Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Steel: Steel Bodied Guitars

Colin James: National Steel


In 1927, the invention of the electric guitar was still many years away. This was a problem for players who wanted to use guitars in the dance music of the day. The guitar was a relatively quiet instrument, but you needed volume to play lead lines in the dance bands of the day. The invention of the National Steel Guitar was the first solution to that problem. The steel body and the resonator cones inside it gave it the volume needed to stand above the musical fray. The inventors of the instrument were thinking that white dance band musicians would be their main customers, and they also thought they might sell some in Hawaii. What they did not expect was that black blues musicians would also be great customers. Blues in those days was largely played solo or in very small groups. What the National Steel Guitar Company did not realize was that many of these artists played in juke joints. These were noisy places where the music had to cut through loud conversation and get people to dance. Today, the National Steel is generally thought of as a blues instrument. That has a lot to do with the work of early players such as Bukka White and the Reverend Gary Davis. Colin James features the sound of the National Steel in his song of that name, which is also a fine tribute to the power of the instrument.

Abbie Gardner: Honey on My Grave


The invention of the dobro followed in 1928, and was meant to address some of the same problems. But, as you can see, only part of the body of a dobro is steel. The dobro also has only one resonator cone where the National Steel has three. The result is an instrument that still stands out in a crowd, but has a mellower sound than the National Steel. This makes the instrument more versatile. Today, the dobro is mainly found in bluegrass and country music, but Abbie Gardner shows off the bluesy and soulful aspects of the instrument. Gardner would later record this song with her group Red Molly, and that version is well worth seeking out. But this solo version highlights the sound of the dobro better.

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