The case of the missing Christmas present

I visited my brother this Christmas and so I needed a present. My brother is interested in guitars and he also appreciates unusual things so I thought I would look for something for him in the guitar realm.

Recently, I happened to see in the news that Eric Clapton was selling some more guitars, presumably for his Crossroads Antigua initiative, and one of those guitars caught my eye – a 1929 National Tricone. What’s a tricone you might ask? Excellent question.

Traditional acoustic wood guitars produce their sound from vibrating guitar strings which in turn cause the soundboard (the top surface of the guitar) to vibrate at the same frequency. This soundboard, a large surface, moves a lot more air as it vibrates and so this is why acoustic guitars are so much louder than un-amplified electric guitars, which have no vibrating soundboard. In the end, it’s all about the volume of air you can push 🙂

Why doesn’t an electric guitar top vibrate to the same extent as an acoustic guitar top? The acoustic soundboard (top) is a very thin piece of wood and so has much less inertia or resistance to movement. Therefore it can be set in motion much more easily. A solid-body electric is just a big chunk of wood and so getting all that wooden mass vibrating from the plucking of some strings is not going to work very well.

But back in the 1920s, before electric guitars were invented, an industrious American guitar maker named John Dopyera developed something called the resonator guitar, in an effort to produce an instrument much louder again than an acoustic guitar, so that such an instrument might be played in bands which would have normally drowned out conventional acoustic guitars. He formed the National Stringed Instrument Company and in 1929 they built the guitar pictured below which Eric Clapton eventually acquired and is now selling in auction.


As you can see, the body is metal and, instead of a simple soundboard, this guitar has three metal cones (hence the name tricone) placed in and around the body to amplify the sound. The three metal cones are typically aimed downwards, into the guitar body. The string vibrations, amplified by the three metal cones broadcasting downwards, bounce around inside the guitar body and eventually emerge through the top. Tricones sound different than traditional acoustics. With a ringing aspect to their sound, they can sound a little bit like a banjo but more twangy but they are definitely unique and they are definitely louder.

Dopyera eventually left National and started Dopyera Brothers Manufacturing, or Dobro for short. Today the word “dobro” actually refers to the resonator guitar that he pioneered so long ago. Don’t believe me? LMGTFY.

Since I can’t afford to pay the $25,000 that Clapton’s guitar is likely to cost, I started looking around to see what sorts of cheaper, modern instruments were available and I happened to find a company called Republic Guitar Company. Republic sells this modern Tricone: fairly inexpensive, artificially aged and just generally awesome looking.

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I decided to order one for my brother because in addition to looking good (and hopefully sounding great), these guitars are a nice memento of a unique period in time as well as a reminder of some American ingenuity. Also, resonator tricone guitars are attractive and unusual enough to be displayed in a living room. So I ordered one and had it shipped to my place so I could try it out first, before traveling to his place. But would you believe that UPS lost the guitar? Yes, it disappeared en route. Sigh. UPS has no clue what happened to it.

UPS tells me they have launched an “investigation” but it is anyone’s guess as to whether this guitar will ever be seen again. Frank, from the Republic Guitar Company, was very cool and told me he would send another guitar to me even before UPS refunded him the money for the first one. Kudos to Frank and the Republic Guitar Company for taking care of their customers!

The second guitar was shipped directly to my brother’s place and arrived Dec 29 so all’s well that ends well.

To end this post, I’ll attach one of my favorite songs, performed on a resonator guitar by one of the kings of slide guitar, Fred McDowell. He plays this song with his guitar tuned in an “open D” tuning. This means it is tuned to DADF#AD and therefore strumming the guitar un-fretted produces a D major chord.

The Rolling Stones also covered this song but as their cover is so similar to the original by Fred McDowell, I think we’re better off listening to the original version, from 1964.


P.S. Here is something else I learned during my Christmas visit:  you can build a perfectly functional flamethrower from a water gun, some wire, methanol, and a cotton ball.




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