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Arts & Life

Artisans of Michigan: building Cone Tone resonators

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Inside the Cone Tone Reso-Volt resonator guitar, an aluminum cone is clamshelled by the front and back of the body.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A pair of Steve Olson's Cone Tone Reso-Volt guitars.

We’re downstairs at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. There’s a lot of talent inside these walls. (See a previous Artisans of Michigan from Elderly here.)

“This place is like an incubator, really. You can bounce ideas off everybody. It’s pretty fertile ground in here and you get to see just the best examples of historic instruments and you get to see what the good stuff is,” Steve Olson said.

Under his Cone Tone company, Olson has designed a resonator guitar which can be played acoustically or plugged in.

Resonator guitars have been around for a long time. National is the best known brand. The resonating sound is caused by an aluminum cone. But Olson collaborated with some of his colleagues at Elderly and came up with a unique way to amplify the resonator.

“They can, you know, they can be kind of feedback problems live. To put a microphone on it, it’s like a parabolic microphone. It just picks up everything and it’s kind of squirrely. So, I tried to isolate the cone inside the guitar. So, I designed the guitar around it. So, it’s like a clamshell that protects the cone,” he said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Steve Olson holds the molded polycarbonate top before it's trimmed and finished with a napthalene based lacquer.

LG: Sounds like something we need to hear.

“It’s probably the easiest, so, I’ll give you an example.”

Olson launched into a blues song. 

“It’s a combination trying to capture the resonator guitar in a solid-body-ish format, I guess, or a package so that people that can play electric guitars and are comfortable with electric guitars can just pick it up and not have to really adjust to a bigger body or the acoustic sound of the resonator necessarily. I mean, they’re harder to amplify,” Olson explained.

Part of what makes it all work is what’s called a biscuit-bridge pickup. Whatever Olson and colleagues have done to theirs, one report says it’s caused a minor sensation in the resonator world.

The guitar has a flame-maple back and a polycarbonate top. Olson has a special formula he uses for the finish on the top piece.

“The idea originally was to replicate the finish from the ‘30s that National used on the metal-bodied guitars, primarily the Duolean. It’s a napthalene-based laquer. So, when you spray it on, it crystalizes as it dries so the patterns form naturally," Olson said.

It's a distinctive look that sets his guitars apart from other electrics.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Olson holds a National resonator guitar. He was inspired by aspects of earlier resonators.

“Well, I think it evokes the feel of the original guitars, you know, it hints at it I guess. So, it captures some of that, but in an electric guitar format. I’ve re-done vintage Nationals and then it just kind of evolved out of that. Personally, I just kind of got obsessed with it," he said.

Guitar Player magazine reviewed the Cone Town Reso-Volt a couple of years ago and concluded: “If you’re not a resonator player already, this thing is likely to hook you.”

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