Son House

Bob Brozman


A Gibson Lap Steel Guitar

The Umakweyana. An African one-string instrument.

Louis Dotson playing his Diddley Bo

A Dobro National Tricone Guitar

John Dopyera, master luthier. "Dobro"and other names like "National" and "Regal" became associated with the Dobro insert which is a steel cone that sat inside the soundbox of an instrument and was directly linked to the bridge so that the cone vibrated like a megaphone.

John E. Dopyera September 2001

The biscuit bridge, single cone sound is closely associated with blues.

The tonal qualities of the spider bridge, especially used in a wood body resonator, are most closely associated with bluegrass.


SA Roots 'n Blues delves into

One of the most influential musical instruments of the 20th century has been the guitar. This six-stringed instrument has played a major role in folk, blues, country, jazz and rock and roll.
There is one guitar however that holds an extra special place in the blues and it is the slide guitar. Just what are its origins? SA Roots & Blues decided to investigate.

Was it the Hawaiians? They certainly popularised this method of playing and the Panama Canal had something to do with it. On February 20th, 1915, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened in San Francisco for a seven-month run. Ostensibly a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, it featured exhibits from the Territory of Hawaii. The Hawaii Pavilion became the ‘hit’ of the Exposition, offering shows featuring hulas dancers and the music of the Royal Hawaiian Quartette, a group led by Hawaiian guitarist Keoki Awai. Several other notable Hawaiian guitarists performed at the Exposition, including Joseph Kekuku. It's claimed that he invented the slide guitar in 1894. Kekuku often played with a violinist cousin and was envious of the sliding glissandos possible on a fretless instrument. Kekuku experiment with various ways of getting a violin-like tone on guitar by fretting with a comb, a glass, and eventually the steel bar he made in the school shop of the Kamehameha School for Boys.
Over 13 million visitors came to the Exposition. This led to the so-called ‘Hawaiian music craze’. A torrent of Hawaiian recordings appeared in 1916, and some estimates suggest more Hawaiian records were sold on the mainland that year than recordings in any other genre. By 1917, Hawaiian-style guitars were being offered by such mail-order catalogs as Sears; the first Hawaiian guitar method book (written by Keoki Awai) was published in 1916. Have a look at the Gibson Lap Steel Guitar on the left, I haven't seen too many blues players slappin' and slidin' on this sort of thing! The Hawaiian inflluence is certainly detectable in country music but what about the blues?

The Delta bottleneck style predates the Hawaiian music craze by a good decade! W.C. Handy heard the bottleneck style in 1903 at the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station: “a lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept,” Handy wrote in his 1941 autobiography, FATHER OF THE BLUES. ”His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in the manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable...the weirdest music I had ever heard.” Handy’s encounter with Delta style slide guitar predates the earliest known Hawaiian guitar recordings (1909 Edison cylinders by Joseph Kekuku), and surely no touring Hawaiian troupes had made it to Mississippi by 1903. One-string bow instruments such as the Umakweyana, seen on the left, are common in Africa, especially the west coast and Congo regions from which slaves were taken. The musical bow is essentially a hunting bow; its pitch is varied in a number of ways, including sliding a hard object (such as a stick or a knife) along its length.


The "diddley bow" is similiar to an African one-string instrument. It may well have been the first instrument that produced the sound of sliding rhythm and the whines and cries of a single string that later became the distinctive sound known today as the "Blues". It was common to the rural south in the 1800's and was made by taking a piece of broom or cotton wire and stretching it between two nails tied to the side of a wooden frame house, with a bottle or "snuff can" wedged under the wire to create tension for pitch. The string was plucked while sliding a piece of metal or glass on it to produce notes.

Have a look at this photo of Delta Bluesman Son House slappin' and slidin' on that distinctive metal bodied guitar! What are its origins?

Is it a Dobro? A National? What's the difference? George Beauchamp ( of The National String Instrument Company) and John Dopyera ( of The Dobro Manufacturing Company) have different and conflicting stories to tell! The Dobro is a resonator guitar that was invented by the Dopyera Brothers in Los Angeles. In 1926 a vaudeville musician named George Beauchamp approached John Dopyera with a problem common to guitar players of the period: he wanted a louder guitar! Dopyera experimented with various materials, such as pressed fibre, glass, tin and metals. He eventually settled on a very thin, conical shaped aluminum resonator design, used in a set of three connected with a T-bar inside an all metal body. Dopyera used three as it mellowed the sound, as opposed to using one large cone which was louder, but harsher in tone and with less sustain. The result was the National Triolian.
Nationals were originally intended for Hawaiian and Jazz work but the adoption of the instrument by blues artists contributed to the company's survival. This wasn't Dopyera's intent, as he probably didn't even know what the Blues were. John Dopyera stormed out of the National shop in January 1929.
He and Beauchamp had been rubbing each other the wrong way for some time. His resignation stemmed from reservations that he had about the Triolian. Its bridge sat in a round wooden “biscuit” mounted in the center of a metal amplifying cone. He felt the design did not sustain well enough when enlarged for a guitar. Beauchamp, overruled Dopyera and rushed the Triolian into production in late 1928. This came as the last straw for John. He and his brothers decided to split from National. They formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company, which developed a more affordable wood body guitar with a single cone and a spider-like bridge base. This new design was introduced under the name DOBRO®, a combination of Dopyera and Brothers. The Dobro trademark is now owned by Gibson.~

In 1928, Tampa Red became the first Black Blues artist to record with a steel resonator-type guitar, which eventually became one of the classic blues instruments.
Tampa Red
Shortly afterwards, a parade of National players followed on 78, Son House, Bukka White, Bo Carter, Blind Boy Fuller, Walter Vincent, Peetie Wheatstraw, Scrapper Blackwell, Bumble Bee Slim, and Black Ace.*

The rise of the electric steel guitar and the advent of metal shortages as America tooled up for World War II ended Dobro production little over a decade after it began. It wasn't until the folk music revival of the ’60s that interest was rekindled and production recommenced. Interested in getting a resonator guitar? Single or Tri cone? Wood or steel Body? Biscuit or spider bridge? I suggest you pay Adelaide's own master luthier Don Morrison a visit at and ask him.

"Whatever the worldly origins of the slide guitar, this form of playing is best known for it's partnership with the blues. The slide playing of Robert Johnson, Son House and Blind Willie Johnson has reached almost classical status. It is a style that has captivated, amazed and baffled guitarists of all kinds, and to my mind has become the most enchanting".+

Compliled by David Stoeckel


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