A Resonator Guitar is tuned and played much like a standard guitar, with a few key differences depending.
While many people play a resonator guitar just like a standard guitar, they are generally more associated with playing slide or bottleneck guitar. There are a few things that make slide guitar unique – one is obviously the slide, but also things like tuning and the type of picks used also should be covered.
Most resonator guitars, either played like a standard guitar or with a slide are played fingerstyle. Fingerstyle is a term used to describe picking individual strings with your thumb, index and middle finger, rather than with a single plectrum. For the slide, it is placed usually on the ring or pinky finger. With the slide on the strings you need to place other fingers one the strings behind it in order to damped vibrations of the slide. Many players choose to play with finger picks that provide more volume and attack.
Bottleneck players generally play in ‘open’ tunings that produces the sound of a chord when all of the strings are strummed. Common open tunings for resonator guitars, from the low string to the high string, are Open E: E-B-E-G#-B-D, Open G: D-G-D-G-B-D and Open D: D-A-D-F#-A-D. If you tune on Open E you will be tuning the strings a full step higher than standard tuning. Click here to learn more about resonator guitar strings.
Now you’re ready to start playing. If you’re in Open E, the strings all played open will make a E chord. If you move the slide up to the 5th fret, you will have an A chord, if you move up two more frets from that, to the 7th fret, you will have a B chord. Those are the three chords of any blues in E. That’s it, you don’t need to know different chord fingerings, just slide up to the right fret and you’re all set. You’ll have to use your eyes and your ears to get the placement of the slide just right. Luckily moving the slide back and forth in a vibrato motion not only makes the guitar “sing” it masks any wrong placement of the slide and allows you to hone in on the right spot.
As you get more comfortable with just the basic placement of chords, and sliding back and forth, you’ll want to start to use some more complex finger picking patterns to liven up the rhythm. In Delta blues style guitar, which is some of the most popular music played on resonator guitars, it is extremely common to have an alternating bass pattern played on the low strings while just a few of the upper strings are picked in a more syncopated fashion. Many resonator players use plastic and metal fingers picks to get more volume and dexterity when playing slide.
From there, the trick is to just listen and practice. There are hundreds of free videos on YouTube that will help you get started or learn a new trick. Whether you’re looking to play blues, bluegrass, rock, or any other style, all it takes is a little time to understand the fundamentals and then just watch, listen, learn and practice.
If you’re interested in the basics of the resonator guitar, take a look at Resonator Guitar Guide’s Beginner’s Guide to the Resonator Guitar