April 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part II

Hello again. Part II of CRAVE Guitars’ abridged history of the world’s favourite instrument continues from the point where Part I left off (March 2018 → read the first article here). For brevity (!), I won’t repeat the rationale or contextual backstory up to this point.

 

Part II covers the period starting shortly after the beginning of the European Renaissance in the 15th Century and covers the development of the acoustic guitar as we know it, largely up to the middle of the 20th Century. So, without further ado, here we go stepping right back into the story where the last part left off…

 

Renaissance (1400-1600 CE)… Continued

The lute remained fashionable in Europe in both Spain and, particularly, Sicily. The popularity of the nascent instrument was through its use as a solo instrument in European courts during the 16th Century. The number of string courses used by the lute increased considerably, to as many as 14 or 19, or more, courses. Over time, however, the lute diminished in popularity, with keyboard instruments and the guitar eventually taking over. Its descent was so marked that, by 1800, the lute was pretty much absent from European social life.

 

The Spanish vihuela emerged in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries. The vihuela was a small flat‑backed, guitar instrument that derived its influence directly from the earlier ‘Spanish Guitars’. The vihuela’s appearance included the now familiar waisted ‘hourglass’ body shape, the circular sound hole with ornamental ‘rosette’, 10 moveable tied gut frets and 6 courses of gut strings. The vihuela’s tuning, however, was often distinctly more lute-like, often tuned to either G, C, F, A, D, G or A, D, G, B, E, A. Design and construction of the vihuela, however, tended to vary considerably during its reign, with the ‘vihuela da mano’, played with the fingers (rather than with a bow or plectrum), becoming the dominant form. Although the vihuela’s influence in Spain, Portugal and Italy diminished to be superseded by other forms of early guitar, it may, arguably, be the legitimate grandparent of the contemporary (12‑string) guitar. As if to support this notion, there is a small number of books of printed music tablature (or Spanish cifra translated as cipher) for the vihuela dating from the 16th Century, suggesting its use for formal performance music by skilled vihuelists. Only 2 examples of the vihuela are known to survive in museum collections, one in Italy, the other in France.

Vihuela – Jaquemart-Andre Museum

 

Effectively succeeding the Spanish vihuela was the plain (i.e. undecorated) Renaissance guitar, which began to rise in popularity from the second half of the 16th Century and remained fashionable well into the 17th Century. These instruments were slightly smaller than the Spanish vihuela and initially had 10 frets, later increased to 12 frets. The Renaissance guitar tended to have 4 courses of stings tuned to G, C, E, A.

Renaissance Guitar – Stradivarius c.1680

 

The first written music notation for guitar began to appear in the mid-16th Century, initially in tablature (tab) format, soon to be superseded by modern staff manuscript. Early pieces for a 4‑course guitarra were published by Alonso de Mudarra in Spain in 1546 and an early manuscript by Miguel Fuenllana for the chitarra battente (see below) dates from around the same period (1554). A substantial amount of material appeared in France from c.1550-1570, principally by French musician Adrian le Roy, as the instrument gained popularity with the aristocracy.

 

Baroque Era (1600-1750 CE)

While the Renaissance guitar was rather plain and undecorated, the Baroque guitar (chitarra barocca), which originated during the baroque period of music from c.1600‑1750 was quite ornate in comparison. In addition, Baroque guitars gained an extra course of strings increasing from 4 to 5 courses tuned to A, D, G, B, E. The guitars were widely used in Spain, Italy and France, mostly by the wealthy classes. Baroque instrumental and dance court music was particularly popular at the time and contributed significantly towards subsequent development of the instrument and of classical guitar music.

Baroque Guitar – Matteo Sellas 1630-50

 

Another branch of the guitar family tree from the same period includes the 4 or 5‑course chitarra battente (Italian for ‘strumming guitar’) commonly used in Italy. The instrument was traditionally played by folk musicians although it was also known to be used in court music. The chitarra battente comprised an ‘hourglass’ body shape and was similar to, although commonly slightly larger than, the baroque guitar. A number of 17th Century instruments are known to exist in museum collections.

Chitarra Battente – Jacopo Mosca Cavelli 1725

 

These various forms of early guitar continued incremental change including the introduction of metal strings and frets to replace gut. By the 16th and 17th Century, the ‘standard’ guitar tuning of A, D, G, B, E was proving popular and was becoming established. The tuning was equivalent to the top 5 strings of the modern guitar, although re-entrant tunings (where single strings are not tuned in order from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch) were also used during the same period.

 

By the late 16th and early 17th Century, the immediate predecessors of the ‘modern’ classical and flamenco guitars were firmly established. According to many historians, the documented history of the present-day classical guitar as we know it today really starts around this time – the ‘guitar’ had finally arrived.

 

The familiar shape of the guitar had been refined and had become largely well‑established. The traditional characteristics were in place including a flat front and back, distinct waist bouts providing the familiar and distinctive ‘hourglass’ body shape, a long, slim fretted neck and mechanical tuning on the headstock. However, the number of courses or single strings and tuning had not yet been fully standardised.

 

Classical Era (1750-1820)

While the European Renaissance was hugely important in bridging the gap between early guitar-like instruments and the recognisable forbears of the modern guitar, it certainly isn’t the end of the story. Musical styles and tastes in Europe were changing and the guitar was able to adapt to the major shift from baroque to classical music composition c.1750.

 

The 6-course guitar commonly appeared first in Spain during the classical period of music covering c.1750-1820, effectively using the same principle as today’s 12-string guitar. The modern-day ‘standard’ guitar tuning, E A D G B E, was in common use by c.1770 and by 1800, the practice of using six single strings had largely taken over from the earlier 5‑courses of paired strings. Many of these now‑‘obsolete’ 5‑course guitars were easily adapted to 6 single strings by simply removing the 2nd and 4th rows of the original 5 pairs of tuners from the headstock and adjusting the bridge and nut to suit. The change to 6 single strings was probably driven by musical tastes and the need for a louder, clearer-sounding instrument that could also be used for both solo and ensemble performance.

 

The Romantic Guitar

Not to be confused with the ‘Romantic Era’ of music (1820-1900 CE), the development of the romantic guitar predated the time period that it was known for. The basic body construction of these early guitars was relatively unchanged from those that preceded them, with transverse bracing struts used to support the top soundboard. However, incremental improvements had been made over time. The move from tied gut frets to fixed metal frets made of brass and the introduction of tuning gears, rather than violin pegs of previous instruments, became common. The consistent approach to guitar making in Europe between c.1790 and c.1830 is often referred to as belonging to the early romantic guitar. Known examples of early romantic guitars appear from the start of this period although opinions differ as to authenticity of the ‘first’ surviving specimen. The romantic guitar is often cited as the immediate precursor to the modern classical guitar that became established from the mid-19th Century.

 

During the first half of the 19th Century, many classical music composers used or played the romantic guitar, including several familiar names such as Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Franz Schubert (1797-1827) and Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Schubert is often quoted as saying “The guitar is a wonderful instrument which is understood by few”.

Romantic Guitar – René Lacôte 1830

 

Geographically, Naples in Italy had been a centre for educating religious and performance musicians since the mid‑16th Century and this continued right up to the 19th Century. The guitar developed as a serious instrument during the Baroque period and into the classical period, partly as a result of the influential major music conservatories based in Italy. The surge in popularity of the instrument led to the development of the luthiers’ craft, not only for guitars but also for violin and mandolin manufacture. There is no doubt that the craftsmanship involved with Italian instrument manufacture during the romantic guitar period was outstanding.

 

Influential luthiers from the romantic guitar period include Italians Gaetano Vinaccia (1759-c.1831), Giovanni Battista Fabricatore (c.1777-c.1849) and Pierre René Lacôte (c.1785-c.1868).

 

Coincidentally, prominent guitar players from the period include Italians Federico Moretti (1769‑1839) and Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829).

 

Romantic Era (1830-1900 CE)

The influence of romantic guitar on the broader romantic era of music is debateable. What was crucial to the guitar’s success was the ability of the luthiers who made them and the musicians who played them to adapt to changing styles of popular music.

 

Up to this point, evolution in the guitar’s development had been incremental and largely reactionary, i.e. responding positively to prevailing cultural circumstances rather than dictating them. Luthiers had adopted the skills, knowledge and experience of their predecessors and passed them onto the next generation with only minimal change and improvement. However, things were about to change significantly and a fundamental shift in the design and construction was about to transform the acoustic guitar and this would in turn thereafter drive musical development.

 

Over recent years, the level of interest in period instruments has grown considerably. The result of renewed fascination in the past is that there are many modern‑day luthiers making accurate recreations of historic instruments, as well as many musicians playing music in the style of the time, keeping the important heritage alive for future generations.

 

Revolutions in Classical and Acoustic Guitar Construction

While still in the formal ‘Romantic Era’ of music, the mid-19th Century led to two landmark developments in the path to the modern instrument. While these innovations occurred separately on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, they came to define modern classical and acoustic guitars as we know them today. They also, arguably, paved the way to the even more revolutionary advances that took place during the 20th Century, but more of that later in the story.

 

One of these breakthroughs occurred in southern Spain from around 1860 while the other leap forward occurred on the east coast of the United States of America from about 1850.

 

Spanish Innovation and Development

Spanish luthier, Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892), introduced a major breakthrough in classical guitar design from the 1860s onwards. Torres worked in Seville and then in Almeria, Spain; the location of his workshops largely defined the two major periods (the so‑called ‘epochs’) of his work.

 

Up to this point, many classical guitars used what is called ladder bracing – a simple method where braces supporting the top sound board were in a grid aligned with and perpendicular to the strings. Torres’ revolutionary approach was to introduce fan‑braced soundboards with thinner strips of timber diverging from the sound hole to the base of the body in a fan shape. This seemingly simple invention enabled Torres to make guitars with larger bodies and thinner tops without increasing the weight of the instrument. In addition Torres popularised the use of mechanical machine heads for tuning strings, rather than wooden pegs.

Acoustic Guitar – Ladder Bracing
Acoustic Guitar – Fan Bracing

 

Torres’ design influence spread rapidly and the classical guitar, also widely known as the modern ‘Spanish guitar’, became hugely popular well into the early 20th Century. Many modern classical guitars still exhibit the characteristics established by Torres’ milestone designs. Before modern nylon strings were invented, classical guitars still used gut for the unwound treble strings and a combination of silk and silver to form the wound bass strings.

Antonio de Torres Label (1878)

 

Until the late 19th Century, there was essentially a single form of classical guitar. The differentiation between classical and acoustic Flamenco guitars became clearer after classical virtuoso guitarist Andres Segovia (1893-1987) used Torres’ fan-braced Spanish guitars to perform concert material from the so-called ‘modern school’ of classical music. From the early 1920s, Segovia was particularly influential in extending the repertoire of the instrument as well as increasing its popularity through early phonograph recordings, musical collaborations and extensive touring.

1888 Torres

 

The distinction between Flamenco and classical guitars are relatively subtle but important to practitioners of the different musical genres. The differences are mainly to do with the tone woods used, rather than fundamental structural principles. The construction, materials used and therefore the sound and tone they produce are different, as are the techniques used to play them. Flamenco guitars tend to be lighter and the soundboards are usually thinner with less internal bracing than those found on the modern classical guitar. The result is that Flamenco guitars are said to produce a more resonant, percussive, brighter sound quality than the thicker, smoother, louder and heavier sound of classical guitars.

 

American Innovation and Development

Around the same time in the 19th Century, a parallel step change in guitar design was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1833, German American immigrant, Christian Frederick Martin (1793-1873) founded his guitar‑making business, C.F. Martin & Co., firstly in New York City before relocating to Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1839.

C.F. Martin Logo

 

Martin’s early guitars were heavily influenced by Viennese luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853), with whom Martin had worked before he emigrated to America.

1830s Martin Stauffer Style

 

Martin established the next great innovations of the modern acoustic guitar, introducing X‑braced soundboards from the 1850s onwards. X-bracing involves the timber strips supporting the soundboard being configured diagonally in both directions from the sound hole to the base of the body in the shape of the letter ‘X’. This form of construction was important for the widespread use of steel strings, which first became readily available around 1900. Martin’s X-bracing technique directly addressed the problem caused by the increased tension of steel strings that proved too much for the Torres-style fan‑braced flat top of the guitar. Alongside the stronger and more resilient X-bracing Martin introduced vital neck reinforcement that allowed the company to make narrower, thinner necks. Martins innovations proved highly popular with guitarists and the techniques rapidly became the industry standard for the flat‑top steel‑string acoustic guitar.

Acoustic Guitar – X Bracing

 

The widespread adoption of steel strings enabled guitar makers to meet the increasing demand from musicians for louder guitars. Steel strings also produced a different sound and encouraged a different playing style, often using a plectrum or guitar pick rather than the fingerstyle technique used almost exclusively in classical guitar music.

1850s Martin D-20

 

Jumping ahead a little bit, Martin also made another significant development in 1931 when the company introduced the ‘dreadnought’ guitar, named after a British battleship design. The Martin Dreadnought D-28 was larger than most acoustics of the time and featured a deeper, fatter (i.e. less ‘waisted’) outline. Martin’s aim was to produce a louder, more powerful guitar during a period when guitarists were demanding greater volume from their instruments. The classic American dreadnought was to prove very popular with acoustic guitarists from the 1930s onwards and the design remains highly influential today. Pre-war Martin dreadnoughts are very highly sought after as they are considered an exemplar of their type.

1930s Martin D-28 Dreadnought

 

The two key developments by Torres in Spain and Martin in America, aided by more modern (i.e. accurate) manufacturing techniques, and the degree of relative standardisation provided the stable foundation upon which the vast majority of today’s ‘traditional’ classical and steel‑strung acoustic ‘folk’ guitars are built.

 

Modern Era (1900 CE-Present Day)

Acoustic Guitar Types

While there remains an infinite variety of designs and numerous incremental developments, the nylon‑strung classical guitar and the steel string acoustic ‘folk’ guitar define the major two categories of the contemporary acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitars based on Torres’ and Martin’s design principles remain very popular today.

 

As the evolution of the acoustic guitar continued, a loose classification according to body size, shape and depth was developed. These generic designations, originally defined by C.F. Martin, mostly apply to steel string acoustics include:

  • ’Parlour’,
  • ‘0’ (Concert)
  • ‘00’ (Grand Concert)
  • ‘000’ (Auditorium)
  • ‘OM’ (Orchestra Model – also ‘0000’)
  • ’M’ (Grand Auditorium – also ‘AS’)
  • ‘D’ Dreadnought
  • ‘DS’ Slope Shouldered Dreadnought
  • ‘J’ Jumbo
  • ‘Grand Jumbo’

 

The following diagram, although not exactly corresponding to the table may help with identifying the various types of acoustic guitar:

Acoustic Guitar Types

 

While the nomenclature can be confusing, it does provide for a certain degree of useful normalisation. Just to confuse matters, other manufacturers such as Gibson and Taylor use their own type designations.

 

Many modern acoustic guitars now have sophisticated on‑board electrics both to improve flexibility and to help them to compete on a level playing field with their solid body electric guitar equivalents. These advances in technology are necessary for acoustic guitars to stay relevant and up‑to‑date in contemporary situations at home, in the recording studio and in a live environment. The acoustic guitar remains alive and well in the 21st Century.

 

Variations on a theme

The key milestones described here are, I trust obviously, not the only ones that have taken place over the centuries. There are an infinite number of guitar designs for just about any style of music, all with an infinite array of construction techniques and materials. It is impossible to do justice to every aspect of the guitar landscape and the point of the guitar’s story isn’t to be comprehensive but to give a taster for what’s out there to be discovered. This narrative is simply a starting point from which to explore the many other areas in much greater detail. Before we move onto some major milestones of the 20th Century that will eventually lead to the introduction of the electric guitar, it is worth a modest glimpse into the delights on offer to those who wish to explore the fringes of the guitar’s story. Here are a few selected examples from diverse sub‑genres of guitar building. Note: archtop acoustic and resonator guitars that emerged during the 20th Century will be covered in the next instalment (Part IV) of the series.

 

Gypsy Jazz Guitars

Before moving onto the ‘missing links’ between acoustic and electric guitars, there is an additional discrete family tree branch worth noting, generally referred to as gypsy jazz guitars. These acoustic designs were popularised by the jazz virtuoso guitarist, Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) in the 1930s and 1940s. The guitar of choice is often referred to variously as the Selmer, Selmer Maccaferri or Maccaferri guitars.

 

Selmer was a French manufacturer while Maccaferri was an Italian guitarist and luthier. From 1932-1934, the partnership between the two introduced what is now known simply as the gypsy jazz guitar. While still an acoustic guitar, its large body, D‑shaped (early) or oval (later) sound hole, single cutaway body, slotted headstock, steel strings, ladder bracing, separate floating bridge and trapeze tailpiece characterise the direction that some acoustic jazz guitar designs were taking at the time.

 

Many other companies have produced gypsy jazz guitars over the intervening decades, often heavily influenced by the original Selmer Maccaferri template. While interesting in its own right, the gypsy jazz-style guitar is, at least in technical terms, a bit of an evolutionary dead end.

1930s Selmer Maccaferri Gypsy Jazz

 

Mariachi Guitars

Another branch on the guitar family tree is a key instrument in the Mexican Mariachi band, a type of Spanish theatrical folk orchestra originally comprising guitar, violins and harp. The music originated in the 19th Century in central-western Mexico, emerging mainly from the state of Jalisco, as well as neighbouring Colima and Nayarit. By all accounts, the first evidence dates from about 1880. By the start of the 20th Century, the instruments of the mariachi band comprised the 5-string vihuela (see above) the ‘guitarrón mexicano’ (a large acoustic fretless bass‑like guitar), two violins and trumpet. The Mariachi band has become integral to the social geography and musical culture of Mexico. While an interesting departure, like the gypsy jazz guitar, Mariachi guitars are generally considered to be another evolutionary cul‑de‑sac.

Mariachi Guitars

 

Harp Guitars

A relatively radical version of the acoustic guitar is the harp guitar, which originated around the end of the 18th Century, although there are references that go back even further, perhaps as early as the mid‑17th Century. Some supporters of the instrument, both luthiers and musicians believed it to be a viable replacement for the standard guitar. However, it remains popular only at the margins of the modern‑day guitar landscape. The first harp guitar was produced in Paris around 1773 by a luthier called Naderman and comprised 6 standard fretted strings and 6 open bass strings. Orville Gibson, founder of Gibson guitars, made harp guitars alongside mandolins and guitars in the early 20th Century. Contemporary fusion guitarist John McLaughlin has been known to use a harp guitar alongside more traditional acoustic and electric guitars. There are many independent luthiers mow making harp guitars for the 21st Century.

1915 & 1917 Gibson Style U Harp Guitars

 

End of Part II

So… this seems to be another convenient break point in the story and concludes Part II of the guitar’s long history. I hope you enjoyed the fascinating tale of the ups and downs, twists and turns and various machinations of guitar evolution to this point.

 

While Part I covered a period of about 3,000 years, Part II has covered a mere 500 years. Arguably, more technical development has taken place over the last half‑millennium than in the preceding 3 millennia. As the pace of progress increases, the level of technological advance also expands, so the depth of each part of the story becomes increasingly condensed.

 

The period covered in this article provides a solid the foundation and launch pad for the modern instrument in the 20th Century. The ancestral DNA presented in parts I and II is now directly and inextricably connected to each and every guitar bought today, whether they are mass produced in giant factory facilities or bespoke custom built in a one‑person workshop. For the curious reader, I hope that the story thus far inspires you to look beyond the immediate and obvious. There is plenty to discover, including anything along a continuum from the conventional to the obscure. Enjoy the journey.

 

Looking forward, Part III will cover the period from the start of the 20th Century to the mid-1900s. This period is crucial, covering the relentless drive to achieve greater volume and versatility from acoustic instruments to the point where early electric guitars were just about to appear.

 

The entire historical narrative of these articles is a journey of discovery and exploration for the author. In particular, I am not content in simply regurgitating what others have written before me. I am still researching, writing and editing later parts of the guitar’s history so, depending on personal circumstances and degree of refinement required to publish the rest of the story, Part III may or may not appear for a while yet. Watch this space.

 

While uncovering the acoustic guitar’s distant past has been fascinating, the dawn of the electric guitar will probably be familiar territory for anyone with a remote interest in the instrument’s heritage. As a purveyor of ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ Guitars, it is also the period in which I am personally most interested. It is also the period from which most of CRAVE Guitars’ vintage ‘collection’ derives.

 

Talking of which, it is high time for me to disconnect from the hinterwebby thing, put down the laptop, pick up one of those American now‑vintage electric guitars and put it to good use. Which one to choose remains an on‑going challenge. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Learn from the future now and avoid the mistakes of the past”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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