In the 1930s, the original Dobro company went through a series of ownership changes and licensing agreements. It did not regularly publish catalogs, and its model numbers were typically also the price of a model, which may have varied from one distributor to the next. Specifications were not strictly followed. Consequently, it’s not surprising to find almost any configuration of birch, mahogany, walnut, spruce, or faux-grain wood on a pre-World-War-II Dobro. One wood we would not expect to find, however, is rosewood.
Rosewood is simply out of character for Dobro, which was founded on the premise of offering a cheaper resonator guitar than those of the National company. John Dopyera and his brothers’ metal-body resonator guitar, which Dopyera helped design, was louder than any conventional wood-body flat-top or archtop. But in 1929, just as the Nationals were gaining a foothold in the market, and shortly after the company had taken on new partners, Dopyera resigned.
The original Nationals had a tri-cone resonator system and bodies of “German silver” (a copper-nickel-zinc alloy). They looked expensive – and were; $125 for the Style 1, with no engraving on the body; higher for the fancier models. Dopyera attacked National at the price point, with a single-cone resonator guitar. Instead of having the bridge resting on the top of the cone, Dopyera inverted the cone, so it opened toward the top of the guitar, like the cone in a loudspeaker. The bridge rested on a “spider” with eight legs that made contact with the edge of the open cone. It was simpler and cheaper to make than National’s tri-cone system, and Dopyera cut expenses more by making his bodies of laminated wood (species unspecified, but typically birch).
Although Dopyera’s brothers still had financial interests in National, family ties were strong enough that he combined Dopyera and Brothers to create a new brand – Dobro. He brought the first Dobro instruments to market in 1929. The cheapest was $45, and its metal parts were painted rather than plated. His most deluxe custom-order model, which had a four-piece, matched-burl walnut back, listed at $125, the same price as the cheapest National tri-cone.
As the Depression hit, Dobro prices fell. In 1932, the $45 model went to $36. That same year, Dobro granted a license to the Chicago-based Regal company to manufacture Dobros, and prices fell further. By ’34, a Regal-made No. 27 (the cheapest model, with round screen-holes in the body) was offered at $27.50 and the Regal-made No. 19 (with three-segment f-holes in the upper body) could be bought for $19.50.
In the meantime, John Dopyera settled his differences with the National crowd, and in ’35 merged with them to form the National-Dobro company. In ’36, the company moved its headquarters to Chicago and reincorporated as Valco. From 1933 to ’37, Dobros were made in California and Chicago, adding more confusion to the model line.
Somewhere in this confusing sequence of corporate changes and production moves, a handful of Dobros were made with spruce top and rosewood back and sides.
By this time (the mid 1930s), makers of conventional guitars had established mahogany as the no-frills tone wood, and rosewood as a premium wood – a grade above the walnut Dobro used on its high-end models. So a rosewood Dobro could be viewed as a premium instrument.
The rosewood used for this guitar is straight-grained, similar to that found on pre-World War II Gibsons, rather than the figured Brazilian rosewood on Martins of the same period. As on all pre-war Dobros, the body is laminated, including the spruce top on this guitar. The top is bordered with the same herringbone purfling found on a Martin Style 28 guitar, and the backstripe is also herringbone. Top purlfing was not a standard feature on any Dobro (nor was a backstripe). The most likely scenario for this guitar’s existence is that someone wanted a Dobro with the same woods and ornamentation as a Martin D-28.
The coverplate has some tasteful engraving, elevating it a step above Dobro’s standard, unengraved unit. The tailpiece, oddly, is the open style found more often on cheaper Regals rather than the flared, solid style that is commonly associated with Dobros.
This is a very rare guitar, but not one-of-a-kind. At least two other roundnecks exist, one of which is in the collection of Eric Clapton, and one squareneck. They differ enough to indicate they weren’t made at the same time. For example, this one has a Dobro decal on the peghead. One of the others has “Dobro” inlaid in pearl, while another has an oval metal Regal logo plate.
The obvious question is, does the look of a Martin Style 28 carry over to the tone of the guitar? The body’s laminated construction would seem to diminish its role in shaping tone, but this guitar does, in fact, have the tone one might expect from a rosewood/spruce Dobro – warmer and not nearly as bright or cutting as the sound of the typical pre-war birch or mahogany model.
While this rosewood Dobro may have been produced in what is now thought of as a golden era for Martin guitars, it would hardly be considered the Dobro equivalent of a ’30s Martin. Nevertheless, it has a pleasing sound, an attractive aesthetic (assuming that one likes herringbone Martins) and a high degree of rarity.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s February 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.