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People associate resonator guitars with blues slide guitarists – but how often did early bluesmen really use them?
“Well, you would find Tampa Red in Chicago in 1928 with a Tricone. Blind Boy Fuller, Son House, those were the sort of early players. I heard a great interview recently with Son House – it’s just turned up on the Internet. He was asked about his National steel guitar, and he said, ‘Yes, it’s brilliant: it’s rainproof. You can take them out in the rain – wooden guitars get ruined’. And that was it. He didn’t talk about the tone or anything [laughs].
“But there’s a lot of mythology attached to the blues and National guitars, and also bottleneck playing. Actually, though, surprisingly few old-time blues players used them. It’s something that happened more in the 1960s blues revival than it did in the 20s and 30s. Take three of the ultimate acoustic blues slide players of all time – and always will be – Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson... None of these blues players played resonators: they all played flat-top acoustics.
“Jazz players liked the round-neck models: a National was just amazing, because they’d used banjos before, in the early days: four-string banjos, for jazz. Bessie Smith and all those kind of people had a banjo in the band.
“But really, that was sort of superseded by National guitars, you know, because of the power of them and because of the harmonic advantages of six strings rather than four. It was just better.”
How long were resonators king of the hill before electrics took over?
“Resonators are the missing link between acoustic and electric, and they weren’t there for very long as a very popular design. They sort of dominated the world, I suppose, between 1928 and 33, and then it starts to go – by 1934, you’ve got National producing electric guitars. And it finished completely in the Second World War because, due to the war effort, metals were scarce, and in fact, most of the tooling was destroyed.”