Resonator guitars are beautiful, challenging beasts to amplify.
Resonator cones were originally designed to amplify and project sound on their own, so the guitar could still be heard above the din of other porch-pickin’ instruments like mandolin and banjo. It was an ingenious idea. Take what makes a speaker work and shove it in the body of a guitar.
This worked for many years, until the competition grew noisier.
Electric guitars, electronic keyboards, mic'd drum kits and electric basses didn’t even ask before drowning out their acoustic counterparts. Our only option is to pour one out for our grandmothers in the West Virginia hills and learn to install resonator guitar pickups.
But what kind? How will we install it? Will it hurt?
The first step in the decision making process is understanding the basic internal workings of your instrument.
What is a resonator?
When dealing with resophonic guitars, we assume that the word “resonator” is defined as such: A metal cone that attaches to the bridge of the instrument and acts as a “mechanical loudspeaker” to project the vibration of the strings.
These cones are fit inside the hollowed out body of a resonator guitar, like this one:
What is a spider bridge?
A single inverted cone - or a “spider bridge” - is one of three unique resonator cone designs.
- Single cone
- Single inverted cone (Spider bridge)
The earliest reso style was the tricone. Think big metal National round-necks used by blues players. That’s the sound of a tricone. These often carry more sustain and have a notably more mellow tone with less edge than what we'd get with the spider bridge (more on its tonal distinctives later).
The tricone was quickly followed by the single cone design. Single cones can be found in roundnecks or squarenecks, and there is usually more attack with a quicker decay.
They are also sometimes referred to as a “biscuit bridge.”
The spider bridge came last and is formally known as a single inverted cone. This particular design was created by the infamous John Dopeyra, who mutinied from the National Company and formed the brand most synonymous with resonator guitars: Dobro. He and his brothers (Dopeyra Brothers) worked together to create a cheaper and louder design than the National tricone. The loudness wars were in full swing at this point, and the inverted cone projected a louder, if note sharper, tone than its predecessors.
Which one is inside my resonator?
How do you know what you’re rocking on the inside? There are a few ways to tell, the first being the typical choice of surgeons and car mechanics everywhere: Open her up and take a look.
Carefully remove each screw that holds down your cover plate. Remove the cover plate. If you see an eight-legged metal star nestled on top of an inverse cone, you are most certainly rocking a spider bridge. The reversed concavity of the cone projects the sound outward, exactly like a speaker would.
Another way to speculate what kind of resonator you have is by brand name. Anything that says “National style” or Triolian will most likely have a biscuit bridge, as well as a metal body. Dobro, Beard and Scheerhorn - many of the current high-end resonator brands - are likely to be spider bridge guitars associated with the sharp, almost nasal tone of popular players like Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes.
There are two main ways to amplify your resonator: Install a pickup or use a microphone. Some people prefer to use a mic, while others prefer to have both. The pros and cons of pickups vs. microphones is another discussion, so we'll be quickly noting your pickup options.
Here is a brief rundown of four popular selections.
1. Highlander “Model D”
The Highlander Model D was built for the National Model D, but it will install on any spider bridge instrument.
This pickup does not attach to the cone directly (preventing any dampening of sound, they claim), but is attached to a small maple biscuit that glues directly to the center of the spider (per the above photo).
This pickup has a lot of sound and boasts a consistent, reliable volume. However, it can produce a more “electric” tone, rather than amplifying the true tone of your resonator. In my opinion, this is because it was originally designed for metal-bodied guitars.
As with most things, this piece of gear will work best with what it was designed for.
2. Fishman Spider Bridge “Nashville Series” Resonator Pickup
This pickup is installed via replacement maple saddles with piezo ceramic elements.
It is robust, full-bodied and high-quality. No, it is not a red wine, but that’s how luxurious this pickup feels. It is high volume, true to tone and great for live shows. The only real catch with this pickup is that it is difficult to install.
Let a professional put it in, even if you have to take it to a local shop and pay a bit. Usually an installation like this one is quick and cheap for someone who knows what they're doing.
3. K&K Spider Bridge Resonator Pickup
Reasonably priced from K&K (a solid and well-respected brand) this pickup is another reliable non-magnetic, passive system choice.
Full disclosure: I do not actually own any K&K products, so this assessment is based off of long dinners with musician friends and the opinions of the resonator community at large.
The general consensus seems to be, good tone, but a bit more subject to feedback and clipping.
4. Schertler “Basik Reso”
I have a Schertler system in my Scheerhorn, which wasn’t a choice based on alliteration, I swear.
It’s a fantastic pickup, though I say that with two caveats:
First, the pickup is actually a tiny condenser mic that attaches to the body of your instrument and projects vibrations. This makes the tone excellent but subject to some nasty feedback.
Second, it requires a proprietary preamp that doesn’t always play well in a signal chain that includes other preamps. Having said all that, this is a pickup for purists who want the best tone and don’t necessarily need the highest volume. It's particularly ideal for recording and session work.
I love my Scheerhorn’s system, but I don’t use it in a full band context anymore.
If I missed any products you’re absolutely in love with, please let me know in the comments.
As a final note, always remember that a pickup alone will not get you the tone and volume you need to play in a full band with a resonator guitar. It is absolutely essential to have a good preamp as well.
We'll discuss those later.
Good luck and happy hunting.
- National Guitars Home Page
- Reso Hangout Forum
- Pre-War History of the Dobro
- Jerry Douglass Dobro Wizardry
- Dobro at NAMM
- Hogoblin Music Spider Bridge FAQ
- Research and review: Lucciana Costa
- Article formatting: Bobby Kittleberger
Flick Commons Image via Christophe Losberger