An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Slovak Inventors 3/4: Jan Dopjera and Dobro Guitars

Posted on March 23, 2014

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You mean there is more? Well, like most middle-class white British males born in the 1980s, I play guitar. Sure, the one I play is usually slightly more distorted than most, but a guitar it is nonetheless. No, a Slovak didn’t invent the guitar, but a Slovak could certainly argue to be the inventor of modern acoustic instruments. Plus, he would go on to own a company called Dobro and as their slogan said, ‘dobro means good in any language’.

Jan Dopjera was born in 1893, the eldest son of ten siblings. His papa was a miller in Dolna Krupa, near Trnava, all be it a miller who made his own violins. Jan was encouraged to enter this same craft, and built his first fiddle as a child. The bug was well and truly embedded in the boy. The Dopjera family moved to the United States in 1908 due to the impending war in Europe, despite their reluctance. They first went to New York, before heading to the West Coast. They went across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, before eventually settling in Los Angeles. They found jobs in various craft industries, and became involved in the various Slavic communities in the States at the time. Jan’s sister was even an official in the National Slovak League of America.

Jan and his father would go on to start a cabinet making and repair shop, where they also repaired instruments, as with their previous experience back home. By Jan’s early 20s, he was manufacturing banjos. His life would change thanks to a chance encounter however, with a vaudeville guitar player called George Beauchamp. Beauchamp came with complaints that his acoustic guitar could not compete with the other instruments in his vaudeville orchestra, something that had plagued him for many years. After long discussions, they came across the idea to place aluminum resonators into the body of the guitar in order to amplify the sound. Their experiments began, and they ended with the construction of an all-metal Hawaiian guitar. It was three or four times louder than your ordinary acoustic guitar. They called the company the National String Instrument Corporation, mass production started, and mass selling started with it.

The partnership wouldn’t last however, as Beauchamp was kinda shitty with the company finances. Dopjera took the decision to resign, and with this the Dobro guitar was born. Again, dobro is good in any language. The difference here was that the Dobro resonator was concave, with a bridge placed in the middle of the aluminum ‘spider-web’ arrangement. This was the mid to late 1920s however, and economic misery was abound in the States. Beauchamp’s previously documented financial failures led to the National String Instrument Corporation becoming essentially bankrupt. Jan’s brother bought them out, as well as buying half the shares in Dobro, and the company was moved to Chicago. They manufactured many guitars until World War Two pretty much put a stop to any and all materials being passed around.

As well as the resonator guitar, Dopjera would invent the first industrially produced electrified Spanish guitar, and would hold numerous patents including the very first on an electric violin. He was also obsessed with health foods, long before the fad hit the globe. Diet-obsessed, he would try all sorts of things all the while recording the effect it had on his body. Unsurprisingly he lived to be 94 years old, dying in 1988. Good work Jan, good work. 

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