A Guide to Chris Whitley’s Gear 2: Acoustic Guitars


Some of Chris’s acoustic guitars displayed at the Belly Up Tavern: (l to r) 1940 National Style O, 1930/31 National Triolian, National Resophonic 1133 (Photo credit: Kevin Lesko)

Chris played a variety of acoustic guitars, ranging from resonators – e.g., his most-often used Nationals and Dobros – to standard acoustics, such as those made by Martin and Gibson.  We are lucky to have a photo of Chris playing one of his first resonators, which Hiroshi Suda has identified as an OMI (Original Musical Instrument) Model 33, possibly a 33D.

Chris with band Blue playing in Washington Square Park (NYC) 1978

 

OMI 33 or 33D (Photo credit: Hiroshi Suda)

According to Chris’s brother Dan, Chris described this guitar as a “”crappy brown Dobro;” Dan says that it was stolen while Chris was busking on the streets of New York City.

National Guitars

Chris played several guitars broadly described as manufactured by “National.”  Because some form of National guitar company has been making guitars for almost 100 years, a full review of its history is beyond the scope of this article.  Suffice it to say that “National” as a broad company name may include National String Instruments, National/Dobro, Original Musical Instruments (OMI), and National Resophonic, the latter being the only iteration still making guitars marketed as Nationals today.  Chris’s “National” guitar models include a National Resophonic 1133, National String Instruments Style O, National Resophonic Style O, and National String Instruments Triolian.

National Resophonic 1133

In the Dust Radio documentary, Rick Kelly spoke briefly about the first guitar Chris got from his shop –  a National Resophonic 1133 three-quarter-size (also called Student Model):

 

Chris took this guitar with him when he moved to Belgium, as shown in this photo from July 1981:

July 1981, at Dirk Vandewiele’s house, Ghent BE

Many thanks to Anders Halvorsen for the following info about Chris’s National Resophonic 1133 guitar: 

The vintage National Resophonic 1133 was a pure, acoustic instrument. The pickups in Chris’s Resophonic guitars were added later and are not original. Chris owned at least two or three of these Resophonic guitars: The red one that’s pictured with a very young Chris (see photo below and we assume in the b/w photo above) and two black ones with different cover-plates. These black ones could be the same, as one of the cover-plates is not original and could have been a replacement.

Chris playing at a concert in Ghent, Belgium 1981 [full video]
Photos support Anders’ assertion that Chris owned at least two black 1133s.  Note that, in the photo below, the white area has only triangular objects as decoration.

Photo from Sony promotional CD

In this screen capture from a live performance in 2004, another black 1133 has multiple splotches/stars as decoration in the white area.

Screen capture from performance at Hugh’s Room Toronto Canada September 2004 (credit: talkin’ blues) [full video]

Whether these are two different guitars or the same guitar with different cover-plates is anyone’s guess.  Here’s the photo that appeared on the back of the LWTL CD:

Photo credit: Timothy White

Why the 1133?  I don’t know much about guitars and don’t have great discernment regarding their different tones; but even I can hear the tonal differences between the 1133 and Chris’s National 1930/31 Triolian, aka Mustard.  Listen to Indian Summer played first on the 1133, then on Mustard, and I think you’ll understand why Chris included the 1133 in his National guitar collection.

 

 

National Style Os (1940 and 2002)

After much confusion and more help from people who know these things, I now understand that Chris played two Style Os:  a vintage National String Instruments from 1940 and a new National Resophonic Company model from 2002.

June 2001 NYC
Old Style O – NYC June 2001      (Photo by Mo-Kit Wong)

 

tuning his NEW guitar in Carboro NC - Fluffy
Tuning his new Style O in Carborro NC 2003 (Photo by Fluffy Hays Centner)

 

Thanks to Hiroshi Suda and Anders Halvorsen, here are the major differences between the two models:

  • Head (Slotted on new / Flat on vintage)
  • Neck (12 fret joint on new / 14 fret joint on vintage)
  • Position mark (dot on new /parallelogram on vintage)
  • Body shape and pattern of the cover plate (raised 4-spoke pinwheel on new/no pinwheel on vintage)

193x National Style O - note e.g., parallelogram fret markers
Old Style O: Andi Lechner’s 2020 post confirms its vintage as 1940.

“New” Style O; note e.g., dot fret markers, slotted headstock, and pattern of cone cover.

Chris used his 1940 Style O extensively on Dirt Floor tracks, including Accordingly, Wild Country, From One Island to Another, Altitude, and Dirt Floor.  Re the 2002 Style O, Hiroshi Suda notes, “When I played this guitar at the 2006 NY Tribute, I found ‘MEDICINE WHEEL’ engraved (by Chris, I believe) on the headstock.”

More information about vintage Style Os can be found here; learn more about contemporary Style Os on the National website.

In a 2020 ATCW group post, Andi Lechner shared photos taken by Matthias Macht (inserted below) and confirmed that, based on the old Style O’s serial number (C5759), it’s a 1940.  Many thanks to Andi and Matthias for this invaluable documentation!

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More photos of Chris playing both the old and new Style Os:

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Late ’30/Early ’31 National Triolian

Chris’s most recognizable guitar, the National Triolian was featured extensively on promotional materials for Living with the Law.  This icon, which he named “Mustard,” is so special that it merits a separate blog post with more pictures and a full discussion of this gem.

Bowery 6-1-00
“Mustard” (Bowery, June 2000)

In a 2020 ATCW group post, Andi Lechner shared photos taken by Matthias Macht (inserted below), prompting quite a discussion about the vintage of Mustard now that we know Mustard’s serial number (1008P).  Andi consulted resonator mastermind Mark Makin concerning the Triolian, garnering this reply:

My guess is that this was built somewhere to the end of 1930 possibly into 1931 and, at that time, the usual fingerboard was a light stained color sometimes with red blue stains but generally a darkish reddish maple color. They also usually had white dot markers so I’m thinking that yours has a possible replacement board on it. The dark boards, fitted as standard, on a Triolian with white dots seem to become a standard fitment round about 2000P or thereabouts.
Andi added that Mark’s dating “proves a suspicion [he] already had:  the fretboard on Chris’ Triolian is probably a replacement one (would also explain the unusual positions of the inlay dots at the end of the fretboard).”
Additional Mustard photos courtesy of Andi and Matthias:

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Dobro/Regal Models

Chris seems to have owned several Dobro/Regal guitars:  at least two metal-body and two wood-body.  Identifying the specific models and years of these guitars is difficult because, as the Folkway Music website complained in its review of Dobro resonators,

The model history of Dobro guitars in the 1930’s is made entirely confounding by the use of serial numbers of various and occasionally overlapping sequences, model names that related to the retail price of the instruments rather than to the model’s specifications, two manufacturing facilities located some 1700 miles apart, and the tendency of Regal (in Chicago) to randomly use what ever coverplates, tailpieces, and tuners were immediately available in the assembly of any given Dobro. After all, they were building mostly very inexpensive guitars at the height of the Great Depression – they weren’t too concerned about what we would think some seventy years later!

Note that Dobro is capitalized as a proper noun indicating the guitar’s manufacturer, not as a generic term for resonator guitars.  Dobro is “short” for Dopyera Brothers.  “Dobro” also means “good” in the brothers’ native Slovak language. The brothers had worked for National String Instruments but quit to form their own company.  The Dobro metal body differs from National resonator guitars of the same vintage (1930s) in that Dobro tops and backs were fastened to the sides with a unique rolled method that required no soldering.  Because of this “lip,” the guitar is sometimes referred to as a “Fiddle Edge.”  Unfortunately, that rolled edge is about the only characteristic these vintage Dobros have in come.  After many discussions with the ATCW group, we’ve determined that Chris played a Dobro M-65 and a Dobro M-35 (both metal-bodies) and a Regal Model 37 and a Regal RD-40 (both wood-bodies).

Dobro M-65

According to Jeffrey Duke Patterson, the Dobro shown in the early photo of Chris below “appears to be … possibly an M-65, as it looks like it has sandblasted etchings. These Dobros were known as ‘fiddle-side’ and sometimes ‘scuba’ Dobros. The top and back had a lip that rolled over to the side, giving it the look of a violin or ‘fiddle.’ The ‘scuba’ nickname refers to the bodies being made of steel or bell brass, but the way the sound holes looked with the steel crosses welded in them reminded players of a deep-sea diving scuba helmet.”

Probably a 1935 Dobro M65

 

Guitarhq.com mostly confirms Jeff’s identification, noting that the M-65 had the following characteristics:

  • nickel-plate brass metal body (like a National Style O) – Yes
  • ‘singing ladies’ scene sandblasted into the nickel finish – Maybe
  • dot fingerboard inlays – Yes
  • bound rosewood fingerboard – ?
  • round window sound holes – Yes
  • DOBRO inlaid with celluloid into the rosewood peg head veneer – Yes

This model was first listed in the 1938 Dobro catalog and was discontinued in 1940.

Anders disputes this identification, stating that “[it] is not a Dobro brand guitar, it has a weird headstock [and] could be re-necked (Eric Clapton plays a vintage Dobro with a Martin neck).  The cover plate is also wrong for a (vintage) Dobro.”  Further, Anders comments that “the peghead is really strange and does not look like a Dobro [although] the body does.” Below I juxtapose Chris’s peghead with that of an M-65 listed on reverb.com:

Peghead from Chris’s guitar
M-65 peghead from reverb

Any vintage resonator enthusiasts want to weigh in on this disagreement?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dobro M-35

Another of Chris’s metal-body Dobros might be the M-35 (possibly 1938/39 to 1941).  Identifying this guitar has been a challenge because Dobro released a plethora of models during this time period.

Photo credit: GKf fotogranen (Netherlands)

The unusual feature here is the segmented f-holes.  Guitarhq notes that, although many Dobros were made with the round/scuba sound holes, these segmented f-holes were used primarily on the M-35 and on Regal-made resonators.  Finding the particular combination of these f-holes, the trapeze tail piece, and the concentric semi-circles of square cutouts on the coverplate proved challenging.  The only “twin” I could find is a circa 1935 – 1940 Dobro M35 listed on Vintage Licks Guitars:

 

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The guitar shown in the gallery above is a fraternal twin, not an identical twin, to Chris’s guitar.  As shown in the photo below, the coverplate of Chris’s M-35 appears to be silver, not brown:

Screen capture from Ohne Filter TV appearance 1992

Although it seems that most Dobro M-35s were manufactured as full sunburst body guitars, variations exist as shown in the following photo:

1936 Dobro M35 – B•Fanatic Guitarworks

So it’s possible that Chris’s M-35 was a two-tone.  In any event, this Dobro features a spider cone, which Vintage Licks Guitars lauded:  “These metal body spider cone resonator guitars differ from the metal body National Style O Single cone resonators in that (we believe) they project a crisper, more clear volume. The haunting sound of a spider cone is what both blues and country slide players seek.

Additional photos of Chris and his Dobro M-35 are shown in this gallery:

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Regal Model 27 or 37

Although Dobro sold wood-body resonators under its brand, Regal actually manufactured these resonators for both brands, having gained a license from Dobro to sell them under the Regal name.  Thus, distinguishing a Dobro from a Regal is difficult if the brand’s label isn’t clearly visible.  However, many vintage wood-body Dobros have three round holes just below the fretboard which Regals don’t; furthermore, Regals usually have a trapeze tailpiece, whereas some Dobros, some don’t.

Anders Halvorsen thinks one of Chris’s wood-body resonators is a  Regal Model 27 (1934 to 1937) or an Model 37 (1934 or 1935). 

Possibly a Dobro M-27
Possibly a Regal M-27 or M-37

For comparison, consider these photos of an M-27 and an M-37.  Note that both models have the same coverplate, round sound holes, trapeze tailpiece, and slotted headstock.

Regal Model 27 12-fret c. 1934

 

Regal Model 37 c. 1935

 

Hiroshi Suda’s eagle eyes caught that Chris played this model Regal at his Din era gig at Khyber Pass:

Chris sold this guitar on eBay, it seems, to the Dirt Floor videos photographer/videographer Frank W. Ockenfels III.  On his fwo3 Instagram account, Frank has posted videos of John Mayer and Jordan Cook of Reignwolf playing this guitar.

Regal RD-40

Another of Chris’s wood-body Regals is a relatively new one, an RD-40, which John Egan, a fellow musician and friend, recalls Chris recommending:  “It’s a Regal that he had a p-90 pickup put in [and] that he got from Carmine Street Guitars.  Made in Korea and inexpensive.  I know this because he recommended I get one as my first resonator from Carmine Street.”

Dobro wood body
Regal RD-40 wood body

At first, we thought this guitar was a vintage Regal or an OMI/Gibson-era Dobro.  But Anders Halvorsen disagreed:  “This is not a vintage Dobro/Regal …. The dead giveaway is the white truss rod cover [see photo below]. The original Dobros from the 30’s and 40’s did not have (adjustable) truss rods. Not sure about the model number or year, but identifying characteristics include the binding on front, with no binding on neck, a solid peghead, and 14 frets to the body.” 

The white truss rod cover is very evident in this screen capture [from this video].

Since 1987, Regal has been owned by Saga Musical Instruments and includes only resonator guitars in its line-up.  These guitars are manufactured in South Korea and distributed via San Francisco.  On its web page, Regal/Saga highlights some of the RD-40’s features, including “a combination of Regal exclusives such as the patented Power Reflex Tone Chamber for added volume, the patented DP-126 Die-cast spider for its bell-like response, and a US made, hand-spun aluminium cone. All together work in perfect harmony to assure the maximum, most articulate tone that can be heard in any playing situation.”

Anders has also explained the missing sound hole covers on both of Chris’s Regals:  “They are probably not “missing” as such.  Dobro players know that removing the screens will change the sound, improving volume and bass. You can even buy rings with no screens in them to put in (be

Newer Dobro (year and model unkown)
Missing sound hole covers

cause open holes look ‘unfinished’). Since both wood bodies had the screens removed, maybe CW liked the sound.” 

Chris played his Regal RD-40 on my favorite live acoustic version of New Machine:

Epic sound! But perhaps not to Chris ….  John Egan recalls that Chris ultimately “gifted” this guitar to a punk-rock guy while on tour.  Further good-luck-in-sleuthing reveals that Chick Graning, of Anastasia Screamed and SCARCE, is likely the “punk rocker” to whom Chris gave this guitar, carving “for Chick” in the guitar’s back.

 

Non-resonator Acoustics

1958 Gibson ES-125 (.012 first string; .021 third)

According to gbase.com, the1958 Gibson ES125 has

“a maple top with a vintage sunburst finish. The mahogany sides and maple back are stained a dark brown. Both the top and back are bound. The top has dual f holes and a raised celluloid tortoise pickguard. It has a mahogany neck with a rosewood fretboard that has seven dot inlays. A Gibson gold script logo can be found on the headstock. There are 20 frets of which 14 are clear of the body. …. Other features include a single P90 pickup, gold bonnet knob volume and tone controls, a compensated rosewood bridge. a nickel trapeze tailpiece, and three on a plate deluxe Kluson tuners with plastic white buttons.”

Jeffrey Duke Patterson notes that “Chris had this guitar a while and used it quite a bit. He loved that it was an arch-top f-hole hollow-body, with a really hot, factory P-90 pickup in the neck position. He could really get some good dirt and grind, tone-wise, out of this guitar.” The Gibson ES was played a lot on Terra Incognita (e.g., As Flat As the Earth, Power Down, Weightless, Cool Wooden Crosses, and Automatic) and also on several Dirt Floor tracks.

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Martin Acoustic 00-15 (000-15?)

Martin acoustic (Photo by Hiroshi Suda at Trixie Whitley Japan tour)
Martin acoustic (Photo by Hiroshi Suda during Trixie Whitley’s Japan tour)

A less well-known guitar, played extensively on the Perfect Day CD, is the Martin acoustic.  Chris’s model is a 1956 00-15 or 000-15 (Chris gave the model date on the KMTT 1999-04-14 radio show); consulting Martin’s website re these two models, I could identify no differences in their specifications although photos seemed to show that one had a lighter fretboard finish.  Based on photos at the Martin website, I’m thinking it might be the 00-15M, but I’m at a loss to explain the two large white dots on the pick guard.  Hiroshi further hypothesizes that Chris didn’t bring this guitar with him on tour, but that he played it at some radio shows – i.e. KMTT, KBAC – in 1999, especially on acoustic versions of Firefighter (Little Torch later).  You can listen to the full KMTT show here.

Among the tracks recorded using the Martin are Perfect Day and Crystal Ship on the Perfect Day covers CD and Solid Iron Heart (from Rocket House).

Trixie now owns this guitar and plays it on a lot of her songs. According to Hiroshi, Trixie did not “inherit” the Martin from her father; rather, she bought it back from someone who had bought it from Chris.

The two photos below show father playing the Martin during the recording of the Perfect Day CD and daughter playing the same guitar, several years later.

Martin guitar on PD sleeve
Chris playing the Martin guitar during the recording of the Perfect Day CD (from PD CD sleeve)

 

Trixie playing the Martin (Photo by Charlie De Keersmaecker)
Trixie playing the Martin (Photo by Charlie De Keersmaecker)

 

’95 Bart Reiter five-string banjo

Also known as “The Whyte Laydie,” Chris played on e.g., Ballpeen Hammer, The Model.

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