Mule Resophonic - Steel single cone resonator review
I can almost picture the initial reaction from guitarists upon casting their eyes for the first time on the unique resonator guitar designed by John Dopyera. It must have been one of uncertainly and curiosity. It was before the time of amplifiers and pickups. Flat and arched top guitars were not quite satisfying needs in big band environments. What Mr Dopyera created under the request of guitarist George Beauchamp was something that projected incredibly well, which at the time was revolutionary, but sadly they soon were outdated by the introduction of the electric guitar pickup. But perhaps the detail that aided the guitar design's longevity as an instrument, was its unique tonal qualities. 
To some, the resonator guitar is just an homage to those early, pre-electric times, a time capsule arcing back to blues music on crackling shellac. It's easy to understand why, with many, if not the majority of manufacturers still making and marketing resonators today in such traditional ways and styles.
After the invention of the electric guitar pickup, their requirements in the big band environment died out, but resonators had cemented their place in musical history. That wasn't where they deserved to stay and be forgotten though. Hawaiian musicians experimented with them and discovered how well the instrument favoured slide techniques, and with this similar discovery throughout the heart of America it quickly helped sculpt the blues sound of the era too. Fast forward to the 1980s, and the resonator saw a spike in interest after the iconic Brothers in Arms album cover by Dire Straits featured Mark Knopflers prized National single cone, Hawaiian theme etched guitar. In my experience, this created another niche pigeon hole for the resonator guitar to get filed in, unintentionally of course, but to most guitarists this is their perception of a resonator guitar to this day.
To me, that's why the work of Matt Eich captured my interest instantly when I first heard of them back in early 2015. This was a luthier who until starting Mule Resophonic Guitars hadn't built a resonator, his influence wasn't that of crackling blues on shellac nor the Brothers in Arms cover. This was a fresh set of eyes, and the instruments reflect that.

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

I've been lucky enough to play nearly 10 of Matt's instruments at this point, and I get a real sense from them that there's a strive to redefine their place in the modern guitar market whilst still tipping the hat to the guitar designed by John Dopyera all those years ago.

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

A Mule Resonator's aesthetic might look like it has been brought straight back by Doc Brown via his DeLorian from the 1920s, with their heavy patina and Style O body shape, but there's a whole lot more going on than meets the eye.
This example, number '326' out of the workshop in Saginaw Michigan, features a steel body construction, single biscuit cone resonator and a classy slotted headstock. Here's were some of ideas start to unveil themselves. The body is top grade stainless steel, raw and covered in this characterful patina. A process of heating it, spraying solutions onto it and rubbing them in. This isn't relic'ing that has become so popular in recent years, as you won't find dinks, scratches or dents anywhere. This idea presented itself to Matt after seeing sublime slide guitarist, Kelly Joe Phelps joke at a gig about his chrome coated National blinding the audience with the lights reflecting off it's shiny finish. 

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

The body edges are beautifully finished with a slight bevel whilst retaining those raw looks. The steel is pretty thin, and this was one of the things that became very obvious as to why that is upon first playing a Mule. These guitars aren't 'stiff' like their chrome coated counterparts, the back vibrates and resonates as you play, like a well made steel string flat top acoustic would. Perhaps this aspect was influenced by Matt's time working for the well renowned flat top maker, Huss & Dalton. This has a direct effect on the playing experience as well as the tone produced. That interaction of feeling the guitar vibrate against you is addictive and engaging, but it also creates something that Mules have become known for, a natural reverb that emits from the guitar whilst playing. A sense of space surrounds each note, fretted, open or with a slide, with sweet spots for capturing that reverb depending where you strike the string across the playing area.

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

Peer inside the body through the simplistic F-Hole and you'll see one of the latest of Matt's ideas. A baffle made of thin torrefied maple curved from the back of the guitar towards the rustic F's. The idea behind this baffle is to harness some of the tonal frequencies and volume lost inside the body of the guitar, helping project it right through the F-Holes. This recent tweak was a superb addition, which helps produce a very clear tone, further improve volume and also showing how Matt isn't set in stone by sticking with the traditional methods of building a resonator guitar.  

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

Moving to the cone and biscuit, you'll see another of Matt's ideas. The biscuit and bridge is now made of torrefied maple. A much denser material than traditional modern maple due to the process of torrefaction, which extracts moisture found in 'new' wood through a strict process of heating it in special kiln. This bridge and saddle also really helps further develop clear tone of the guitar, with very defined notes which paired with the quality cone and other innovations in the guitar's steel body creates a very inspiring play.
As you can probably tell, Matt's use of torrefied maple is no accident. With it now being offered as a neck upgrade material in both quartersawn and pretty wild looking flamed options as well. This is more than just a visual treat with it's rich, caramel coloured appearance though. The process of torrefaction also makes the material incredibly stable, which for a neck is definitely a good thing. Pair that with two titanium rods running either side of the truss rod channel and you can be confident this neck is as stable as they possibly get! 

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

This guitar features the quartersawn torrefied maple option, and has a gorgeous V profile, and the oiled finish is absolute silk to the touch. During those first few months of first finding out about Mule Resophonic Guitars, I was met with nothing but praise and talk about how darned good the necks were. To think he has even more under his belt now gives you an idea just how good this guitar feels in your hands. Hand carved to perfection I would say! The neck on number 326 measures at around 21.5mm with a nut width of 47mm.
The fretboard is bound by a lovely light coloured maple which is rather pleasing to the eye indeed and contrasts beautifully to the caramel neck and swirly dark black and light brown ebony fretboard. The fretboard itelf is a flat radius with a medium fret wire, which might take a little getting used to if you're usually found playing flat top acoustics or electric guitars, but it soon becomes natural and if you're a slide player too, you'll certainly feel the benefit of this feature.

Mule steel single cone resonator review
At the top of the fretboard sits a more modern black Tusq nut, beautifully well cut and slotted and tonally helps maintain that clear tone produced down at the bridge end.

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

The headstock on this build is slotted, which looks really traditional and especially stylish due to the metal Mule shaped inlay at the top. Matt developed and has had his own tuners made, which are three a side style, each side on a single mounting plate. They function very smoothly and seeing as a lot of resonator players are changing tuning regularly from standard to various open tunings, they are solid and suitably well geared. Aesthetically though they suit the rest of the body patina perfectly. 

Mule Steel Single cone resonator review

A Mule's clearer tone, beautifully comfortable neck, perfect fretting, setup and natural reverb characteristics have found themselves a new fan base. They've opened up the world of resonator guitars to players that perhaps would never had considering owning one prior. They're showing the guitar world that there is a lot more to enjoy from a resonator than just blues, Romeo & Juliet and hula girl etchings.

Mule steel single cone resonator review

There has been a surge of videos and recordings of players creating new sounds seldom heard or played on a resonator before and Mule's are inspiring that to happen, both due tp Matt's approach to making guitars and of course the instruments themselves. This particular guitar is no exception and a joy to play and hear. 

For more information on Mule Resonators, please visit for USA and worldwide, and www.homeoftone.co.uk for UK and Europe.

Comments

Geoff

Geoff said:

Nicely done James: informative and beautifully illustrated. If anyone can read that and not want one… And mine’s getting closer!

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