Trivia for March 25 2022 – Origin of The Dobro

This Contest is Closed
The winner is ANDY BING

Origin of the Dobro Steel Guitar?

Let’s talk about bluegrass instruments again. Where do the big six bluegrass instruments come from, historically?

The King Instrument, the fiddle/violin, of course comes from Italy where its form was perfected between 1600 and 1800. It was also wildly popular in western Europe and was brought to America by the pioneers.

The guitar used to be known decades ago as the “Spanish guitar”. It’s from Spain. It used to be quite tiny. It reached its modern “large” shape in America in the 20th century.

The mandolin is also Italian. The old shape, “pre-20th century”, was a round back and a flat face, and was often called a “tater bug” in America because it looked very much like a mature potato bug with that hard, round “shell” back! (Some say the Italians developed the mandolin from an older Greek instrument.)

The bass fiddle, of course, is part of the Italian viol/violin family.

The progenitor of the banjo comes from Africa. It achieved its “5-string” form in America just before the Civil War thanks to Virginian Joe Sweeney’s observations of enslaved Africans playing homemade 3 or 4 stringed “banjars”. Joe is credited with adding another string to achieve lower notes, and being one of the first Anglo-Americans to play the banjo on stage in a band setting. Joe Sweeney made the banjo so popular that it soon became a factory-made instrument, constantly subjected to “improvements” to make it louder and “flashier” for playing on theater stages. The 5 string banjo is said therefore to be “American”. In photo below, the African form is on the right, the American form on the left.

What is the geographic origin of the Dobro ™ resonator guitar?

MARCH 25, 2022 TRIVIA QUESTION

A. Czechoslovakia
B. Hawaii
C. Portugal
D. Spain
E. Los Angeles CA
F. Chicago IL
G. All of the above

The answer is “All of the Above”. All of those places lay claim to the process of developing the Dobro steel guitar. They all contributed. The Dobro is another American melting pot product.

Additional Bowden Comments

Andy got it “completely” right, but of course Mike and Daniel were also right as far as they went. The Dobro (I don’t like the term “reso” or “resophonic”) is an amalgam of all kinds of sources.

The Dopera Brothers (Do-Bro… get it?) were indeed Czechs who came to America. But the Dobro wasn’t developed in Czechoslovakia, the designers were.

The Dobro was developed to satisfy the huge demand for Hawaiian guitar music which came to the US (San Fransisco area) just after 1900. At first Hawaiian “slide” guitar was played on “regular” guitars, but they just weren’t very loud at all — not well suited to public performance. CF Martin made an extensive line of “Hawaiian” guitars, which were just their regular models with the strings raised up so the bar wouldn’t bang on the frets (I have one). Gibson also made Hawaiian acoustic guitars. They all suffered from being “quiet”. The Dopera Brothers were involved in an early company called National, making a self-amplified guitar (electric amplification hadn’t been invented in the 1920s). They moved on from their early work with the National metal-bodied resonator guitar, which was indeed louder, but terribly heavy. They formed the Dobro company to make and sell their much improved “resonator” guitar. So Hawaii and Hawaiian music was the impetus for the need for a Dobro. Dobros were also made for regular “spanish” style playing, held upright and fretted with the left hand in the usual way. They were certainly loud!

Portugese sailors get the credit for introducing guitars and guitar music to Hawaii in the 19th century. The natives tinkered with them to come up with a version that could be played with a metal bar for sliding and slurring notes.

Side Note: What makes a guitar a “Hawaiian” guitar? First, it looks rather like a regular Spanish flat-top guitar. The Hawaiians get credit for noting the strings with a metal bar instead of fingertips. A final but often overlooked Hawaiian development was using metal strings (instead of gut strings). Gut strings had no “sustain” when played with a bar, so the slurs and slides just died away very quickly. Metal strings sustained the sliding and slurring.

Spain of course gets the credit for developing the guitar in the first place — often called spanish style guitar. It’s what we call, in general, a flat-top guitar. The Portugese sailors brought spanish style guitars to Hawaii.

Los Angeles is where the Dopera Brothers worked for National Guitar, then they broke away to form their own company Dobro. Dobros were manufactured in LA.

Chicago was the “second city” of manufacture of Dobro guitars. Demand was so great that the Dopera Brothers engaged a Chicago musical instrument maker called Regal to run a second production line, and gave them permission to brand some of those guitars as Regals (I have one). In all important respects Regals are identical to Dobros except for one or two TINY construction details that can be spotted. It is possible, usually, to identify a “Regal-made” but Dobro-branded Dobro.

So the answer is “All of the Above”. Dobros were really perfected and expanded into a full line of cheap to expensive models (choices of wood and finish, mostly). Dobros (and Regals) would beat a Martin, Gibson, National or whatever other type of Hawaiian or acoustically amplifed guitar. Hillbilly music adopted “Hawaiian” guitar playing early on. Jimmy Rodgers used some Hawaiian style back up (Cliff Carlisle, notably). Mother Maybelle Carter recorded slide guitar (played on a regular spanish guitar) from the earliest days. Darby & Tarlton was a hillbilly duet using Hawaiian style guitar. Cousin Jody and Brother Oswald played actual Dobros with Roy Acuff and that sound spread to Johnny & Jack, Molly O’Day, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and many others — eventually to Flatt & Scruggs by 1956.

Sadly, electrical amplification of stringed instruments hove over the horizon in the middle 1930s. The first commerical electrically-amplified guitar was in fact a Hawaiian steel guitar (Rickenbacker brand). Hawaiian music, hillbilly music and blues music all switched wholeheartedly to electric guitars. Dobro limped along as a company, got sold two or three times, enjoyed a brief revival in the 1960s, then again in the 1970s with bluegrass. I can remember the days when young Jerry Douglas was on the prowl looking for any pre-war Dobro he could find.

Nowadays the original Dobro design is considered old-fashioned and no longer the choice brand for bluegrass. MORE POWER is required to be heard amongst the banjo and thrashing guitars and mandolins. Gibson ended up buying the rights to “Dobro”, but let the production in America die out. They import a few low end Asian-made models now. Boutique builders own the show for modern “resonator/reso/resophonic” guitars now.

4 Responses

  • G All of the above. Great question Dick! Thanks for giving the resonator guitar a moment in the spotlight.

  • Andy got it “completely” right, but of course Mike and Daniel were also right as far as they went. The Dobro (I don’t like the term “reso” or “resophonic”) is an amalgam of all kinds of sources.

    The Dopera Brothers (Do-Bro… get it?) were indeed Czechs who came to America. But the Dobro wasn’t developed in Czechoslovakia, the designers were.

    The Dobro was developed to satisfy the huge demand for Hawaiian guitar music which came to the US (San Fransisco area) just after 1900. At first Hawaiian “slide” guitar was played on “regular” guitars, but they just weren’t very loud at all — not well suited to public performance. CF Martin made an extensive line of “Hawaiian” guitars, which were just their regular models with the strings raised up so the bar wouldn’t bang on the frets (I have one). Gibson also made Hawaiian acoustic guitars. They all suffered from being “quiet”. The Dopera Brothers were involved in an early company called National, making a self-amplified guitar (electric amplification hadn’t been invented in the 1920s). They moved on from their early work with the National metal-bodied resonator guitar, which was indeed louder, but terribly heavy. They formed the Dobro company to make and sell their much improved “resonator” guitar. So Hawaii and Hawaiian music was the impetus for the need for a Dobro. Dobros were also made for regular “spanish” style playing, held upright and fretted with the left hand in the usual way. They were certainly loud!

    Portugese sailors get the credit for introducing guitars and guitar music to Hawaii in the 19th century. The natives tinkered with them to come up with a version that could be played with a metal bar for sliding and slurring notes.

    Side Note: What makes a guitar a “Hawaiian” guitar? First, it looks rather like a regular Spanish flat-top guitar. The Hawaiians get credit for noting the strings with a metal bar instead of fingertips. A final but often overlooked Hawaiian development was using metal strings (instead of gut strings). Gut strings had no “sustain” when played with a bar, so the slurs and slides just died away very quickly. Metal strings sustained the sliding and slurring.

    Spain of course gets the credit for developing the guitar in the first place — often called spanish style guitar. It’s what we call, in general, a flat-top guitar. The Portugese sailors brought spanish style guitars to Hawaii.

    Los Angeles is where the Dopera Brothers worked for National Guitar, then they broke away to form their own company Dobro. Dobros were manufactured in LA.

    Chicago was the “second city” of manufacture of Dobro guitars. Demand was so great that the Dopera Brothers engaged a Chicago musical instrument maker called Regal to run a second production line, and gave them permission to brand some of those guitars as Regals (I have one). In all important respects Regals are identical to Dobros except for one or two TINY construction details that can be spotted. It is possible, usually, to identify a “Regal-made” but Dobro-branded Dobro.

    So the answer is “All of the Above”. Dobros were really perfected and expanded into a full line of cheap to expensive models (choices of wood and finish, mostly). Dobros (and Regals) would beat a Martin, Gibson, National or whatever other type of Hawaiian or acoustically amplifed guitar. Hillbilly music adopted “Hawaiian” guitar playing early on. Jimmy Rodgers used some Hawaiian style back up (Cliff Carlisle, notably). Mother Maybelle Carter recorded slide guitar (played on a regular spanish guitar) from the earliest days. Darby & Tarlton was a hillbilly duet using Hawaiian style guitar. Cousin Jody and Brother Oswald played actual Dobros with Roy Acuff and that sound spread to Johnny & Jack, Molly O’Day, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and many others — eventually to Flatt & Scruggs by 1956.

    Sadly, electrical amplification of stringed instruments hove over the horizon in the middle 1930s. The first commerical electrically-amplified guitar was in fact a Hawaiian steel guitar (Rickenbacker brand). Hawaiian music, hillbilly music and blues music all switched wholeheartedly to electric guitars. Dobro limped along as a company, got sold two or three times, enjoyed a brief revival in the 1960s, then again in the 1970s with bluegrass. I can remember the days when young Jerry Douglas was on the prowl looking for any pre-war Dobro he could find.

    Nowadays the original Dobro design is considered old-fashioned and no longer the choice brand for bluegrass. MORE POWER is required to be heard amongst the banjo and thrashing guitars and mandolins. Gibson ended up buying the rights to “Dobro”, but let the production in America die out. They import a few low end Asian-made models now. Boutique builders own the show for modern “resonator/reso/resophonic” guitars now.

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