Mule Resonator Guitars
Custom handmade resonator guitars
My name is Matt Eich and I, along with my brother Phil and Adam Smith, build handmade steel and brass bodied single cone and tricone resonator guitars. After witnessing Kelly Joe Phelps play his resonator at a show here in Michigan I left wondering if I could use my guitar making skills I learned at Huss and Dalton Guitars to make metal bodied resonators. They are just so much guitar: volume, range of tone, look- and potential. I wanted to do them differently. I wanted them to sound more guitar like, meaning more warmth and low end. I also wanted them to look the materials they were made from- the raw steel and brass, with a patina I've developed over the years. I'm so excited to be able to offer them to players. Options like a P90 pickup, a tricone in a single cone body like the very first National guitars... I'm having the time of my life building these instruments and hearing what players like Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Kelly Joe, Charlie Parr, Jeffrey Foucault, Jason Dennie, Jay Lapp and so many more players I've had the pleasure to get to know during the building process. When you send an e-mail, you get me. My brother Phil will send build pictures as your guitar goes through the work. That's part of the experience and story. I'm happy you're here and if you have any questions please e-mail me at email@example.com
The guitar made it here alright, no problems at all. In fact it was pretty close to being in tune as well. And, shoo-boy, what a stunner!! Such a beautiful thing, Matt! Just wonderful, between the wood choices and the way you’ve finished them, and the great metal-work work. Eeeh yow, I love it, I love it. The shape and size of the neck is awesome, too. Now I kinda wish I had a steel-string guitar with that same neck on it. So comfortable in my hands. Yeah; a steel string with the Mule’s neck and a 12 fret joint. That’d be a good feeling guitar. Such a great sounding guitar, I love it. A musician friend of mine, Cahalen Morrison, was over here a few days ago and he played it and loved it, too. Both the sound and the look in equal measure, both awesome. He also (as do I) loved the fact that it was quite literally “The Mule.” We both figured you nailed that one right on the head.
Peace and Blessings,
So in 1927 National made a proto-type guitar that was a tri-cone fit into a single-cone body, it was some kind of test I think and they never made a production model out of it. My Mule is just that, a tri-cone set into a single-cone stainless steel body and the sound is somewhere right in between the two designs. I'd never part with my National, but this guitar doesn't really sound anything like it, and I've found that I'm using the Mule a lot these days. Matt did a fantastic job all around on this guitar, the neck feels like I've played it for years, and it's got a custom made P-90 that really sounds nice and not overly electric. I love the sound, and it's versatile, changing from sharp to growl to mellow depending on where your right hand is.
I've been playing two or three hours every day. Open D and C a half step down feel best to me, but G rings nicely there too. It's Incredible to me - having scarcely played a steel guitar except in shops - how nuanced and sensitive to attack the cones are, how each seems to pick up different combinations of volume and frequency to generate distinct overtones. I can play quiet or hard or between to the two and it's like I have three or four different guitars. Running through my rig - essentially tape echo, trem, verb, and OD - the colors multiply. Particularly dialing up the wow and flutter on the tape echo creates some note decay with the slide that feels like a whole new tool.
the craftsmanship is just beautiful. I'm really happy to have it. When I get a chance to shoot some useful video - something you can use on your site - I certainly will.
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.
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