Strum Along: The Acoustic Guitar

Jun 24, 2015

Over the lest several weeks we’ve been taking a rather broad look at the histories of a wide range of musical instruments. The general idea has been that if you learn a little more about a particular instrument, where it came from, how it changed over time, you might find yourself more interested in picking one up, and finding some local music lessons. Unfortunately, given the mind-bogglingly huge scope of human existence, we can usually only cover the broad strokes of each instrument or section of instrument’s histories. For some, like the saxophone, the history has been relatively short, allowing us to get into some of the finer points, but others have such far reaching and generation spanning stories that a single blog post simply doesn’t do it enough justice. That’s why this week and next we’re turning our attention back, once again, to the guitar. Over the next two weeks we’ll be taking a more detailed look at the modern histories of the acoustic and electric guitar.

We’re going to start off this deeper look at the guitar with the older of main two branches of guitar styles: acoustic. We’ll pick up the story of the modern acoustic guitar right where we left it off: with Antonio de Torres Juardo in 1859. Juardo took some rather radical steps when modifying the guitar that existed before him, eventually ending with what we today would call a Spanish guitar, an instrument that enjoys a lot of popularity even now. The new, unique design used a flat front and back, moving away from the curved or bowl shaped backs of the past, and utilized a distinct curve to the body. This also allowed the instrument to become bigger in size over all, resulting in more volume. The new size and shape also allowed Antonio to increase the number of frets well above what was usual for similar instruments at the time, and add an additional string, bringing the total up to six. The increased size and improve shape also allowed the strings to vibrate much longer than any of its predecessors, resulting in significantly longer resonance times. It was specifically these developments that allowed the guitar to meet the demands necessary for an orchestral solo instrument. In fact, Antonio’s designs were so influential on the modern guitar that we still essentially use his designs, with only the smallest of structural and aesthetic changes.

One such structural change came about right at the very beginning of the 20th century. Once guitar players at the time got their first taste of playing to a concert style audience, they wanted more. Musicians began demanding larger bodied guitars to produce the sound they wanted for bigger venues, as well steel strings for crisper and cleaner tones. Unfortunately, guitars of the time were designed with the most popular string material, nylon, in mind and were simply not strong enough to support either the tension that steel string would put on the neck, nor the added size that was being called for. Happily, both these issues were solved in short order by an accomplished, German born guitar maker working in the United States. Christian Fredrich Martin took Antonio de Torres Juardo’s internal structural design, and implemented a new system of x-braces which he had developed himself. The result was a larger-bodied, stronger guitar that could withstand the tension of steel strings.

But as important as these small changes were, who it was that had demanded the changes, and what the new guitar was being used for is equally important. The biggest utilizers of this newest design for the guitar were early country blues artists, and probably more notably, jazz bands. The louder guitar design played well with the other members of the jazz band, and by the early ’30s it had begun to become the main chordal rhythm instrument in the band, superseding the banjo. Artists and audiences alike appreciated the guitar’s ability to produce more complicated chords, and its more muted, mellow tone, that sounded so smooth next to an upright bass, which had become the preeminent bass instrument in jazz at the time. The guitar would go on to have a profound effect on jazz and all its descendents, but that is a story we shall continue next week when we talk about the development and history of the electric guitar.

Since the jazz era of the first third of the 20th century, the acoustic guitar hasn’t gone through too many changes, but there are a few notable variations to the instrument itself. One of the more interesting of these alternate versions is the 12-string guitar. As the name implies, these guitars sport a course of two strings for each string on a traditional guitar, with the lower pairs tuned an octave apart. You can find electric 12-string guitars, but the acoustic variety is far more common. This is because the twin string course design produces a much richer, ringing tone than the six-string counterpart. Although the 12-string guitar has existed for quite some time, it was really only played as a novelty until the ’20s and ’30s. At about the same time the classic six-string guitar was finding a home in jazz, the 12-string was being utilized to its fullest potential in the folk and blues communities. These musicians loved the 12-string’s “larger than life” sound that made them perfect for solo accompaniments for singers. It is this unique feature that has secured its role in varieties of folk, rock, jazz, blues, and even some pop music.

The humble acoustic guitar hasn’t changed a lot over the years, but the changes have been significant. New design ideas and better technology helped what was once a rather quiet and timid instrument become one of the most widespread and generally enjoyed musical instruments in the world. Nearly every genre of popular music, from rap, hip hop, and R&B, to country, rock, and pop, contains at least a few songs featuring an acoustic guitar to strike just the right emotion.

But if there is a single instrument even more widely accepted between musical genres, it would have to be the acoustic guitar’s electric cousin. Next week here at The Music Studio we’ll take a look at the modern history of the electric guitar, beginning with the jazz era of the early 1930s, up to its rightful place in the continuing history of rock & roll.