1930s Regal Leader 14M

After the National and Dobro companies merged in the early 1930s, little changed in the product lines of those two brands. National made predominantly expensive tricone and biscuit-bridge guitars, while Dobro focused on more affordable spider-bridge instruments. There was significant overlap in the price ranges of the two lines, but the brands were still distinguishable by the different sounds of the various resonators. It was a successful strategy, similar to the one employed by Gibson and Epiphone in the 1960s. Even the relatively affordable Dobro models, however, were fairly expensive for the 1930s. A high-end model became something of a status symbol, and many blues, pop and Hawaiian players were photographed holding their shiny Nationals. This wasn’t empty showmanship, though – the guitars could be heard over bands at a volume equaled only by a banjo, and with far greater sustain.

Eventually, someone must have decided that a series of high-end spider-bridge instruments was needed. In 1934, Dobro announced a new line of metal-bodied guitars, a first for the brand. These would also be built with minor modifications by the Regal company, which by 1937 was the exclusive licensee of Dobro’s resophonic patents. The model appellations were the same from both manufacturers: the model 14 “Leader” had a brass body with light engraving, while the models 15 “Professional” and 16 “Artist” had German silver bodies with progressively more ornate engraving. There were also the brass models 62 and 65, which had sandblasted scenes reminiscent of several National models. Each was available in both a Spanish model (suffix M) and a Hawaiian model (suffix H). All were given a shiny nickel plate, so they looked like a cross between National and Dobro guitars.

They sounded like it, too. Dobro players used to a wood body would be surprised by the metallic ring, and National players used to a biscuit or tricone bridge would be surprised by the nasal honk. Dobro and Regal built similar versions of each model, but the Regal guitars usually have f-holes while the Dobros have round “gun-sight” soundholes. The edges of both types of soundhole were embossed, which not only matched the edges of the body in appearance but served to strengthen the top. The sides of the body were also embossed, mainly for strength. Both manufacturers offered a range of engravings; my 14M “Leader” was at the bottom of the line, but it still had engraving around the edges of the body and on the coverplate, plus some abstract designs on the back.

The resonator itself isn’t exactly the same as a conventional Dobro, and it’s hard to determine exactly how the differences affect the sound. To start, the spider is unique: the bridge is ¼” closer to the neck than the center of the cone. This is supposedly because the bodies were designed for a 25” scale, while the fingerboards were mistakenly designed for 24 ¾”. Dobro and Regal opted to cast special spiders instead of replacing the fingerboards. This seems extreme, but replacing the fingerboards would have been difficult due to the specially-created “ramp” that mated it to the body. It would definitely have required losing the uppermost fret, though I doubt any players would have noticed the loss of an already unreachable note. The cones were unusual as well; they had indentations created to hold the spider, instead of a raised rim all the way around. As far as I know, the metal-bodied Dobros were the only models to feature these cones.

More striking than the innards, though, was the construction of the body itself. Dobro sought to make construction cheaper by eliminating the need for soldering the various parts of the body together. Instead, the top and back were rolled over the edges of the sides, holding the guitar together by a lock-and-key fit. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the guitars hold together just as well as any National. Mine has a crack in the back edge near the tail, where it must have been rested frequently, but this does not appear to be a structural problem. Because the edges of the body stick out in a similar fashion to a violin, these have been unofficially termed “fiddle-edge” models. The original tailpieces were specifically designed to go around the rolled edge; unfortunately, many of these have broken because the thin metal is fairly weak. This explains the non-original tailpiece on my guitar, though I have had no trouble in adapting a “normal” Dobro tailpiece to it.

My guitar is generally in excellent condition, but there has been one serious repair: the neck was broken at the base of the headstock and glued back together. The repair may be highly visible, but it was solidly done. I had a minor bow in the neck heat-straightened, and now it plays as well as it ever did. The frets appear to be original despite suffering almost no wear; perhaps the neck bow occurred early in the instrument’s life and it was relegated to slide use from a young age. It’s not the loudest resonator guitar out there (stringing the tailpiece in reverse helps a little by increasing tension on the bridge), but it has a warm, deep voice due to the brass body.