If you’re looking for something a little different from your typical electro-acoustic guitar then you’re in the right place. The best resonator guitars offer something completely atypical from your usual six-string with their unique looks and exciting timbre that’s perfect for fingerstyle and slide guitar playing.
Sometimes called a resophonic guitar, the resonator generates its unique sound by taking the string vibrations and transferring them through the guitar bridge to one or more spinning metal cones in the guitar body. First coming into use in 1927, the resonator was designed to supplant the acoustic guitar by offering a louder unplugged volume that could compete with horns and percussion instruments of the time.
Quickly finding favor amongst blues guitarists of the ’20s and ’30s, players like Bo Carter and Bukka White loved it for the extra volume, and that unique sound which allowed it to be heard at larger concerts as well as making it great for busking. In the ’50s further popularity ensued with bluegrass and country players picking up the instrument, and since then, many guitar players have had their heads turned by the inimitable sound and style of a resonator.
Getting into resonator guitars involves some learning if you’ve not come across them before, so we’d highly recommend checking out our buying advice section if you’re new to the instrument. For those that already know what they want, just keep scrolling to see our top picks.
Best resonator guitars: Guitar World recommends
The Gretsch G9201 Honey Dipper takes the first spot for us. Thanks to its value for money, excellent sound and stunning good looks, it ticks all the boxes whether you’re a first-timer or you’re looking for another addition to your resonator arsenal.
Coming in a close second, we’ve gone with the Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog. With its heritage steeped in the very first resonator guitars, the Dobro delivers a lighter-weight experience to the all-metal resonator construction, whilst balancing the line between power and sustain beautifully.
Best resonator guitars: Product guide
The Gretsch G9201 Honey Dipper is part of the company’s ‘Roots’ collection, where vintage instruments meet modern manufacturing standards. It’s a beautiful-looking biscuit resonator with a brash sound to match its eye-catching styling, and excellent value for money to boot.
The sound of the Honey Dipper is punchy and metallic, great for Delta blues and other styles. The initial projection when you pluck is nice and powerful and it sustains really well for a single cone-type resonator.
A medium ‘V’ neck offers a vintage feel and slickness that lets you easily dispatch both fingerstyle licks and slide guitar. The action was a little high out of the box for our tastes, but you soon get used to it with some dedicated playing time.
Dobro guitars were one of the original manufacturers of resonators, and such is their influence that ‘dobro’ has become a synonym for the resonator. The Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog aims to encapsulate all that vintage aesthetic of a true instrument innovator.
Due to its laminated maple body, the sound of the Dobro is different from that of all-metal resonator bodies. It’s an active and bright voice that has less of the ‘cone’ sound you get with all-metal resonators, which makes it an excellent choice for first-timers.
Like many resonators, it features a higher-than-usual action and can be utilized in the traditional guitar playing position, or on your lap as a slide guitar. It also features a set of rock-solid Grover tuners, which you’ll need as there are plenty of open tunings you’ll want to try with this beaut.
The Recording King RM-991 is a tricone resonator that features three smaller cones rather than the usual single, large cone on biscuit or spider resonators. This gives it an excellent balance of both projection and enhanced sustain.
It’s got that typically bright and twangy resonator tone with a full-bodied voice thanks to the bell brass construction. This thing properly sings with fingerstyle and slide, and the tricone set-up of resonating discs ensures there’s an excellent balance in both the high and low ends.
It’s available as both a round neck for traditional Spanish style or as a square neck for laying on your lap and playing slide. It’s also got some premium hardware in the form of a bone nut and ebony saddle to ensure that your notes ring true.
The National Reso-phonic Style O is another legendary name in the resonator world, with an impressive history that includes big names like Rory Gallagher, Bukka White and Mark Knopfler. It comes at a premium price but is very much the premium instrument, with quality through and through.
The Style O delivers plenty of complex overtones and an incredible natural sustain. The brass construction means it excels in swing, jazz and ragtime styles, taking alternate tunings and slide work in its stride.
The etching evokes a Hawaiian flavor that lends an already head-turning instrument an extra slice of vivacity. The slotted headstock adds to the vintage aesthetic, and if you flip it over and look at the reverse of the neck, you’ll see a sunburst finish on the hard rock maple construction.
If you want the sound of a resonator guitar but aren’t happy to give up your electric guitar playability or need to play with a band, enter the Danelectro ‘59 Resonator. With its two-pickup configuration and slick playability, this is the perfect guitar for those who don’t want to stray too far from their electric roots.
Unplugged it does an admirable job as a traditional resonator, with a bright and raw tone. Plug it in, however, and its true voice is unleashed thanks to the combination of a high-output resonator pickup and classic Danelectro lipstick pickup in the neck position.
The blend knob allows you to mix the two pickup sounds, and it can do everything from a sparkly rasp to almost banjo-like tones. With a slim profile neck and low string tension, it’s also got incredible playability to back up its great tone.
Read the full Danelectro ‘59 Resonator review
Designed for classic Delta blues and bluegrass sounds, the Gretsch G9240 Alligator Biscuit is a great value-for-money acoustic-electric resonator. Pairing a wood body with a biscuit resonator, this instrument is great for those who like their resonators traditional.
Despite the rootsy looks, it’s packing a Fishman Nashville pickup so you can plug it in at your blues jam nights or play it with the rest of your band. It’s got no active preamp though, so you’ll have to crank it to get a loud sound. Unplugged, it’s in classic resonator territory with excellent projection and punchy tones.
The neck features a vintage ‘V’ profile, reminiscent of many early-era acoustic and electric guitars, offering a chunky feel that makes light work of chords and slide action. Grover tuners ensure excellent stability with open and alternate tunings, making this a brilliant resonator for the money.
Looking like it’s been sat in a swamp on the banks of the Mississippi, the Recording King RM 997 Swamp Dog will certainly turn a few heads with its mottled brass looks. Thankfully it sounds completely pristine, with a classic resonator tone.
Due to the biscuit construction, it’s got a punchy clarity when you fingerpick, and plenty of attitude to match any Delta blues licks. It doesn’t sustain as much as others here, but you can still generate some incredible slide tones with it.
The neck is super smooth feeling, encouraging fast slide movements, and the overall balance of the instrument is super comfortable. It’s weighty, but not so hefty that you’ll want to put it down anytime soon.
Part of the Paramount Series, the Fender PR-180E is a great choice for the guitar player looking for an acoustic-electric resonator that doesn’t cost a bomb. The look is pure Americana, but under the hood it’s got some more modern appointments.
Thanks to the wood and metal construction, the PR-180E has got an interesting timbre that’s part warmth and part punchy volume. It responds really well to aggressive picking and has got plenty of sustain unplugged. It really shines when plugged in, though, with the Fishman Nashville pickup offering a robust sound.
The neck profile is not as vintage-inspired as some here, with a small ‘V’ giving you some vintage feel but having more in common with a typical acoustic guitar neck. The nut width isn’t particularly wide either, so it’s got a comfortable feel all around.
Best resonator guitars: buying advice
How do resonator guitars work?
From the outside, a resonator guitar looks much the same as a regular acoustic guitar, albeit a lot more shiny. It’s inside where the resonator magic happens though. A resonator takes the string vibrations and transfers them via the bridge to a spinning cone (or cones) within the guitar body.
Depending on the type of resonator these soundwaves are then transferred back up and out of the body or into the body and out of the additional sound holes or f-holes.
What is a resonator cone?
In the same way a speaker cone transfers sound via its shape, so too does a resonator cone enhance the sound of a resonator guitar. There are three different types of resonator cones, all of which generate sound in slightly different ways and offer different characteristics.
Biscuit cone, probably the most common resonator cone, features a spun metal cone that faces into the guitar body. The sound waves bounce around inside the guitar body before exiting via the soundholes, which tends to result in a bassy tone. Biscuit cone resonators offer excellent projection which makes them great for fingerpicking, but they don’t offer quite as much sustain for slide.
Spider cone, most commonly found on wood body resonators, faces up towards the guitar top. The term spider comes from the method by which the bridge is mounted to the cone, which features multiple arms that look like a spider’s web reaching out to the edges of the cone. This gives an even transfer of vibrations, resulting in a bright tone that’s not as loud as a biscuit cone but offers excellent sustain.
Tricone is the most expensive form of the resonator, and features three smaller cones with two under the bass strings and one under the treble strings. They’re connected to the bridge via a T-bar, which provides an excellent balance between volume and sustain, making it the favored choice for slide guitar players.
What’s the difference between a round neck and a square neck resonator?
As if dealing with multiple cones wasn’t confusing enough, there are also two neck types in the resonator guitar world. The difference is pretty simple though. A round neck resonator is much like a regular acoustic guitar in that it is played upright, also known as the ‘Spanish’ position. You’d play a round neck like any other guitar.
A square neck resonator features a square neck design, with more wood in order to deal with the higher tensions put upon the guitar by slide-specific tunings. A square neck resonator is designed to be played with it laid down on your lap or on a stand like you would a lap steel guitar.
Do resonator guitars need special strings?
Whilst you can buy resonator-specific strings, you don’t have to use them. A regular set of acoustic guitar strings will do the job just fine. Resonator strings tend to be very heavy gauge which can be difficult for players who aren’t used to them, but you’ll easily get away with a set of 12 or 13-gauge acoustic strings. However, if you’re looking to predominantly play slide, we’d recommend getting a heavier-than-usual gauge to help the sound carry better and make it easier to execute the technique.
How we choose the best resonator guitars for this guide
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Here at Guitar World, we are experts in our field, with many years of playing and product testing between us. We live and breathe everything guitar related, and we draw on this knowledge and experience of using products in live, recording and rehearsal scenarios when selecting the products for our guides.
When choosing what we believe to be the best resonator guitars available right now, we combine our hands-on experience, user reviews and testimonies and engage in lengthy discussions with our editorial colleagues to reach a consensus about the top products in any given category.
First and foremost, we are guitarists, and we want other players to find the right product for them. So we take into careful consideration everything from budget to feature set, ease of use and durability to come up with a list of what we can safely say are the best resonator guitars on the market right now.
Read more about our rating system, how we choose the gear we feature, and exactly how we test each product.