Dobro: Definition and Description

A Metal Resonator Built Into an Acoustic Guitar Changes the Sound

Man playing dobro.
Eric Ward from Provo, UT, USA/Wikimedia Commons

A Dobro is an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator built into its body. This resonator serves as an amplifier. In contrast to acoustic guitars, the placement of the resonator takes the place of the sound hole. Because of this, the shape of the guitar doesn’t tend to have an effect on how the Dobro’s sound is amplified.

John Dopyera invented the first resonator guitar circa 1928, and it was first made by the National String Instrument Corporation, owned by Dopyera and George Beauchamp.

Dopyera left that company and formed a new company, Dobro Corporation, in 1929 with his brothers. Because of patent issues, Dopyera had to re-invent his resonator, and this time he called it a Dobro. Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary attributes the name to the first two letters of the inventor's last name and "bro," for brothers. The dictionary also says the name was influenced by the Czech word for "good," which is "dobro." Czech was Dopyera's native language.

Dobros sound more like banjos than guitars because of the effect created by the metal strings played over the metal plate. This is made even more prominent by players who use a metal slide rather than fingering chords with their fretting hand, the way an acoustic guitar player does. Dobros add a down-and-dirty sound to the blues and give folk songs some heft.

If you've heard the music of Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett, you've been treated to the sound of the Dobro, says the website The Guitar Journal.

Types of Dobros

There are two types of Dobros: square-neck and round-neck. Round-necks are typically played in blues music. Square-necks, preferred by bluegrass players, have strings that measure 1 centimeter off the fret board and are played on their backs with the strings facing up. In contrast, round-necks are held like a guitar.

The Dobro was introduced to the bluegrass line-up in the 1950s by Josh Graves of Flatt & Scruggs, who used the Scruggs picking style on the Dobro, and that is still the way it is popularly picked. Bluegrass players typically tune their dobros to GBDGBD, although some Dobro players veer to other alternate tunings.

Pronunciation and Other Facts

Pronunciation: doh'broh

Also known as: Resonator guitar or resophonic guitar

Players: The renowned bluesman B.B. King, who died in 2015, often called King of the Blues, was known for his exceptional skills on the round-neck Dobro. Josh Graves, Gene Wooten, Mike Auldridge and Pete Kirby are the greatest Dobro players of all time, according to The Guitar Journal. The top 20 Dobro players currently living, says The Guitar Journal, are Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, David Lindley, Tut Taylor, Stacey Phillips, Lou Wamp, Andrew Winton, Sally van Meter, Ivan Rosenberg,  Naughty Jack, Andy Hall, Jimmy Heffernan, Billy Cardine, Orville Johnson, Martin Gross, Ed Gerhard, Curtis Burch, Johnny Bellar, Bob Brozman and Eric Abernathy.