We have all seen Dobro guitars but very few of us know how to play one. The Dobro guitar is one of the family of resonator guitars. When we see them in our local guitar store we do not say, “Hey, nice resonator” but, “Hey, nice Dobro” because the resonator guitar has become generally known as the Dobro.
We recognize the resonator guitar by the metal cones in the top. They fill the space where the wooden soundboard would usually be. The metal resonators were an experiment aimed at making a guitar that could be heard above the other instruments in the band. They are basically speakers set in the body of your guitar that operate acoustically instead of by electricity. The development of the electric guitar solved the problem of making the guitar louder but after a while alot of musicians got to liking the metallic resonator sound. Blues and bluegrass musicians in particular were attracted by the wail of the resonator.
Dobro is the trade name for a single resonator guitar developed by John Dopyera, the originator of the resonator guitar. The name has long been the property of the Gibson company and they are quite fussy about how it is used. For the sake of this article the words Dobro and resonator guitar are interchangeable, just like in real life.
The Dobro comes in two kinds of neck. One has a square neck and is played in the lap in an open tuning. The square neck supports the high tension produced by some tunings. It is necessary to play the square neck Dobro with thumbpick and fingerpicks. If you go for the square neck guitar you will need to spend some time learning how to play your instrument sitting down with the guitar in your lap. Take this seriously – it is a trick that needs to be learned.
The other Dobro – the round neck – can be played in the normal guitar position using a bottleneck and the left hand fingers to fret notes. You can use normal tuning for the round neck resonator guitar as well as a variety of open tunings. You will need to damp the strings behind the slide so you do not get unwanted sound. If the slide is on your little finger, you slide one of your other fingers behind the slide with minimal pressure to damp the strings. You will also be learning the art of damping the strings with the palm of the right hand.
You could start with open G tuning. Change both E strings down a full step to D. Then change the 5th string down one full step to G. This string should sound an octave lower than the third G string. You could also use open D which is D A D F# A D. Other tunings you could use are D A F# D A D or G E C A G A or E C A G E C.