Dobro vs JHS
I used to believe that the world was divided into two sorts of people, those who liked guitars and those who didn't. The former category, I now realise, is of course sub-divided into those who like Dobros and those who don't.
Those who don't like guitars nor Dobros remain dismally unenlightened, much to my regret. Perhaps this budget effort by JHS may save a soul or two. It is a welcome arrival, the resonator guitar's plaintive, peaky little tone deserves wider consideration. Little isn't always the best word either – it is an ideal street instrument, delivering, when pushed, an astonishing volume for an acoustic.
Its history is mildly confused, but the guitar neck versions have served many a bluesman, and the great square neck slide versions have done time in Hawaiian music and are now alive and pickin' in bluegrass bands. There have been physical variations in the original scheme of things – metal body jobs, and variations in bridge to resonator transmission systems.
The "resophonic" guitar principle was invented in the early 20's by John Dopyera. It employs an internal aluminium dish rather like a speaker cone, but excited physically by direct contact with the bridge, rather than electrically.
The JHS is a wood body, round neck, guitar style instrument, and Warwick Downes of Brighton loaned us a wood body, round neck, guitar style Dobro for comparison. Some of the differences are quite significant, but the JHS captures the essential character of the sound.
The Dobro has a high nut action for a non-slide instrument, and it has been left there for bottleneck aficionados who have been trying it out at various instrument shows. The bridge action is quite handleable for what will always be a fairly hard work acoustic. The JHS nut action was only marginally high, but the bridge action was very difficult. The makers have failed to allow for the extra height involved with the resonator system, and have not pitched the neck back. The Dobro neck is pitched back, and a thin wedge of wood supports the fingerboard end over the body.
Thus on the JHS, lowering the bridge action by filing down the saddle reduces the break angle of the strings across the saddle and entices some unpleasant rattles. Tailpieces on both were as low as they could go.
The cone is the same style in both. It peaks up in the centre, and is connected under tension by a bolt to the centre of the spider – which actually looks more like a spider's web. The extreme points of the spider frame run out to sit on the edge of the resonator cone, and the saddle sits on a machined slot in the centre of the spider, directly over the connecting bolt. This contraption sits underneath a ventilated chrome over plate which also covers the saddle, preventing right hand damping at the bridge, and encouraging lovely little echoey resonances on single note playing.
The resonator and cover assembly sit on a circular wooden construction which is part of the guitar body. It connects with top and back, and looks something like a large tambourine frame. Holes in its sidewall allow sound from under the cone in the body cavity and out through two small grilled holes in the top bouts, and through three small holes by the fingerboard end. Thus sounds from the resonator top and the guitar body holes are, theoretically at least, out of phase.
Dobro traditionally use a maple saddle, the JHS uses plastic – a variable which must contribute to the difference in tone. The Dobro is sweet and mellow, the beguiling peak in the mid is very smooth, and bloody loud. The dynamic range is tremendous. The JHS produces a similar volume and range, but with a brasher tone and less depth; less satisfying, somehow.
The JHS strings don't help, a rather nondescript bronze or brass set – the Dobro uses nickel wounds. The difference in depth may well be connected with body type. Although the body depths are within 2mm of each other at 8.5cm on the Dobro and 8.7cm on the JHS, the Dobro body is longer. It joins the neck at the 12th fret, and measures 50cm bottom to shoulder. The JHS joins at the 14th fret and measures 47.5cm. The JHS has an 00-18ish appearance against the Dobro's more stretched out look.
The Dobro wood body guitars that I've seen have never been particularly inspiring from the timber point of view, and neither of these offered anything exciting. The primary function of the structure is solidity – some of these guitars get used with pretty hefty strings tuned up to a G chord – and support for the resonator system.
Both fingerboards are rosewood. The JHS neck looks like mahogany (it could be nato or lauan), and the Dobro neck looks like maple. There lies another contributing factor to the tone difference.
Scale length on the Dobro is 24½ inches, and on the JHS 24¾ inches. The Dobro has usefully fatter frets than the JHS.
Played slide, they both sounded lovely – the Dobro having more body in it, but the JHS nonetheless sweet and poignant.
Other differences were predictable – those damned, Very-Basic-Jap machine heads on the JHS, and more substantial fully enclosed on the Dobro. For a start, the Dolbro string run stays quite parallel from nut to bridge compared with the wider splay on the JHS. The grill mesh in the two hole covers is finer in the Dobro than in the JHS, and the JHS arrived looking rather one-eyed and piratical as one of its grills had fallen out en-route – a loose fit that may need watching in other examples.
If the genre is new to you, do give it more than a passing glance – the tonal rewards can be well worth getting to grips with though it's a pig of a feel, first time round. To hear just how stunning it can sound, get a listen to Mike Auldridge's album "Dobro" on Sonet SNTF 657.
You should be able to get a look at the JHS at dealers up and down the country. Warwick Downes imports the Dobro, and National and Duolian resonator guitars, on a small scale. You can reach him on (Contact Details).
Review by Adrian Legg
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