bodied and has single-cone only.
The Difference Between Dobro and Resonator Guitars
If you remember, I explained earlier that a Dobro and a resonator guitar is almost the same thing. Simply because Dobro—emphasis on the capital letter “d”—is a brand of a resonator guitar. However, the term has eventually become generic and has altered its meaning.
Now, a dobro is interchangeably used to refer to a single-resonator wooden-bodied acoustic guitar and the American brand.
Reducing dobro as a generic term may confuse non-musicians. But for professionals and amateurs, such a term is helpful after metal-bodied resonator guitars and those with multiple cones came into being.
The term dobro in return gave distinction between the two. Thus, practically, there are two types of dobro resonator guitar: a wooden-bodied and a metal-bodied.
Wooden-bodied vs. metal-bodied Dobro Guitar
In terms of build and material, dobro comes in two types: a resonator guitar with a wooden body and a resonator guitar with a metal body. And while they both belong in the same category of a string instrument, both guitars offer distinct traits.
Here are a few:
In terms of sound, wooden-bodied and metal-bodied dobro vary and is, in fact, distinct and noticeable. A wooden-bodied, for example, sound more like a regular acoustic guitar. On the other hand, a dobro with a body of metal produces a slightly darker tone with a sharp attack. And unlike the wooden-bodied dobro, its sound resembles that of an electric guitar.
Still, the sound of each dobro will largely depend on the musician’s skills and knowledge.
When it comes to cost, both types of dobro are sold at almost the same price. Although it will vary from brand to brand. Factors such as the quality of the build, the material, and whether it is customized or not, can also affect a dobro’s value.
But on the estimate, a brand new dobro—whether it is wooden-bodied or metal-bodied—will cost you between $200 and $500.
Square vs Round Neck
When deciding which resonator guitar to purchase, it is also important to know whether what you need is a round or square neck. It is particularly crucial if you are an amateur resonator guitar player.
That being said, a square and round neck dobro not only differ in shape and design. It also influences its playability.
Take a square-neck dobro, as an example. Because of its unique neck shape, it is played differently from a regular guitar. Musicians need to hold it on their laps horizontally, just like how a lap steel guitar is played. They then use a “tone bar” to play it and make a sound.
A dobro with a round neck, on the flip side, is played just like the same as a regular acoustic guitar by pressing the strings against the frets. Although it is doable to play it the way how a dobro with a square neck is being played.
3 Types of Resonator Designs
Dobro with either a metal or wood body may come with three different resonator designs too: a single-cone, a tricone, and a single-inverted. And all these designs influence how the instrument sound.
That said, here’s how each of them differs.
- Single cone “biscuit”design. The single-cone resonator design, also known as the “biscuit,” is the simplest and the most common design among all resonator guitars. Essentially, it is a metal cone that is inverted and has a center made of small hardwood which the term biscuit has originated.The biscuit then houses the bridge saddle which transfers the vibrations directly to the bridge from the strings, which is directed from a single point via the “biscuit” cone and into the body of the resonator guitar.
As a result, it yields a greater bass response.
- Tricone design. Tricone, as its name suggests, is a resonator design that is a combination of 3 x 10inch cones joined using a metal T bar. Essentially, it is a design that falls between the single inverted cone (spider) and the single cone (biscuit). It features two resonators on the treble side and the bass side of the guitar’s body.The tricone design, however, is not so common among dobro players as it is expensive to build.
- Single inverted-cone design. Last but not least is the single inverted cone design. Also known as the spider resonator cone, it is a single cone that is inverted, unlike the biscuit design. Its opening is directed toward the soundhole as well.A spider or single inverted cone design is typically used in timbre-bodied resonator guitars which essentially provides greater note definition and warm tone.
A dobro and a resonator guitar, in conclusion, are almost the same thing yet not totally. It is because even though a Dobro is just a resonator guitar brand, both terms are used interchangeably as well. For dobro players, dobro also means a wooden-bodied resonator guitar.
That being said, to have a clear distinction between the two simply remember that a Dobro—emphasis on the capital letter “d”—is the brand while a dobro—emphasis on the small letter “d”—refers to a resonator guitar with a body of the wood.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.