Sounds funny, right? Especially when making resonator guitars. Isn’t it all measuring to 1/32 of an inch? Well, it used to be. Measuring, marking with the sharpest pencil you can find, hoping the ruler doesn’t move and you don’t notice it. Suddenly half of the skill of making guitars is measuring between little lines correctly.
So I came up with the short saying (there are many more) “Never Measure”. If you dont have to measure while making a guitar you can spend more time actually making guitars, and not fixing measuring mistakes. How is that done?
The biggest way is through the types of jigs and fixtures I build. If I make a template that has locating pins on either end perfectly on center, I only have to measure perfectly once. From then on I can use a template to drill holes, which now can be used on all my other jigs. Now I spend all my time making guitars and not playing with rulers. And its always perfect. It goes right along with another heuristic of mine: “Make a system.” If it’s work that is repeated there is a system that can be made to do it. It frees up my work and work power to be aware of how its working, how I can make a better part or how it fits into the whole of making instruments. If my nose is constantly in my work- meaning I’m looking only at the pieces – I’m missing opportunities. Those opportunities could be for better work, new ideas, or just plain having more fun making resonator guitars.
For the time being there’s still six inch rulers all over the place here, but “Never Measure” keeps improving the processes.
Charley Hicks’ three Mules. Charley is the man, and recorded every one of Charley Patton’s songs on youtube. I’ll start you off with this one: https://youtu.be/QGvXbSd0Muw
Steel resonator guitars versus brass resonators. The final showdown! …right?
Not quite. Although the difference between brass and steel is quite noticeable I dont want to give the impression that they are entirely difference beasts. You can hear for yourself here. I think as soon as there are two options people want to jump in and be on a team. Team Strat vs Team Les Paul. Team humbucker vs Team Single Coil. Small body versus Large bodies.
I think the most important part of the discussion is something I tell every potential customer. It’s chocolate or vanilla. If you went to someone’s house and they asked, “Would you like some ice cream?” and you accepted and they brought out some chocolate ice cream you would probably never think “Hey I wonder if they have some raspberry peanut butter swirl in there, that’s what I really want!” You would just eat it and think it was awesome. But if your hosts came out and gave you 5 different choices, you would him and haw, try to ask for just a little of all of them, or eat your scoop and I wonder if you really should have went for the cheesecake. You would think we would be different with a large purchase like an instrument, but we aren’t. We are much worse. There’s a lot of time and money on the line so we want it to be just right. Just. Right.
I cant tell you it will be just right. Exactly what you have going in your head. I can steer the boat. What I can tell you is that the guitar will be unique and wonderful, and if you are open to it, teach you things about tone. That’s what makes guitars fun. You can play a flying G chord on one guitar and hear something different than if you play it on another. But you have to listen with an open ear. Take the experience and instrument for what it is and it will teach you unexpected things, it will make your picture bigger. Dig a bit. Try to bend your new resonator guitar, or any guitar, to your hidden dream tone and you’ll spend your time chasing and not playing.
With all that out of the way there are some basic differences I can tell you between brass and steel resonator guitars. Sound is vibration. What things are made out of affects how it vibrates and therefore what they sound like when played. Brass is a softer material than steel and it’s make up is markedly different. Because of these qualities brass is a bit warmer. It has a certain roundness to the sound- an ‘oh’ instead of an ‘ah’. It’s a bit quieter, and when you really dig in it doesnt get ‘thwacky’ as quick.
Steel – now I’m speaking to how I build steel resonators, and the steel that I use-has a certain readiness to play. it’s a large drum head that’s tuned a bit tighter and ready to put out whatever you put into it. The bass is still all there, its just more focused. Hear a difference between long scale guitars and short scale? Even though they are both the same scale, brass guitars have a quality that I hear in short scale guitars and steel has a quality I hear in long scale guitars.
They both share quality in sound too. It’s not night and day. I’ve built and played around 160 Mule resonator guitars at this point. Sometimes when one is being tuned up I think “that’s a great sounding brass guitar” and its steel. Same with the tone configurations. After reorienting a bit and listening some more I hear those things again but sometimes, off the cuff, it’s hard to tell.
So be at peace. Your steel versus brass decision is not one to regret for the rest of your days. If you like the way one looks a whole lot, go for it. You can be wrong. Chocolate and vanilla.
When the motivation to make a steel resonator guitar dropped in from above I had never cut a piece of metal, nor attached one piece of metal to another by means of tapping and threading, soldering, welding or the like. That was a big realm of experimentation. I breathed a sigh of relief, however, when it came time to carve the resonator guitar neck. When I was at Huss and Dalton guitars I carved the necks with Jeff Huss. I’d say I carved around 400 necks while I was there.
Although it was much like ‘riding a bike’ it was also much like re learning to ride a bike as things can be going smooth and then you get to a stop light that changes and you ungracefully fall over in front of people waiting for a green. It had been about five years since my time at H & D, and my first neck was shaped well but was much too thick. I thought I liked thicker necks but that one was overkill.
And so I began again.
It certainly didn’t take long to get the feel back. A neck is a relatively complex shape, one because there are so many variations U/C/V, asymmetrical versions of them all and angles that affected fairly dramatically by the height of the neck. Notice how I didn’t say thickness. I’ve heard it said that people ‘buy horsepower but feel torque’ and it’s similar with guitar necks. People think they are buying ‘thickness’ thinking it means only the height of the neck, when really thickness involves the shoulders of the neck even more than you would think.
Unless a guitar is pretty darn thick, in most cases the inside of your hand never really grips the back of the neck. Try it, squeeze the palm of your hard against the neck of the guitar, it’s fairly uncomfortable. And if it is touching its not really the height that may affect how your fingers can reach the frets, its the resulting shoulder that makes your fingers curl alllll the way around. Make that neck into a sharper V and you would notice it but not complain. What does in fact touch the neck most of the time is the base of your fingers and your thumb. They contact the neck in what I call the shoulder part of the guitar neck. This gives you the most important feedback from your hand about the shape of the neck. Of course the neck has to be a certain height and have a certain shape to get those shoulders where they are in a pleasing geometric fashion.
So I spend a lot of time on the area from the bottom of the binding to about a half inch above that. That’s most likely where your fingers and thumb will end up, so I want to make it right.
After the neck has been rough set to that particular guitar and glued up it goes to the shaper. I had a custom shaper head made that is pretty gnarly. This will take the square blank to a rough round shape. I use a spoke shave next because it cuts quickly and cleanly, and is easy to keep consistently from one end to the other. Sometimes on hand carved necks you’ll see a dip in the middle. That has to do with the stoke being naturally stronger in the middle than at either end. I keep the facets I’m carving along the length even by putting extra time in on the ends. The heel easily takes as much time as the whole neck does. It’s such a complex curve, the way it curves up and out and comes to a point at the corner of the L. End grain is involved so extra time is spent sanding out those inevitable marks.
I use a Auriou rasp next to get the final shape, an Iwasuki file to clean of those marks and then orbital sand to 120, and then 220 grit. Wet the grain, let it dry then sand again. The rough work is done, then it’s time to stain and put finish on them.
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There are a thousand different strings you could use for your resonator. Everything from cryogenically treated strings to strings shot into space to strings blessed by a shaman in a rainforest in South America.
Unfortunately this variety of options leads to a lot of confusion, a lot of misinterpreted information and a lot of misplaced convictions.
My strings containing asteroid flecks really do increase the sustain.
The flamingo feathers give me more bottom end.
The hemp makes the treble sparkle.
People, just stop. Let’s talk about the things that matter.
I don’t know all the science words but what I do know is that sound is a byproduct of things (mass) moving. Vibration. The more mass that is vibrating the more sound you get. More sound=more better. All those highs/lows/midrangey tones well you just get more of them and that is always a good thing when it comes to acoustic guitars and in particular resonator guitars. I kept that mind when it came to designing how a Mule works which is pretty against the grain when read about traditional thought concerning resonator guitar construction. Something that will help you with your Mule or with any guitar is using big ol thick strings.
My favorite sounds come from a 56 gauge set with a 18 and 16 on top, tuned down half a step in standard, and tuned to a normal open D. If you do to tune down a half step put a 15 and 17 on top. If you do a lot of bending use a 14/15. You’ll have to buy these in single string sets but this is the most bang for the buck you can put in your guitar.
I don’t play these guitars in a band, most likely neither do you. Don’t show up and tell fiddle player you’re playing in Eb. He will be angry with you. But when playing solo tuning down a half step allows me to use heavier gauge strings, which equals more mass which equals more tone.
Remember, and this is important, that your strings are the primary tone producers of your resonator guitar. Why? Because like we said before sound is a byproduct of vibrating mass. What does the most vibrating in your guitar? The strings. The more mass you get can get moving there, the better.
Phosphor bronze strings are what I put on the Mules stock. 80/20 strings are too bright. And if you are looking for some real thick sound use DR Rares. I love them on normal acoustic guitars too. They sound more worn in out of the bag.
Sure, there are tons of options out there. Spend $100 bucks and try all the craziest sets of strings you can. Do it in a a single month so you can more compare them better. Decide, buy a bulk set of them and be done with it. The tone is in your pick/finger attack, your tuning, and your string gauge. The other minutiae matter minutely. You have better things to do.