The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves
The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves

The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves

Josh - September 25, 2018

The Guitar. Soft yet loud, powerful but humble; it’s hard to imagine life without one. It is an instrument so synonymous with Western music that a song almost feels naked without it. Can you think back to one of the first times you ever really heard a guitar and felt goosebumps? For me, it was “I feel fine” from The Beatles. Hearing John Lennon hit his guitar to give it a little bit of feedback right before the classic intro rift that kicks off the song had me hooked. At that moment, I wanted to pick up a guitar and never look back. I wanted to hit those notes, nail down the solos, and challenge myself everyday to become better just like the rest of my guitar hero’s growing up. B.B. King, David Gilmour, Nancy Wilson, and Joni Mitchell are just a small representation of all the artists that have taken advantage of such a versatile instrument, making it their own. Forever changing the way we write music and how musicians approach playing a guitar on a daily basis.

But where did the six string wonder come from? How did it so easily take over? Is it an American invention? Or are the roots of the guitar’s heritage a little deeper and require some digging to uncover the truth? As I pluck along resources, delving into the family tree of what I consider the perfect instrument, hopefully I can draw some new attention and affinity for a timeless workhorse.

The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves
One of the earliest surviving ancestors of a guitar. Built by Jacopo Checchucci. Photo Museumoffinearts,boston.com

Birth Of An Icon And The Start Of A Never Ending Love Affair.

The guitar’s exact beginnings are somewhat shrouded in a mystery. Because of earlier specimen’s fragility, very few have survived, making it somewhat difficult to truly trace its genealogy. Parts of Spain during the 15th century had two instruments that resembled a guitar. One was called a Vihuela. An instrument that had a smaller body with a gentle waist shape, but whose stringing, tuning, and social status was more closely related to the lute. There was also variously named Guitarra or Guiterne, which was smaller in size and seemed to serve more of a rhythmic role rather than a lead role in music.

The first instruments, however, that can be properly called a guitar, came about in France and in the Iberian Peninsula by the middle of the 1500’s. These instruments were usually referred to as Baroque guitars. They boasted four pairs of gut strings (adopting 5 pairs by the sixteenth century). The fret markers on the fingerboard were also made of gut, tied around the neck and adjustable in placement. They were extremely light and delicate, often with slender bodies, with a bow in the back of the guitar, rather than flat seen in modern classical guitars, and very slight waists. Most guitars that survived these era’s were dressed up, functional forms of art. Most luthiers took great pride in their work often using materials such as ebony and rosewood for the body of the guitars, ivory nut and saddles, mother-of-pearl for inlays, and tortoiseshells. Sometimes even adorning the guitars with silver and gold. These factors help drive the notion that the first guitars were mostly owned by wealthy patrons. With the working class usually buying more utilitarian pieces from luthiers.

The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves
One of the first steel six string guitars. Built by Christian Frederick Martin, founder of the Martin Guitar Company.
Photo pinterest

The Guitar Gets Its First Familiar Face Lifts, And A Rise in Popularity.

Beginning somewhere in the late 18th century (1770’s or so) the guitar experienced a few tweaks and starts to resemble what we now recognize as a modern acoustic guitar. The most obvious and visible is the addition of a sixth string. Around the the early 1600’s, five strings on the guitar was the norm. French and Italian luthiers would first start the practice of making six string guitars. There would also be other additions like a lengthened neck to aid in play-ability, French makers would introduce bridges in which the strings were held in place by wood or ivory pins as opposed to tied on like gut string guitars. And by the early 1800’s, wood tuning pegs were being replaced by more reliable metal worm gear “tuning machines”. The fretboard would also get a new innovation as well, now boasting inlaid metal or ivory frets. Taking place of the more common adjustable tied on gut string frets. This allowed for consistent intonation up and down the fretboard.

The most important improvement, however, is what happened inside of the guitar rather than on the outside. Guitars before these had very plain internal structures. They had to use thicker tops sides and backs along with heavier glues in order to maintain structural integrity of the instrument. By the late 1750’s, Spanish guitar makers started applying struts or bracing underneath the lower bout of the top piece that were angled in a fan-like pattern. This fan bracing would go on to give the instrument greater strength and allowing still strings to take place of gut strings, the bodies guitars could also become wider in larger with a more pronounced waste and greater curvature in upper and lower bouts. This in turn made the guitar louder, brighter, had a better tonal response. For the first time, a guitar could stand out as an instrument rather than blend into the music.

 

The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves
A Pons fils Lyre guitar. Circa 1810. Photometmuseum.org

The Motley Crew Of The Guitar World.

Before I march on too further, I would like to touch on a few designs that were definitely more about status rather than playability. These include the various shapes and sizes of the Lyre guitar, the Harp guitar families. There are dozens of designs for each of these models and are worth looking at the next time you have a hankering for something old and odd. The lyre guitar were made in many parts of Europe, but they were the most prevalent in France. Mimicking the appearance of a lyre, this instrument had a deep but very dull tone. Often having flat bases and played in a seating position, these instruments were more geared towards amateurs. Albeit wealthy amateurs. Giving most professional guitarists scoffed at the design and rough playability of these instruments.

The Harp guitar is another odd but beautiful sounding instrument. Having one six string neck on the lower half resembling a normal acoustic, the top half has a overarching arm with 3 to 5 bass strings that are simply plucked, not fretted, in order to accompany the six string portion with a bass line. These guitars first appeared in the late sixteenth century, but turn-of-the-century specimens are much more functional and resemble the modern design that is still used today. Although those who play it are few and far between and those who play it well are even more scarce. An artist named Andy McKee can be found often playing a Harp guitar.

 

The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves
A 1956 Martin D-28. One of the most iconic and copied guitar platforms of all time. Photo gruhn guitars.com

The Iconic Workhorse Is Born.

In 1916 during the midst of WWI, a new American icon is born. Named after a British battleship and built by a German born Luthier named Christian Frederick Martin, the first ever dreadnought style guitar had surfaced. Manufactured for the Oliver Ditson Company, these new guitars were intimidating at first. With a large bottom bout, Martin’s own X bracing underneath the top, and built out of spruce wood used in the top pieces and mahogany side and backs (later switched to Brazilian rosewood) help produce loud and rich booming tones to the like of which had never been heard before. The Oliver Ditson Company would collapse in 1920 but in 1931 Martin would manufacture these guitars in place the Martin name on the headstock. These guitar models, D-1 and D-2, would forever solidify their name as guitar giants. Any 1930’s model, namley the Herringbone style D-28’s, of these guitars are considered to be the Holy Grail of acoustic guitars and sell well into the six figure range.

Another contender at the time was the Gibson guitar company. In those days, however, they were a mandolin company. Gibson had a different approach to building a new, larger body guitar. Appropriately named the arch top guitar and given the title of a Gibson L-5, these guitars were built with an arch in the middle on the top. Much like a mandolin. They also had a floating bridge, slightly smaller neck width, and usually a shorter scale length than most Martin’s had at the time. A scale length being the distance between the nut and the bridge of the guitar. Shorter scale links are attributed to easier playing but larger scale lengths tend to be louder.

The Western Muse: A Brief History on How the Guitar Got its Curves
Eric Clapton playing an Iconic Fender Stratocaster.
Photo wikipedia

The Electric Guitar: The Instrument That Changed Music Forever

Without the hard work of Leo Fender, Les Paul, and Adolph Rickenbacker, the electric guitar may have been many decades later rather than sooner. Adolph Rickenbacker was the first to explore magnetic wound pickups and placing them over top of the strings of acoustic instruments. But it wouldn’t be until Leo Fender founding the Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1946 that we would see our first two commercially successful solid body electric guitars. A single pickup version named “The Esquire” and a double pickup version named “The Broadcaster”. The double pickup guitar would shortly get a name change to the Telecaster and has been in production since 1950 and is a wildly successful instrument. Other Fender instruments include the Stratocaster, the Jaguar, and the jazz master. The Stratocaster reaching the most success and possibly one of the two most easily identifiable guitars ever built. The other being the Les Paul.

Les Paul had always tinkered with the idea of the electric guitar. At 12 years old he stuck a pickup from a record player inside his acoustic guitar, and then placed a telephone’s mouthpiece under the strings, and then wired them both to his parents’ radio to function as an amp/speaker combo. He would then go on to build a frakenguitar know as “The Log” his cumbersome first attempt at a true electric guitar. But it wasn’t until 1952 that he had his success, developing what is now known as the “Gold Top” Les Paul. The Les Paul will go on to be one of the most successful guitar styles of all time. Originally built to be an “easier to handle” jazz guitar it has conquered every form of music from blues to heavy metal and everything in between. Although minor alterations to the body style have happened over the course of the decades they all still very much resemble the first ever mass produce guitar that Les Paul and Gibson collaborated together to develop.

 

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“Who Really invented the electric guitar?”, Reverb.com, Rich Mayloof, June-29-2017.

“Dangerous Curves; The Art Of Guitar”, MFA Publications, Darcy Kuronen, 2000

“Guitar History and Facts”, Britannica, Editors of Brittanic Encyclopedia.

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