In the early ‘20s a Vaudeville guitar player named George Beauchamp paid a visit to a stringed instrument shop. His complaint: no matter how loud he played, his guitar just couldn’t compete with the rest of the instruments in the orchestra.
So, the owner of that shop, John Dopyera, developed the idea of fitting a guitar body with aluminum cones. Discs of fine-spun aluminum that vibrate to amplify sound. Make the body out of metal, and you’ve got a National guitar.
Hawaiian guitarists picked them up initially, but it was the blues that took it to the next level.
Tampa Red was the first African-American player to record with a National. He developed a clean bottleneck style on his gold-plated style 4 Tricone. With three resonator cones in this model, he hits us with a lot of single-string sweet sustain.
Bo Carter, Blind Boy Fuller, many of the most iconic bluesmen played a National guitar. Then there were folk who’d treat it a little rougher. Like Bukka White, for instance.
Bukka liked the metal body cause it was loud, but mostly cause it was tough. Any old wood guitar would have broken. He’d say, “This one can take rain and punishment.” “I don’t play ‘em. I stomp ‘em.”
Here he is in 1937 stomping on the song that got him out of Parchman Farm Prison—evidently the Governor of Mississippi was a fan. On his National Guitar—Bukka White with Shake ‘Em On Down.
John Dopyera was born in Slovakia in 1893, to Jozef Dopyera, a miller who played and built his own violins. John built his first fiddle as a child, and Jozef moved his family to California in 1908. In the 1920′s, John opened his first store in Los Angeles, where he constructed and repaired wooden string instruments. He worked on patenting improvements on the banjo, when George Beauchamp approached him about developing a louder guitar. John and his brothers thereby founded the National String Instrument Corporation to manufacture the resophonic guitar. After several years, and as a result of legal battles with Beauchamp, the brothers left National and founded Dobro, famed wooden body resonators. The name itself is a play on words: Do for Dopyera, and Bro for brothers. Dobro itself means good in Slovak–resulting in the slogan “Dobro means good in any language!”