Photos from the Vault

Remembering Don Young, co-founder of National Reso-Phonic Guitars

Don Young, left, in his trademark engineers cap and McGregor Gaines at National Resophonic-Guitars shop in San Luis Obispo in 2000. Many National guitar fans say Young and McGregor's work exceeds the quality of vintage models.
Don Young, left, in his trademark engineers cap and McGregor Gaines at National Resophonic-Guitars shop in San Luis Obispo in 2000. Many National guitar fans say Young and McGregor's work exceeds the quality of vintage models.

National Reso-Phonic Guitars creates instruments that excite the ears, engage the eyes and lift the heart.

The last time I went to the company to photograph a story in 2014, co-founder Don Young had retired. I missed his sense of humor and hearing him play guitar.

On Wednesday, Don Young passed away.

Eric Smith, president/CEO of National Reso-phonic, wrote in an email, “I’ve worked with Don for 24 years. Throughout those years I have never met a more caring individual. He was so proud of what he had created but even more proud of the individuals he worked with. Don was a family man that cared deeply about his children, wife, employees and his community.

“I’m thankful to have had such an outstanding mentor, and friend. He will be greatly missed by all that had the opportunity to know him.”

Young and McGregor Gaines founded the company that produces iconic nickel-plated guitars in 1989. It was a resurrection of the original National Guitars, which shut down in the 1950s.

There were only a limited number of the original guitars in circulation when the new company was born in a Long Beach garage. The new guitars were so good that the value of vintage guitars fell.

George Gruhn, founder of Nashville’s vintage guitar mecca, Gruhn Guitars, said in a Tribune Oct. 1, 2000 article: “They have actually hurt my market for the originals. I can’t think of anything else like that happening in the guitar business. That’s a real testament to their quality.”

In 1990, Young and Gaines moved manufacturing to San Luis Obispo where current owner Eric Smith joined the company.

Over the years, National has been featured in several Tribune and Telegram-Tribune articles. The guitars are in the hands of musicians like Keb’ Mo’, Ani DiFranco, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt.

In an Oct. 1, 2000, article headlined, “Shining like a National guitar,” Joe Brekke wrote:

There are some things a real blues musician knows: the ache of unrequited love, the lyrics to ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and the sound of a National Guitar.

Loud, bright clear tones on high notes and sustained booming bass notes make Nationals instantly recognizable to the trained ear and inimitable by other guitar makers.

Further in the story, Brekke wrote:

Young saw his first National guitar in a Whittier, Calif. pawnshop window while ditching Sunday school in 1964. He was 11 years old at the time and the image stuck with him while he struggled through basic guitar lessons.

When he finally heard a National played by ‘Black Ace,’ a Delta-blues musician who recorded in the 1930s, Young got serious about studying the old guitars.

“It was that sound,” he explained last week from the San Luis workshop, surrounded by brass bodies becoming new Nationals. “I was interested in the blues and this was what the original guys were using. I had to have one.”

He also needed a job. Young’s first resonator guitar was a Dobro, made by the Dopyera brothers, creators of the original National resonators. With a little instrument repair work behind him, Young applied for a job with Dobro in Long Beach.

“I started out sanding necks and working on finishes, screwing up in one department and moving on to the next,” Young recalled with a laugh. “I had about four stints there in a 15-year period.”

After his first few months at Dobro, Young was asked to leave. It was because of his work ethic. it was too high.

Guitars were leaving the Dobro shop with imperfections and Young didn’t think they should. He was vocal about his frustration to his superiors. Three other times he left on his own.

“I left Dobro several times to try to make my own guitars and came crawling back each time it didn’t work out,’ Young said. “Then I met McGregor and we were different people who had done totally different types of things, but we made it work.”

Young had the passion for guitar. Gaines had the eye for design.

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Tribune writer Melanie Cleveland wrote March 7, 2006:

James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton all have something from San Luis Obispo. They own mechanically amplified, resonator guitars made by National Reso-Phonic Guitars in San Luis Obispo.

Developed in the 1920s for jazz and Hawaiian music, the resonator instruments were a favorite among Delta blues musicians before the electric guitar craze took hold.

“We are the music link between acoustic and electric guitars,” said Don Young, the company president who co-owns the manufacturing firm with his partner, McGregor Gaines, who is vice president. The pair started the company in the late 1980s.

But the resonating instruments, which range in price from $1,900 to $16,000 for a custom job, are proving to be more than collector’s items.

Modern blues revivalists like Grammy Award-winner Keb’ Mo’, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart and David Holt all play the guitars.

In San Luis Obispo since 1989, the partners are now the only guitar makers bearing the National brand in the country, shipping out 850 to 1,000 stringed instruments a year to cities around the world.

“Our polished metal bodies are a perfect palette for some beautiful engraved work, “ Young said.

What you see: The factory hums behind three large garage doors on the backside of an 8,100-square-foot warehouse near the train tracks off Broad Street.

About 300 wood and steel guitars and a few mandolins and ukuleles are being shaped, assembled, stamped, buffed, engraved and shipped out of a maze of rooms filled with artisans, metal-cutting and wood-milling machines, sawdust and metal tailings.

“The only things we don’t make for the instruments are tuning machines and fret wires,” Gaines said. Fret wires are the T-shaped metal strips used on guitar necks to regulate the fingering.

What Young and Gaines see: Young says every day is “something big and wonderful — a process that is true creativity.”

Gaines adds: “I’m looking at a lot of people (24 employees) in the community doing stimulating work that requires skill and ability.”

What they like best: Young is jazzed about working hands-on with these musical instruments.

“I play these guitars every day, testing them out, seeing how far they’ll go, “ he said.

Gaines said his natural tendency is toward the artistic elements of designing the guitars. Both enjoy finding ways to increase their productivity, while also keeping the plant a desirable place to work.

“San Luis Obispo is where we want to live, “ Young said. “So we’re going to find ways to make it work. San Luis Obispo is where this company is going to stay, as far as I’m concerned, forever.”