The name originated in 1928 when the Dopyera brothers formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company. "Dobro" is both a contraction of "'''Do'''pyera '''bro'''thers" and a word meaning "good" in their native Slovak language. An early company motto was "Dobro means good in any language."
The Dobro was the third resonator guitar design by John Dopyera, the inventor of the resonator guitar, but the second to enter production. Unlike his earlier tricone design, the Dobro had a single resonator cone and it was inverted, with its concave surface facing up. The Dobro company described this as a bowl shaped resonator.
The Dobro was louder than the tricone and cheaper to produce. Cost of manufacture had, in Dopyera's opinion, priced the resonator guitar beyond the reach of many players, and his failure to convince his fellow directors at the National String Instrument Corporation to produce a single-cone version was part of his motivation for leaving.
Since National had applied for a patent on the single cone (US patent #1,808,756), Dopyera had to develop an alternative design, which he did by inverting the cone so that rather than having the strings rest on the apex of the cone as the National method did, they rested on a cast aluminum spider that had eight legs sitting on the perimeter of the upside-down cone (US patent #1,896,484).
In the following years both Dobro and National built a wide variety of metal- and wood-bodied single-cone guitars, while National also continued with the tricone for a time. Both companies sourced many components from National director Adolph Rickenbacher and John Dopyera continued to be a major shareholder in National. By 1934 the Dopyera brothers had gained control of both National and Dobro and they merged the companies to form the National-Dobro Corporation.
From the outset, wooden bodies had been sourced from existing guitar manufacturers, particularly the plywood student guitar bodies made by the Regal Musical Instrument Company. Dobro had granted Regal a license to manufacture resonator instruments, and by 1937, it was the only manufacturer, and the license was officially made exclusive. Regal-manufactured resonator instruments continued to be sold under many names, including Regal, Dobro, Old Kraftsman, and Ward. However all production of resonator guitars ceased following the US entry into the Second World War in 1941.
Emil Dopyera (also known as Ed Dopera) manufactured Dobros from 1959 under the brand name Dopera's Original before selling the company and name to Semie Moseley, who merged it with his Mosrite guitar company and manufactured Dobros for a time. Meanwhile, in 1967, Rudy and Emil Dopyera formed the Original Musical Instrument Company (OMI) to manufacture resonator guitars, which were at first branded Hound Dog. However, in 1970, they again acquired the Dobro name, Mosrite having gone into temporary liquidation.
OMI, together with the Dobro name, was acquired by the Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1993. They renamed the company Original Acoustic Instruments and moved production to Nashville. Gibson now uses the name Dobro only for models with the inverted-cone design used originally by the Dobro Manufacturing Company. Gibson also manufactures biscuit-style single-resonator guitars, but it sells them under names such as Hound Dog and Epiphone.
The Dobro is often used in a clichéd manner in movies or television shows to indicate that the scene has shifted to a Southern American locale or landscape, whether wilderness or a run-down town (usually in the summer). When this happens, it's playing a note that lazily slides upward a perfect fourth, generally followed by a few plucked chords descending to the original note. Aficionados of the instrument consider this a condescending novelty done in ignorance of the musical depth, scope and intricacies of the instrument.