May 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part III

Here we are again with the 3rd in a series of articles telling the long story of the guitar. Part I (→ read here) started over 3,500 years ago, emerging in the Middle East and gradually developing before dispersing across continental Europe and Asia. Eventually, the embryonic guitar found a home in Europe during the early Renaissance where it began to exhibit the characteristics and features that we recognise today. Part II (→ read here) expanded on the humble beginnings and evolved the acoustic instrument into a (generally) standardised form that we are familiar with, as well as focusing on some key 19th Century innovations in acoustic guitar design. This instalment looks at key 20th Century developments that will ultimately lead to the widespread introduction of the electric guitar.

 

The story from c.1900 is not only reasonably well-documented elsewhere but also fairly involved, so the pace slows compared to previous parts and also becomes richer in content. I would encourage anyone with a serious interest in guitar heritage to explore the hinterwebby thing for further information, along with all the usual caveats about the accuracy and believability of what’s out there.

 

Modern Era (1900-present)

At the end of the 19th and during the early part of the 20th Century, before the introduction of the electric guitar, musicians sought ever‑louder instruments, leading to various creative adaptations to the basic construction of the acoustic guitar. While the acoustic guitar continued to be popular for classical and traditional folk music, many guitarists were struggling to be heard as the trend for ensemble, ‘big band’ or swing orchestras became popular at the time. The issue with volume in a group context meant that the guitar essentially became consigned to a rhythm, rather than lead role, especially when competing with percussion and horns. In order to adapt to demand, a radically new approach to guitar design was needed. Thus, the fundamental divergence from traditional nylon strung classical and steel-strung acoustic ‘folk’ guitars had begun.

 

Guitars at the beginning of the 20th Century were, though, still entirely acoustic instruments. However, two key innovations were about to take place in America that would bridge the gap from acoustic to amplified electric guitars, which would began to appear in the 1930s. The first development involved the emergence of the acoustic archtop guitar on the east coast while, on the west coast, the second invention to appear was that of the resonator guitar.

 

Guitars weren’t the only ubiquitous chordophones at the start of the 20th Century; far from it. The mandolin, banjo, harp and violin also had periods of great popularity and fashion. However, it was during the first quarter of the 1900s that the guitar started its elevation from just another part of a band or orchestra into being the pre‑eminent instrument it is today. Arguably, in addition to the standardisation of classical and steel strung acoustic guitars, it was the introduction of archtop and resonator guitars that contributed towards that success. As is often the case in these matters, the path to success was more complicated than it seems at first and it would be far from a smooth transition with many pitfalls along the way.

 

Acoustic Archtop Guitars

The acoustic archtop guitar incorporated some of the basic components of the steel string acoustic guitar with a body style that bore some design and construction similarities with classical orchestral stringed instruments. An archtop guitar may be defined as, a stringed musical instrument with a convex curved top, formed either by carving a solid piece of tone wood or by heating a sheet of laminated wood in order to  mould it into the curved shape.

 

Most flat top acoustic guitars up to the end of the 19th Century used a single integrated bridge/tailpiece mounted to the surface of the top soundboard, meaning that the strings exert not only significant horizontal pull but also lift because of torque. In order to prevent the bridge from lifting and/or twisting, particularly with the greater tension required by metal strings, the thin flat acoustic soundboard required strong internal bracing. Heavily braced tops had the effect of reducing resonant vibrations and inhibiting overall volume. One solution was to make guitars bigger, an approach used by C.F. Martin in the 1930s with the introduction of the company’s sizeable X-braced D-series dreadnoughts, as covered in the previous part of this series of articles. Archtop guitars took an entirely different approach.

1898 Orville Gibson Archtop

 

Unlike acoustic guitars, most orchestral stringed instruments had a long history of using a carved arched top featuring a separate moveable bridge and fixed tailpiece. The main advantage of using separate structures is that they serve different functions. The non-adjustable tailpiece is used to anchor the strings at that end of the instrument and deals only with the longitudinal stresses caused by string tension. The separate ‘floating’ bridge (meaning that it was not fixed and could be repositioned if needed) supports the strings and is used only to control string height (action) and intonation. The solid carved top of the soundboard was arched upward, as on a violin or cello, in order to counteract the downward pressure that the strings exerted on the bridge, thus providing a stable and resonant structure. The major benefit of this type of design is that it needs less internal bracing which allows the instrument’s soundboard to vibrate more freely, thereby producing a noticeably louder sound.

 

It was therefore not really surprising that, at some point, enterprising guitar builders would seek to exploit some of the characteristics of other instruments and incorporate the best of these into guitar design. While there may have been numerous examples of experimentation before this time, the enduring convergence of classical stringed instrument construction and acoustic guitar design resulted in the advent of the acoustic archtop guitar from the beginning of the 20th Century.

 

The Rise of Gibson Guitars

Although not the only innovator in guitar design at the turn of the 19th Century, certainly one of the key pioneers that popularised early archtop guitars was American luthier Orville H. Gibson (1856-1918), who was born in Chateaugay, New York. Gibson started making mandolins in his home workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1894 as ‘O.H. Gibson, Manufacturer, Musical Instruments’.

Orville Gibson
Orville Gibson Workshop

 

Gibson himself was, by all accounts, somewhat unconventional, being described as an obsessive, eccentric genius as well as an extreme perfectionist. He apparently held other, more traditional, instrument makers of the time in contempt and he was determined to do things differently and in his own way. Orville Gibson, the person, remains somewhat of an enigma and appears to have suffered from mental illness throughout his life, spending several periods in mental institutions before his death in a psychiatric asylum in New York.

 

Gibson started out by adapting European violin designs for use in mandolins and then, subsequently, guitars. By 1897, Gibson had made his first hollow archtop guitar with a relatively thick carved solid wood top, back and sides, cello style tailpiece, floating bridge and steel strings. His early designs retained the traditional acoustic guitar sound hole, although oval in shape. He used spruce wood for the top for its resonance and maple for back and sides for strength and density. Unlike traditional flat top acoustic guitars of the time, Gibson’s archtop guitars did not use internal bracing, as he felt this would hamper both volume and tone. When played hard, Gibson’s relatively un‑stressed design was more capable of projecting the loud, bright and ‘percussive’ acoustic volume that guitarists were seeking at the time.

 

Orville Gibson submitted his only patent application in 1895 for an archtop mandolin design (also applicable to the guitar), which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in February 1898. The patent covered archtop construction comprising carved, tops and sides cut from solid wood, rather than the acoustic guitar’s braced flat top and bent wood sides. While earlier guitar/mandolin patents by James S. Back in 1893 and A.H. Merrill in 1896 may lay claim to the first archtop designs, it was Gibson that converted his own visionary concepts into a successful business enterprise.

Gibson Mandolin US Patent 1898

 

On 11 October 1902, Orville Gibson, along with five local business partners founded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. in Kalamazoo. The company soon started building archtop guitars using the techniques Gibson had patented for the mandolin. However, Gibson was paid a $2,500 lump sum and monthly income to step back from day-to-day business where his overt, pedantic idiosyncrasies tended to affect production.

 

While the Gibson F-2 mandolin was a major milestone in the instrument’s history and is now considered a classic landmark design, mandolins generally were beginning to lose favour with musicians. In addition, Gibson had initially followed the trend for tenor banjos in the late 1910s before guitars became the mainstay of the business. Gibson was also known to make complex but not widely used harp guitars, such as the Style U.

Gibson Stationery Logo (1906)
Gibson Mandolin Label (1902)
1900s Gibson F2 Mandolin
1907 Gibson Style U Harp Guitar

 

Gibson’s Style 0 archtop guitar design proved better suited to the jazz and swing orchestras of the time than the flat top acoustic guitar. As a result, Gibson guitars became very popular in the early part of the 20th Century up to the 1920s, particularly amongst the jazz fraternity. The Style 0 archtop, which retained the oval sound hole beneath the strings, is often referred to as the direct precursor to the archetypal jazz acoustic archtops that followed. The hand‑carved guitars were, however, very resource intensive to build, so supply fell short of demand and there was a growing need for an instrument that was quicker, easier and cheaper to build.

 

Orville Gibson finally left the company he founded in 1916 to live in upstate New York until his death in 1918 at the age of 62.

1911 Gibson Style 0

 

In the same year, 1918, composer, musician and engineer, Lloyd Loar (1886-1943) was hired by the Gibson company as acoustic consultant and advisor. After a break to entertain WWI troops in Europe, Loar re-joined Gibson in 1919. Loar went on to design many of the company’s new instruments in an attempt to turn around disappointing sales. While Loar wasn’t a luthier by trade, he led a design and construction revolution at the company during the 1920s, growing the company’s enviable reputation for building fine professional guitars, mandolins and other stringed-fretted instruments.

Lloyd Loar

 

One of Loar’s first and best‑known guitar designs, released in 1923, was the Gibson L5 ‘Master Model’. The L5 is widely recognised as the first commercially produced ‘jazz’ guitar. In 1923, the L5 featured all the fundamental characteristics that we recognize in a ‘jazz’ guitar; a carved archtop fully hollow body, separate tailpiece and floating bridge, etc. It was also the first commercial archtop guitar to employ f‑holes that are now synonymous with the style of guitar. The L5’s neck incorporated other innovations, including an adjustable truss rod, designed to counteract string tension, and the body used an adjustable bridge to set the height of the strings above the fingerboard. These key improvements enabled guitars to become more streamlined and therefore easier to play. The L5 was a trendsetter and gained a strong following in the jazz community. Early adopters included the popular guitarist Eddie Lang, comedian/singer George Gobel, and jazz virtuoso guitarist Wes Montgomery.

1924 Gibson L5

 

The L5 is now considered to have been pivotal in acoustic archtop guitar design. As if to evidence its standing, the perennial L5 remains in production well into the 21st Century, proving the soundness of Loar’s original concept. Lloyd Loar did not stay long at Gibson, leaving in 1924. During the 1920s and 1930s, Gibson became the leading manufacturer of archtop guitars. The perennial Gibson L5 will resurface again later in the guitar’s story.

 

Gibson archtop guitars remain in production today, including some faithful reproductions and improvements on the classic designs that began in the 1920s.

 

The Competition

Gibson wasn’t alone in the market and its competitors included Stromberg, Epiphone, Gretsch and Hofner were also making high quality instruments. In addition, from 1932, American luthier John D’Angelico (1905-1964) started producing very fine archtop guitars from his workshop in New York City. In 1965, his apprentice of 12 years, Jimmy D’Aquisto (1935-1995) took over D’Angelico’s work and continued to produce fine acoustic archtop guitars after his master had passed away. Original examples of these guitars are seen by many to represent the pinnacle of the jazz guitar era.

1948 D’Angelico Excel
1930s Stromberg

 

In order to provide ever‑increasing demand for volume, the size of archtop guitar bodies increased from the 16” L5 up to 18” or even 19” measured across the lower bout. Gibson’s reaction to competition was to produce one of the brand’s most famous archtop guitars, the classic Super 400 in 1935.

1935 Gibson Super 400

 

Arguably, classic archtop guitar designs provided a strong link between traditional steel strung acoustic guitars, through hybrids (electric archtops) to the emergence of later solid body electric guitars. The introduction of electric archtop guitars in the mid‑1930s enabled the transition from acoustic to electric guitars and is covered later in the story.

 

With the widespread uptake of electric guitars allied to the massive growth of blues and rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s, the pure archtop guitar with its strong jazz association struggled to remain popular. Manufacture and sale of archtop guitars fell dramatically and suffered a nadir in the 1990s. However, in the 21st Century, many guitarists are rediscovering the aesthetic and sonic qualities of classic ‘jazz boxes’. Sales of new archtop guitars have picked up due to a new generation of musicians either seeking an alternative to mainstream instruments or wishing to recreate the sights and sounds of the past with a degree of authenticity.

 

Many current‑day archtop guitars incorporate pickups to make them more usable in contemporary situations. Modern manufacturing processes including CNC machines used to carve the tops also help to reduce cost and make archtop guitars relatively affordable. Alternatives to solid wood are also abundant today, including the use of formed laminates to create the curved tops.

2018 Ibanez Artstar Prestige AF-200

 

Acoustic Resonator Guitars

While the concept of archtop guitars was one response to the need for louder instruments a discrete branch of guitar evolution was taking place on the west coast of the U.S.A. In the time before amplified guitars, manufacturers had to respond to the demand for greater acoustic volume during the golden ‘jazz age’ of the ‘roaring twenties’. This particular alternative to the archtop guitar is broadly categorised as the resophonic or resonator guitars. Hereafter they are called simply resonator guitars for brevity.

 

A resonator guitar in this context is still a hollow acoustic guitar. Resonator guitars differ from previous designs because of the way that mechanical string vibrations are transferred not to the guitar’s sound board but via the guitar’s bridge to one or more spun metal cones incorporated within the guitar’s body. It is these resonating metal cones that produce a louder sound than the traditional wooden sound boards of flat top or archtop acoustic guitars. Musicians also favoured the flexibility of resonator guitars over banjos, which were popular in the early part of the 20th Century.

 

The unique construction of resonator guitars also produced a very distinctive thin, bright, metallic sound with little sustain, very different from other acoustic guitars. The distinctive resonator sounds were adopted by blues, bluegrass and country guitarists of the time and have produced many of the characteristic sounds of rural American music over many decades, especially when played with a bottleneck slide. It should be noted that, while resonator guitars are widely associated with the blues, and particularly with Mississippi delta blues guitarists, they have been used in a diverse range of musical genres.

 

General resonator guitar designs tend to fall into two separate types: square-neck Hawaiian lap steel resonators tend to be played horizontally with a slide and round‑neck resonators that can be played either horizontally, lap-steel fashion, or conventionally. The height of the strings above the fingerboard varies considerably depending on whether the guitars are used for slide, hybrid or regular fingerstyle use. In addition to lap‑steel and Spanish‑style guitars, resonators have been used in many diverse instruments including, ukuleles, banjos, basses and mandolins. Resonator guitars remain popular today, principally for their unique sound and the musical styles they inspired. English guitarist, Mark Knopfler’s iconic 1937 National Style 0 resonator was famously featured on the sleeve of their classic studio album, ‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985).

Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms (1985)

 

Some famous guitarists are associated with resonator guitars, including Tampa Red, Son House, Bukka White, Bo Carter and Blind Boy Fuller.

Son House

 

The Rise of National and Dobro Guitars

Probably, the most significant contributor to the development of the resonator guitar was a Slovakian immigrant to the U.S., John Dopyera (1893–1988). The Dopyera family moved to California in 1908 and John followed in his father’s footsteps, starting a business in the 1920s making and repairing musical instruments.

John Dopyera

 

The crucial catalyst in resonator progress was provided by a Texan Vaudeville performer and musical experimenter, George Beauchamp (1899-1941). Once Beauchamp (his surname was pronounced ‘Beechum’) had moved to California, he approached John Dopyera in 1925 to design a guitar loud enough for use in a dance orchestra. Beauchamp had seen examples of some sort of external megaphone‑style horn arrangement to project a guitar’s volume. Dopyera’s initial prototype, involving a stand‑mounted amplifying horn proved far too bulky and was considered a failure. Undaunted, Dopyera and Beauchamp’s creative solution was to invent the resonator guitar.

George Beauchamp

 

Recognising the potential of the new resonator guitar design, John Dopyera and George Beauchamp founded the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927, based in Los Angeles, California to manufacture resonator guitars and other instruments under the National brand.

National Resophonic Logo

 

National’s first major instrument was a metal‑bodied guitar using three inward‑pointing suspended spun aluminium cones connected by a metal T‑shaped bracket to the bridge. The arrangement was, perhaps unsurprisingly, called a ‘Tricone’. String vibrations were acoustically amplified by the cones, acting like passive loudspeakers, giving the guitar its distinctive resonator sound. Dopyera filed a patent application for the Tricone design in April 1927, granted in December 1929. The ground breaking early National Tricone resonator guitars from the late 1920s are now highly collectable. The first engraved metal bodies were made of copper and zinc alloy (often called ‘German silver’ or ‘white brass’) before changing to traditional brass which was cheaper and more plentiful, then finally to steel.

National Tricone Resonator Patent
National Tricone Resonator

1939 National Tricone Resonator

 

John Dopyera was concerned about the manufacturing cost and retail price of the complicated tricone design and proposed a cheaper, simpler single cone alternative. When the new design was presented to National’s board, it was rejected. His new single-cone design comprised an arrangement where the strings passed over a bridge that sat on a small circular wooden mounting disc (called a ‘biscuit’) that was in turn attached to the apex of the inward‑pointing spun metal cone. Although it wasn’t taken up at the time, Beauchamp, through National, went on to patent Dopyera’s single cone ‘biscuit’ resonator design, filed in March 1929 and granted in June 1931.

National Single Cone Resonator Patent
National Single Cone Resonator

 

John Dopyera, having become frustrated by National’s internal politics, left the company in 1928. Crucially, to keep his options open, Dopyera remained a major shareholder in National. Along with his four brothers (Rudy, Emile, Robert and Louis), John Dopyera founded the Dobro Manufacturing Company to compete with National. The Dobro name comprises the ‘Do’ from the family’s surname and ‘bro’ as a contraction of ‘brothers’. The term ‘dobro’ has over the years come to be used as a generic term in common parlance when talking about single resonator guitars. Conveniently, and perhaps intentionally, the word dobro also means ‘good’ in Slovakian, leading directly to the company’s early motto using a play on words, “Dobro means good in any language”.

Dobro Logo

 

As National owned the resonator patents to-date, early Dobro resonator guitars had to differ from the single cone design made by National. The new Dobro guitars used a wooden body and a single inverted (outward‑facing) resonator cone with guitar strings passing over a bridge attached to an 8-legged cast aluminium ‘spider’ (resembling a spider’s web) that in turn was attached to points around the edge of the spun metal cone. Unlike the National single cone design, the Dobro cone projects outwards, thereby increasing volume. Dobro filed a patent in February 1932 for Rudi Dopyera’s resonator design, which was granted in February 1933. National objected to Dobro’s resonator design, resulting in several contested law suits between National and Dobro, which lasted for several years.

Dobro Resonator Patent
Dobro Single Cone Resonator
1932-34 Dobro Model 175 Deluxe Special

 

The advantage for guitarists was that the Dobro was both louder and considerably cheaper than the complex and costly National Tricone design. In addition, Dobro cleverly licensed their designs to brands such as Regal to extend their reach into an eager customer base. National responded to competition from Dobro by introducing their lower cost resonators, the Triolian in 1928 and Duolian in 1930. Also in 1930, National released their nickel-plated, steel‑bodied, round necked Style 0 resonator guitars, which featured Hawaiian scenes sandblasted into the guitar’s finish and are now considered iconic. In an attempt to cover all bases, both companies also produced resonator mandolins.

1930s Dobro Model 27
1930s Regal Dobro Model 27
1931 National Triolian
1935 National Duolian
1930s National Style 0

 

In 1932, with National in financial difficulty, the Dopyera brothers secured a controlling interest in both National and Dobro companies. The companies subsequently merged in 1934 to form the National Dobro Corporation, thereby ending the feud and eliminating the fierce competition between the two. Beauchamp was fired by the new company for his involvement with newcomers, Rickenbacker, who were developing new ideas for electric guitars. The National Dobro Corporation moved operations to Chicago in 1936 where it manufactured resonator guitars until it ceased production in 1941, shortly after America entered World War II. Aluminium was needed to support America’s war effort, making the raw material for resonator cones scarce and the demand for tooling machinery high.

 

Post-War Resonator Guitars

The remnants of the pre‑WWII National Dobro Corporation were later reorganised to become Valco in 1942, which eventually reintroduced resonator guitars under the National brand in the early 1960s. American company Mosrite bought the Dobro brand in 1966 before going bankrupt themselves in 1969. A new company, National Reso‑Phonic Guitars was formed in 1989, based in California, to produce resonator guitars based on original pre‑war designs as well as some all-new designs, including electro-acoustic resonator guitars.

National Reso-phonic Resolectric

 

Taking a different direction altogether, Emile and Rudy Dopyera formed the Original Musical Instrument Company (OMI), based in California in 1967 to make resonator guitars using the brand name Hound Dog. In 1970, OMI secured the Dobro brand name from the bankrupt Mosrite, which meant the Dopyera family could once again manufacture Dobro guitars using their original name. OMI was subsequently acquired by The Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1993 and they currently produce Dobro branded resonators, including Dobro Hound Dog budget models through their Epiphone operation in China. In an attempt to secure the heritage, Gibson has stated that they will defend their exclusive right to use the Dobro name.

Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog Deluxe

 

While many variations of resonator guitars have been manufactured by a large number of companies over the years, National and Dobro, along with Dobro-licensed Regal, are the names most associated with pre‑WWII resonator production. The influence and legacy of these brands is significant in historical terms and 21st Century popularity of resonator guitars suggests that they are here to stay with a bright future ahead. Many modern resonators now incorporate either electro‑magnetic or piezo‑electric pickups, enabling them to be amplified, just like other electric guitars, while retaining their distinctive acoustic tone. Given the reason why resonators were invented in the first place – to increase acoustic volume – the concept of electric resonators seems a touch ironic today.

 

End of Part III

I will stop at this juncture, just before the dawn of the electric guitar. In terms of the overall amount of material, Parts I-III cover about half the story I have to tell.

 

I must mention that this part of the story proved particularly convoluted and I apologise if it comes across confusingly. It was a major challenge to untangle the web of misinformation and distil a meaningful chronological narrative. I hope that you are able to make some sense of the various interweaving threads. The information for the next part proved even more tortuous and I’m still trying to simplify and condense it for the serial article format. As with previous parts, I am happy to amend any factual errors that may well have crept into the timeline thus far.

 

Before we get back to the next decisive milestones in the guitar’s long story, Part IV will be both a temporary and necessary diversion from the core subject matter. The next episode focuses on two key innovations upon which the electric guitar is entirely dependent. You will have to wait a while to see what unfolds. There is a great deal of background material to wade through, so it will be a challenge to cut down the full version in order to keep the story moving. However, once that contextual reference material is in place, the modern electric guitar in all its splendour can finally be unleashed, hopefully in Part V and thereafter.

 

Thank you or looking in. As interesting as the story may be, it’s now time for me to stop typing and get back to more important matters; playing (vintage) guitars. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Dancing, even in silence, is literally the embodiment of music.”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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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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March 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part I

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The arrival of spring (?) in the UK heralds a new approach to CRAVE Guitars’ regular monthly articles. For some time, I have been interested in the history of the world’s favourite musical instrument. There is certainly plenty of information about the heritage from the mid‑20th Century onwards, much of it, however, is ambiguous and conflicting. As one looks further and further into the past, the lore becomes increasingly more vague, contradictory and incomplete. There seemed to be scant reliable information in book form and little dependable detail on the hinterwebby thing. There is considerable quantity of material and a relative scarcity of quality. NB. This may be adding to the latter, I guess!

 

So… a while back, I started researching the topic purely for my own interest and to satisfy my curiosity about where and how the guitar originated. As the scope of the topic broadened and the need to wade through misinformation deepened, I concluded that it may be sensible to start writing it down. Documenting my endeavours was a good idea as it turns out, as it proved invaluable when trying to make sense of it all. Disentangling the various perspectives has been a challenge and corroborating the ‘facts’ has proved equally difficult.

 

Frustratingly, there isn’t really enough material to turn it into a fully-fledged book. I have no interest in padding it out for the sake of it and thereby losing the essence in the process. In any case, it wasn’t an academic research project and I simply can’t be bothered with going back through everything just to reference all the narrative and credit other resources that have largely been gleaned from the public domain. There is no profit element involved, so copyright isn’t an issue. I do, however, thank anyone who might have contributed in some way.

 

Then, I thought, why not break the story down into manageable chunks and use it as a basis for monthly articles? There is now too much material to be able to use the original full‑fat ‘storyline’ in this format, so I’ve decided to abridge the narrative for easier digestion and issue it as a series of articles. Out of necessity, it will be in sequential, chronological format over several, although not necessarily consecutive months.

 

As you might imagine, this endeavour turned into a bit of an involved personal mission, rather than a ‘proper’ study. It is presented in this format purely for entertainment purposes and not for any sort of gain. As a result of these factors, I don’t anticipate that it will be published elsewhere, so it is therefore intended to be of primary interest to fans of the guitar. Due the sketchiness of information covering significant periods of time, it is presented as I have tried to rationalise it. As always, I don’t purport to provide the definitive ‘truth’ on the subject. If anyone has evidence to help improve the authenticity of the ‘story’, I would be very happy to amend the timeline or the supporting detail to give a more accurate potted history.

 

As mentioned above, the articles have been split into several parts for easier consumption. This first article in the series explores the ancestry of the guitar from the primitive beginnings in the ancient world, through the developing civilisations, expansion during the Middle Ages, and to the point of familiarity in the early European Renaissance.

 

In presenting this story, I have to assume that readers will have some prior knowledge about the basic characteristics of stringed instruments and, particularly, terminology of guitar features. For instance, where I refer to string courses, this means the practice of stringing instruments with pairs of strings tuned (generally) in unison.

 

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

One has to start somewhere so, this first part includes a little background context before looking back in time as far as it is possible to go. There may well have been proto stringed instruments that pre‑date the earliest evidence but we can only conjecture what they might have been like – we can only consider what the earliest artefacts can tell us. There have probably been infinite variations and adaptations along the way, so this article picks up on, perhaps debatably, the most relevant milestones to get to where we are today.

 

Many learned commentators suggest that the guitar as we know it has its origins in the 16th to 18th Century Europe. While they make a valid point, guitars weren’t invented out of the blue to appear as the fully formed instrument we know and love today, so this fact alone implies that its roots are much older and more convoluted.

 

Many of the early instruments described in this article may only have influenced the guitar’s incremental development, rather than defined it outright. However, assessing the guitar’s long lineage is worth doing if only to put the modern instrument into a broader historical context.

 

Before we really dive into the subject matter, I am aware of the many, many different types of stringed instruments from all over the world, many of them exotic and many others far removed from the guitar. However, in order to stay focused on the subject matter, those other instruments, often only tangential to the guitar’s story, are probably best left for a different topic and won’t be covered here.

 

So… exactly what is a guitar?

There are some fundamentals that underpin the historical development that makes up the guitar’s ‘story’. So, from what and where did the word ‘guitar’ originate?

 

Etymology:

  • Ancient Greek – kithara
  • Roman (Latin) – cithara
  • Andalusian Arabic – qitara
  • Spanish – guitarra
  • French – guitare
  • German – gitarre
  • English – guitar

 

Terminology:

The origin of the word ‘guitar’ is commonly constructed of 2 key parts. The suffix, ‘tar’ (or something like it, see above), comes from the ancient Sanskrit, simply meaning ‘string’. The prefix often refers to the number of strings that an instrument may have, including the following examples (recognising that there are many variations of the spellings):

  • 2 strings – Dotar – Persian long-necked lute
  • 3 strings – Setar – Persian, which may or may not have led to the Indian sitar (see also sattar below)
  • 4 strings – Chartar – Persian, from which it is believed that the early 4-string Spanish guitar, the guitarra, derives
  • 5 strings – Panchtar – Afghanistan
  • 7 strings – Sattar – from which it is believed the Indian sitar derives, which has 6/7 played strings

 

Many modern, regional stringed folk instruments retain the ‘tar’ suffix in some form, with some just colloquially called ‘tars’.

 

The word ‘guitar’ is largely recognised to derive from the Latin word ‘cithara’ which, in turn, may stem from the earlier Greek word ‘kithara’. However, as we’ll see, the instrument’s evolution may actually have taken a different geographical and chronological path from the past to the modern day, possibly from Arabia via North Africa and Spain.

 

Classification:

The system for categorising musical instruments comes from the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification (1914). Guitars are part of a broader musical instrument classification known as a chordophone, which is defined as “a musical instrument that makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points”. Chordophones include 4 main groupings within which other familiar instruments are categorised. Those groupings are; violins, guitars, lyres and harps. The main division of chordophones into which the guitar falls are known as composite because they have “a resonator that forms an integral part of the instrument”, i.e. with a sound chamber, unlike a piano or harpsichord. A chordophone’s strings may be plucked, bowed or struck.

 

The modern amplified electric guitar would initially appear to diverge from this definition and designation. However, in order to fit the electric guitar into a pre‑existing system, it is generally categorised as a ‘solid body electric chordophone’.

 

Guitar Anatomy

As a brief introduction to what makes a guitar a guitar in the minds of most 21st Century players, the following diagram shows the basic components of the modern acoustic and electric guitar.

Guitar Characteristics

 

The origins of guitar-like instruments

Many of the time periods indicated herein are approximate with no precise or definitive start and end dates. Also, many of the time periods (and geographies) overlap, rather than being sequential and discrete. The information is therefore indicative and only to be consumed as a (hopefully) helpful rough guide.

 

The Ancient World

The roots of the instrument extend way back from human pre‑history (i.e. before written records began around the 3rd millennium BCE) through to the start of classical antiquity (c.8th Century BCE) and the emergence of the major civilisations often characterised by urban development, social stratification and symbolic communication systems.

 

The earliest forerunners of the guitar have their origins in the Middle East region populated by Sumerian, Babylonian and Egyptian societies. Around the time that these cultures started to keep historical records in the Bronze Age (c.3000‑1200 BCE), people also started to chronicle the presence of musical instruments as an integral part of their social order.

 

The earliest instruments were probably similar to our understanding of a bowl harp, which had a curved neck, round back, hide soundboard and a variable number of strings. They are clearly not guitars, although they do perhaps indicate where some of the key characteristics of modern-day guitars originated. Some of these early stringed instruments are conserved in museums and contemporary variations of these ancient instruments appear to have survived into the modern era. Due partly to local custom and partly to increasing interest in historic musical instruments, some modern regional folk instruments are very similar to these early archetypes.

Egyptian Bowl Harp

 

Around 2000-1500 BCE, the tanbur, originally a 3-stringed instrument with a long straight neck, pear-shaped body and round back began to appear in regions such as Mesopotamia (roughly equivalent to current day Iraq) and Turkey spreading to central and southern Asia. One of the earliest depictions of this guitar-like instrument appears in Babylonian wall carvings from c.1800 BCE. Other wall carvings made over 3,000 years ago during the Hittite civilisation (1600‑717 BCE), which occupied much of Asia Minor, show a distinctly guitar-like tanbur being played.

Babylonian and Hittite Wall Carvings, and Tanbur

 

Early lute-like instruments with long necks similar to the tanbur first appeared in Mesopotamia over 3,000 years ago and spread throughout the ancient world, including Egypt, Greece, Italy, Turkey, India and China. The word ‘lute’ is often used to refer to these early long-neck instruments. However, the term can be confusing as it did not come into common usage until much later and is usually used to denote to the more familiar form of short‑neck medieval European lutes.

 

It isn’t clear exactly what the evolutionary path is between the largely figurative prototypes dating back 3,500 years and the modern interpretations of today. It is likely that many ancient cultures developed primitive stringed, largely fretless instruments with similarities to either artefacts (physical remains) or representations (images) from the period.

 

Major Civilisations (c.3000 BCE-500 CE)

The Egyptians (3000-1800 BCE) – Egyptian wall paintings, including some from Thebes c.1420 BCE and elsewhere show that tanburs, harps, long lutes and other musical instruments were widely used around that time. As the reach of ancient civilisations extended outwards from the ‘cradle of civilisation’ in the Middle East, carried by travellers, explorers, and merchants from Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia to Turkey and Greece, as well as further afield including Afghanistan and India, so did their musical instrument design influences. While there may not be instruments attributed specifically to the Egyptians, they may be credited with dispersing existing instruments in an organised way that had not existed before, thereby possibly contributing to more rapid evolution of these pre‑guitars.

Egyptian Tanbur and Lute

 

The Greeks (800-146 BCE) – The kithara was an ancient Greek stringed instrument of the simple lyre (or lyra) family from c.1000 BCE-1 CE. While the common harp-like lyre was a folk instrument played by most Greek classes, the kithara was considered a ‘professional’ version of the instrument used for public performance by trained musicians (kitharodes). The kithara had 7 or more gut strings of equal length, strummed with a plektron (a precursor of the modern plectrum or pick). While the kithara wasn’t similar to the present‑day guitar, it may be an important link between rudimentary early instruments and a more refined and technical approach to design and construction. The word kithara has come to mean guitar in present day Greece.

Greek Kithara and Lyre

 

Originating around the 4th Century BCE, there was another group of popular Greek long‑neck, lute-like instruments known as the pandura, also adopted by the Romans.

Greek and Roman Pandura

 

The Romans (753 BCE-476 CE) – The Romans admired and adopted many Greek instruments including the 2-string lyre, the 3-string lute and the 7‑string cithara (now with Latin spelling), the latter was mentioned in the Bible. The Romans also continued the Greek tradition of playing the pandura. Alongside the cithara, the Egyptian influenced Roman Byzantine long lute brought the instrument to prominence and has similarities to the much earlier tanbur. Perhaps strangely, there is little evidence to suggest that the Romans added much in their own right to the fundamental design and development of existing instruments. Importantly, what the Romans did, though, was to introduce the instrument throughout much of continental Europe.

Roman Lyre, Cithara and Byzantine Lute

 

The Persians (550 BCE-224 CE) – One version of the guitar’s ‘family tree’ may begin in ancient Egypt, then adapted and improved upon by Greek and Roman cultures. Alternatively, the guitar’s origins may begin with members of the early long lute family in Persia from a 4‑stringed instrument known as the chartar, which arrived in Europe as a result of Arabic expansion via Africa. A separate branch of evolution possibly spread eastward towards India, the 3-string (a 4th string was added in the 19th Century) setar, which may have been influential in that country’s development of the sitar. Later instruments dating from the 15th Century include the 2-string dotar originally a humble shepherd’s instrument.

Persian Chartar, Setar and Dotar

 

Some commentators suggest that the nomenclature, kithara/cithara and chartar, bear a passing resemblance to the modern word ‘guitar’, although there is probably little evidence, other than supposition, to support the validity of this particular claim.

 

The Middle Ages (5th-15th Centuries CE)

Roughly, the Middle Ages (sometimes referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’) of medieval Europe spans a 1,000 year period from c.476 CE following the fall of the Roman Empire to c.1450 CE with the beginning of the Renaissance and the ‘Age of Discovery’. The Middle Ages are generally characterised by many as a period during which there was little in the way of significant scientific or artistic accomplishments.

 

There are Middle Age manuscripts and numerous religious iconographies which suggest that guitar-like instruments were making their way across medieval Europe and the design fundamentals were probably being adapted and improved along the way to meet the cultural and social needs of musicians.

 

While the guitar’s roots almost undoubtedly lie in the Middle East, its development appears to have resulted from widespread distribution over an extended period of time in the vacuum left in the post-Roman era. While different scholars may adopt their own preferred view, it is likely that there isn’t a single traceable path and that early guitar development probably occurred via a number of different routes, along with a number of evolutionary dead ends, derivations and mutations along the way. Some of these archetypes survived, some didn’t, and some were modified or merged either in part or whole to fit the situations in which they were used. While the picture during the Middle Ages is both complex and unclear, the key evolutionary milestones to today’s instruments most certainly occurred in Europe rather than Asia.

 

In the 8th Century CE (c.711) the Moors from the Islamic world invaded the Iberian Peninsula from northern Africa. During the Middle Ages they brought with them an Arabic four-string fretless instrument known as the oud (meaning ‘wood’). With further development, including the addition of tied gut frets and a 5th string, it may have led to what is now widely recognised as the European, short or medieval lute (to some degree a descendant of, and distinct from, the earlier Egyptian, Greek and Roman lutes). The headstock of the medieval lute is traditionally set at a very sharp angle to the neck, making tuning both difficult and unreliable. The lute’s appearance is instantly recognisable today and differentiates it from the more guitar‑like instruments that would follow.

Medieval Oud and Lute

 

While sharing some characteristics with early guitars, the lute is arguably a separate but parallel line of progress from Bronze Age Arabian cultures. Whether the genetic route to current day is a result of European trade following the demise of the Roman Empire or via Arabic invasion from Africa (or both), the direct ‘missing link’ to prove the classical guitar’s lineage is likely to lie somewhere in medieval Spain as the Middle Ages overlapped and merged with the early European Renaissance.

 

Early Renaissance (14th-17th Centuries)

The French word renaissance translates as ‘rebirth’ or ‘reawakening’ and stands for a resurgence of interest in classical learning and culture in Europe with significant achievements in art, science and social orders.

 

European antecedents of the guitar include the archaic, small box-like, 4-string fretless citole that appeared from c.12th to 15th Centuries. Some commentators suggest that the holly leaf-shaped instrument may be a French form of the ancient cithara, although the physical similarities between the two are far from obvious. The citole is often cited as a distant relative of the guitar and is often confused with the more guitar-like cittern (see below) which possibly superseded it. There are visual depictions of citole-like instruments although there is only one surviving, adapted example, now looking more like a prototype of the violin rather than a guitar, dating to the 14th Century, which is now part of the British Museum collection (from Warwick Castle, previously labelled as a gittern – also see below).

English Citole

 

The pear-shaped cittern (French) or cistre (Italian) was a 4-course, flat-backed, metal-strung fretted instrument that appeared in Western Europe in the 13th Century and was relatively common during the European Renaissance. The cittern bore a greater similarity to a guitar than the lute and was popular amongst most social classes, often played by travelling minstrels and court musicians, as well as by amateurs within their local communities. The cittern remained popular in England up to the 18th Century, often referred to as ‘English guitars’ to differentiate them from the ‘Spanish guitars’ emerging from continental Europe. Visually, citterns are sometimes confused with the mandolin-like gittern, a 3 or 4‑course, round‑backed instrument from Western Europe, which also appeared around the 13th Century. There are only three known surviving examples of the gittern, currently residing in American, German and Polish museum collections.

 

Cittern and Gittern

 

Meanwhile, in Medieval Spain, the European guitar’s essential DNA began to coalesce into 2 distinct forms by c.1200 CE. These two variants include the lute-like Guitarra Morisca (Moorish guitar) and the more guitar‑like Guitarra Latina (Latin guitar). By c.1400 CE, these 2 main variants effectively converged and were henceforth commonly referred to simply as Spanish guitarra or simply ‘Spanish Guitars’. From this point onward, the generic word ‘guitar’ to describe these instruments is both common and appropriate.

Guitarra Latina and Guitarra Morisca

 

After 3,000 years of evolution, many historians suggest that the story of the guitar as we know it really began around the 16th Century CE. Certainly, examples of European fretted, stringed instruments from the mid‑Renaissance onwards certainly appear much more guitar-like than their predecessors. In addition, there are many more surviving examples in museum and heritage collections for academics and enthusiasts to study in detail. The convergence and rationalisation of diverse influences will be explored in the next part of the guitar’s development.

 

End of Part I

This is where the first part of the guitar’s long history must end… for now. This juncture seems a sensible place to stop as, for me, it represents the dividing line between the guitar’s pre‑existence and the guitar itself. The next instalment in the series will explore the remainder of the Renaissance period and the transformation from some unusual stringed instruments to generally more recognisable forms. These fascinating instruments will become the direct ancestors of today’s familiar guitars.

 

I hope that this introduction has whetted your appetite for subsequent episodes and you’ll join me on subsequent stages of the journey. To many, the later parts may become more interesting as the guitar’s features morph and converge into what we use nowadays. Be patient, there are few hundred years still to go before we get there.

 

Thank you for reading. I’m off to plink a modern (vintage) guitar. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “If we fail to learn from the past, we will fail to live as a species”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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