The National Steel Guitar Part Three
by Al Handa


In the last part, I listed Blues artists who played Nationals. Starting with this installment, two or three will be profiled at a time. Most of the ones I'll be discussing will be well known, so as each is discussed, you can relisten to old recordings or track down CD's by each to get a sonic impression.

In some cases, like Son House, his music should be familiar, so my discussion won't come off as abstract as a technical discourse on tricone and single cone sound characteristics might. Perhaps these profiles will be the entrance door to a new discovery on your part.

Tampa Red

Tampa Red wasn't the first artist to record with a National, but he was the first Black artist to do so. Of all the bottleneck artists, he was probably the most popular. His sound was atypical of the Southern style, which as a rule was modal in structure and played in minor keys.

Red's style was more in line with the Hokum or Jug Band genre, with lots of ragtime influences and saucy lyrics. His technique was more musical, and stressed single string playing. The right thumb was used to imply the rhythm, as opposed to the Delta Players who used steady beats. It was a subtle style, and technically advanced for the era.

The guitar used was a gold plated tricone, and he was known as "The Man With The Gold Guitar." As Bob Brozman relates in his book, The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments, it "was a very early Style 4 Spanish guitar, with the separate fronds of chrysanthemums on the coverplate, rather than the later 'flow-through' design."

It was also a unique one, as only one other gold plated national ever been seen (a square neck Style 4). To this day, Tampa Red's guitar hasn't been found.

Tampa Red began his career in the 1920's, and was the third professional Black studio guitarist to establish a recording career. Only Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson came before him. His first big break in Chicago was working for Ma Rainey's band. There he met Georgia Tom Dorsey, with whom he recorded a ditty called "Tight Like That."

That song, recorded for Vocalion Records, was a huge hit, and earned the two the then princely sum of $2,400. Dorsey, who was then also a Gospel performer, put off singing for the Lord for a few years. The pair, recording as either the Hokum Boys or Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band, recorded about 90 sides.

Georgia Tom Dorsey left the secular music field in 1932 to return to gospel music. Tampa Red then organized a quintet, and began recording for the Bluebird label. Eventually, he went electric, but his popularity and influence helped popularize the National type guitar.

Son House

Outside of the Blues scene, names like Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters resonate more. However, to the true Blues fan, Eddie "Son" House remains the master who influenced both, and is one of the primary links in the evolution of Mississippi-to-Chicago Blues.

Son House didn't even begin playing guitar until he was 24, but was playing house parties only a few weeks after learning to play. Sometime around 1927 or 28, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree. Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a fifteen-year sentence at Parchmen Farm prison.

He was released early, one year later, and met the now legendary Charlie Patton, who introduced him to Willie Brown. The three played together often, and in 1930, traveled to Wisconsin to record sides for Paramount Records.

At this session, he recorded "Dry Spell Blues," "My Black Mama," and the now famous "Preachin' Blues." Those performances contained all the aspects of his style. Simple, repeating guitar phrases over a powerful rhythm, and on top of it all, a great voice. Although the records never sold well, all are now considered classic.

Son performed and recorded exclusively with with a National. It was generally a single-resonator type, either a Triolian, Duolian, or Style O. The characteristics of a single-resonator suited his style well, which employed driving rhythms and sharp, powerful slide riffs.

Other than some 78 recordings made for Alan Lomax (then of the Library of Congress) in 1941, he basically faded into obscurity. In fact, by 1943 he was working a variety of non-musical jobs.

In 1964, three young white Blues fans found him in Rochester, and after playing him tapes of his old records, convinced him that there were people who wanted to hear his music. Son re-learned his old pieces, and enjoyed a successful career into the 1970's.

Son's recordings in the 60's weren't considered on a par with the Paramount or Library of Congress material. His skill was such, however, that if you've never heard the early stuff, his later sessions issued on Columbia or Blue Goose will still sound revelatory. My own personal preference is for the later recordings.

His music didn't break new ground, but it did take the best of the early Delta music typified by Charlie Patton, and combined it with powerful and insistent rhythms that were picked up on by the younger players like Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson.

When you listen to those two legends play the slide, Son House is there in spirit.


Tampa Red and Son House were radically different players, and thus are ideal examples of the qualities of the tricone and single-resonator types of Nationals. Both used it for the same reason: the volume and punch the resonator gave their guitars. Both got a different sound as each used the best qualities of their instruments.

In the next installment, I'll discuss a Blues legend who used a tricone, yet on the surface played a style that seemed more related to Son House. Bukka White was one of the artists most associated with the National, yet used a tricone. It seems like a contradiction, but we'll see that yet again, a master got the best out of an instrument, and that the tricone was the ideal guitar for that greatest of storytellers, Bukka White.

Al Handa

Read Part One: "Some Background"

Read Part Two: "More on the different types and a list of Blues artists who played Nationals"

Read Part Four: "Black Ace, Sol Hoopii, and the Hawaiian Slide Style"

Special Thanks:

Bob Brozman

This article, and the series that will follow it rely heavily on the classic book, "The History and Artistry of NATIONAL Resonator Instruments" by Bob Brozman. Brozman is also one of the foremost National Steel Guitar players in the world.

Check out Bob Brozman's web site. Also, a series of this depth wouldn't be possible without the cooperation of the National Reso-Phonic Guitars company, who have provided advice and materials in the research phases. The photos used in this piece are courtesy of National Reso-Phonic. Special thanks to Peter Bachner, Don Young, and Marie Gaines of National Reso-Phonic for their help and cooperation in creating this series

Next installment will cover more about the playing qualities of both designs, and begin to discuss the variations that began to emerge as time passed. Also, a list of Blues artists who used the National.

Copyright © 1998 by Al Handa. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission from the author.