A bit of a primer on the pieces of these resonator guitars. If you are new to the world of resonators, this will help you get acquainted.
The body of a resonator guitar is typically either steel or brass. My guitars are no different. German silver is also used but is much more rare. It’s hard to find in a wide enough piece for guitars as its made for wind instruments. This doesn’t make it better, it’s like chocolate or vanilla ice cream- it’s just different. I heard a rumor that in the early days german silver sheets were actually easier to find than steel sheets.
Steel is a bit louder and has more attack, brass is warmer in sound and smoother. The difference between the material is definitely noticeable but they are not worlds away from either. I have some sample videos on the “Hear a Mule” page so you can see for yourself. Because these guitars are made from metal they are heavier than normal acoustic guitars. This is unavoidable. Picking the thickness of steel is not a race to ‘lightest’. Eventually you get to a spot where it stops ringing as it should. Think of the difference between hitting a xylophone key and an aluminum can. Using a strap even while seated can help keep things more comfortable.
Look at the picture above. The large open circle in the middle is comprised of three thicker pieces of metal soldered together called the sound well. Inside the sound well is where the cone(s) are seated. This area is flat so that the pressure on the cones is even all the way around so that it vibrates as well as it can. The depth of the soundwell is also a factor in determining the height of the saddle, along with the neck pitch. This relationship between the neck angle, sound well depth and saddle height affects the tone of the resonator guitar a great deal. This is because it affects how much pressure is put on the cone. Too little and it’s quiet and nondescript, too much and it’s tinny and thin because it’s squeezing the cone too much.
Underneath the sound well is the neck tenon. The tenon is the backbone of the guitar. This is glued into a mortise in the neck heel and also attached to the body of the guitar. It forms a ‘spine’ of sorts that takes the pressure of the strings and lets the body vibrate. The sound producing element of the guitar, the body, is free to do its thing while the neck holds down the fort.
Underneath the neck tenon are wedges that are fit between the tenon and the back. This adds in support of the back of the guitar and it also allows me to tune the back slightly. If it’s too warm and bassy I can tighten the wedge much like a drummer would tighten a drum head.
The other hole in the top is for a p90 pickup which is an option. I think the best way to replicate acoustic sound is with a mic, and in situations where you need more RAWK the best way to do that is with a genuine electric guitar pickup. Having this cavity in the top allows me to do that.
You cant see it but inside the body underneath the fingerboard extension there is a wedge that is fit between the neck tenon and the top of the guitar. I put screws through the fingerboard into this wedge and that helps attach the neck to the body. I cover these screws with ebony plugs to keep things simple looking.
Other than the neck tenon neck construction is the same as a standard acoustic guitar. I use a 12 fret neck joint, with a cutaway as an option if necessary.
Then there is the cone. I’ve written previously on my quest to spin my own cones. There is no voodoo here- 3031 aluminum, .010 thick. Spun, not stamped. They break in pretty quick. There is a noticeable improvement in the first week or so after its strung up.
“You are so talented!”
This is probably the number one comment given to makers-of-things, and probably players-of-instruments as well. Talent. I think talent is used like ‘miracle’ is used. There is talent and there are miracles, but things that impress you or amaze you are not automatically either.
Ten year olds playing Chopin are talented. I’ll get into the work side of things in a bit, and a 10 year playing Chopin has put in a great deal of work, but they havn’t been around that long. They are able to learn and progress faster than most of the thousands of other kids putting in the same amount of time over the same amount of years. 16 year old Olympic weightlifters clean and jerking 400 lbs: talent. There is a time constraint there and out of the hundreds of teenage olympic weightlifters given the same amount of time and training, there are only a couple who can do it.
But talent is also an illusion. Anytime someone is proficient at their chosen path they are labeled ‘talented’. It’s a way of identifying people who can do things we can’t do. I can look through my life and see different experiences teaching me things that have allowed me to get to making these guitars for people. It didn’t just happen because I progressed faster than other people. I don’t need to go into my 14 years of struggle so far trying to make guitars, but I need to tell you it was a struggle and continues to be. Some days I am ok, some days I can mark things within a 1/64th of an inch by eye- but most days I need to keep at it until it’s right. It’s important for me to say that to you because I think talent can be a lie we tell ourselves as an excuse. “They are so talented!” turns into “I wish I was talented at something” and nothing can hamstring ambition like a feeling like the starting gun went off and you were in the concession line. A large quantity of work done every day regardless of attitude done over years- that is the ‘secret’.
I’m not here to say ‘make your dream your career’. I think all work can be good work. And there is a lot more in play with a career change than just doing the production work. I think our life experiences and who we are set us up to be proficient at certain things. Find that thing. I’m not naturally proficient at this but my life experience has made me stubbornly persistent and enjoy the struggle. I’ve had experiences that proved that to myself, it wasn’t a self-opinion. I’m bad at just about everything, but I’m persistent and that is my badge of honor.
The next time you see someone ‘talented’, think of the hours put in. The decisions made, the sacrifices of the people around them that helped them along the way. Think of the piles of junk they made or bad songs they put out. That’s far more impressive, important, and inspirational than talent.
I’m sure this will be a bit of a touchy subject, but that’s why I’m writing about it. It’s not just regards to resonator guitars, if you have any guitar- any instrument at all- and you also play for people this applies to you.
Even though resonator guitars were built to be loud even they eventually needed amplification to compete in the never ending Race to Loud. I’ll cut right to it- taking into consideration sound quality, ease of use, live mix, cost- while standing on my funeral pyre of piezos scientifically engineered ribbons and optic light wave technology, if you are looking for the best acoustic representation of your guitar:
Just use a damn microphone.
Here’s an example. I walked into a show for some friends of mine, I had heard them play probably 50 times. Acoustic act with four guys. They were doing a sound check and about one minute in I was coming to grips with what I was hearing. I was hearing THAT guitar. Not ‘a’ guitar, or a guitar sound, I was hearing THAT guitar. Same with the fiddle, and the bass, and mandolin. What was happening here? I asked them after the sound check. “We switched to DPA’s” they said. DPA makes $600 clip on condenser microphones. It was awesome. My previous experience was that guitar pickups sound ridiculous and this was the nail in the coffin.
Pickups are inherently a compromise. Soundboard transducers? They are physically designed to get their sound from the top of the guitar and not the strings/body/room. Is that how we hear? Have someone sing and then put your ear on the table. That is how contact pickups work. How good can that actually get? This compromise is always at the cost of sound quality for ‘ease of use’ (more on that later). I once walked into a small coffee house to play a show. I had my two dynamic mics and one guitar. The sound guy asked me “Don’t you have a pickup in that?” I said I did but I didn’t use it. Just about ruined his night. Putting some extra time in to EQ and position a microphone was the arch-nemesis to avoided at all cost. That means compromising- compromising sound quality. And what is a huge part of listening to live music? Sound Quality.
This happens more frequently than I can point out. Check out any awesome guitar players who have been around forever, pre-pickups, via some old youtube videos. John Prine, Leo Kottke, even Jimmy Page playing an arena with a 57 jammed in the sound hole. You hear guitar. Then pickups, and those guys plug in and all I hear is buzzsaw line in speaker tone. It’s horrific. All that time learning an instrument, buying a nice instrument, writing the song, driving to a gig, setting up- saving time by using a pickup is not the place to save time.
I’ve heard plenty of reasons why a pickup is needed- “bleed” -“volume”- “ease of use” and although these things are actual things, I’ve never heard a reason why your tone is the thing to sacrifice. Bleed? I’m not there to listen to a recording give me YOU, give me THAT guitar. The audience isn’t listening for the mix, they are there for the experience. Volume? I saw Gillian and Dave play to 1000 people with just their 57’s. I’m not a fan of 57’s, but it worked. It was awesome. If the crowd in your smaller space is too loud-guess what they aren’t listening anyways. It happens.
Putting a p90 on the Mules is a really popular option. It will get you awesome electric tone. Having a real p90 in a huge steel body makes for a really great sound. At that point its an electric guitar to me and its great. If you are looking for acoustic tone use a mic. Those DPA’s are awesome. Spend the $600 and be done with it. They clip on so you can stage dive if you want and still get a good mix. I love the dynamic Heil Pr 22’s I have. I think they were $100/piece. Really low proximity effect- no ‘boom’ when you get close like with the 58’s- and they have a broader field than most dynamics so you don’t have to be positioned super consistent.
Previous Customers and the Mulecasters
Good Morning All!