Resonator guitars appear to inspire a particular kind of affliction among players. And it’s a difficult addiction to maintain, given the paucity of vintage National and Dobro instruments, their much-cursed playability, and their ever-climbing prices.
Frank Helsley, Jr. is wise to all that. As a teen in Texas, he first heard Johnny Winter play the blues on a resonator guitar and it sparked what’s become a lifelong obsession with the instruments. Frustrated by the lack of affordable options, in 2007 he founded Republic Guitars, based first outside Dallas, now near Austin.
Sourcing affordable resonator guitars means going through China. And while this has brought a range of fine Republic instruments to players who may never have gotten their hands on one, it has also brought a share of criticism from the strident among the afflicted. Set that aside for the moment, though, and consider Republic’s Tricones and single-cone guitars on their own merits.
Republic offers its Tricone with a body made of several different materials: wood, steel, and bell brass, the latter of which was tested.
First thing you notice about the bell-brass Tricone is that it’s one hefty instrument. That body feels solid enough to pound nails or split firewood. The body size is similar to a vintage National Tricone, with a 20″ length, 10.25″ upper bout, and 14.25″ lower bout, all 3″ deep. Still, due to that brass construction versus an original National’s German Silver, the Republic weighs a good bit more. Brass also imparts a certain tone (see below).
The trio of aluminum cones includes two small hand-spun examples on the bass side, one on the treble side – just like an old National. They’re connected via a metal T-bridge with a maple saddle. The mahogany neck attaches to the body at the 12th fret and is capped by a bound rosewood fretboard with dot position markers. The scale is 25.5″. The bone nut runs 1.875″. The stylish Republic logo shield is screwed to the headstock.
An important – make that, essential – upgrade is the adjustable truss rod. The lack of a truss rod leaves too many vintage Nationals requiring a regimen of expensive heated-neck resets to keep them anywhere near playable.
Republic offers its metal-bodied Tricones in a variety of finishes. There’s a painted sunburst, polished nickel, brushed steel, antiqued copper, various engraving styles, and red copper rust, which is pure juke-joint chic. All in all, the fit, finish, and form are lovely.
Holding the guitar upright in your lap, that body weight is actually nicely balanced. It might prove tiring to your back and neck on a strap, but sitting down it’s just right.
Strum those strings and you instantly hear what a Tricone is all about. This guitar is loud. It’s also clear and articulate – something that can only be said of the best vintage National Tricones, which if not perfectly set up can have a bit of buzz or static in their voice.
The choice of body material influences the tone – even with a resonator. Wooden tricones have a more… woody sound. Steel can be thinner, shriller. The bell-brass body, however, provides a warmer, thicker, and more resonant sound, ideal for deep blues playing, whether you’re fretting or playing bottleneck.
Our brass-bodied, red copper rust Tricone is not only a powerfully voiced guitar, it also has a full range of tones well beyond its price point. And it likes to be played hard: dig in with your fingers or pick and slide with purpose and the guitar comes alive.
It’s not beyond belief that the guitar’s sound will continue to improve with age and use.
This article originally appeared in VG February 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.