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Friday, April 15, 2011

History of the Guitar - From the Beginning - Alison Nicole Osmond (

I have a deep-seeded passion for guitars! From the time I was a little girl, first being introduced to the Violin, I fell in love with the glorious sound of their plucking strings. Everything from the beautiful wooden-carved bodies to the inlay of design, to each remarkable feature, these instruments drew me in whether it was an acoustic guitar or an electric piece of genius. I loved it all!!!

Many of us think of the acoustic guitar as an instrument that originated a few hundred years ago, but did you know, that when you pick up an acoustic guitar you’re picking up an instrument with 5,000 years of history attached to it?

Incredibly, acoustic guitars are descendants of stringed instruments that were found in a variety of cultures thousands of years ago. As civilizations merged and the world became smaller, the guitar began taking on a common shape and style. Since then, there has been a linear evolution of several hundreds of years of instruments that can be directly compared to today’s acoustic guitars.

During he Medieval Period, there were several different forms of guitars. These guitars had between three and five strings and were much smaller than the guitars of today. The popular guitars of this period were commonly separated into two groups. The first, the Guitarra Latina was developed from Spain, while the Guitarra Morisca was brought to Spain by the Moorish culture. The Guitarra Latina is still played today as seen below.

While in the Middle Ages, the guitar was not terribly popular, being overshadowed by other contemporary instruments, however, in the Renaissance period the guitar began to take on a life of its own. In 1779 the first six-string guitar was created in Italy. It was created in Naples by Gaetano Vinaccia. Following that, the man known as the “Father of Modern Guitar” made his permanent mark in how the guitar would be played and designed. Antonio de Torres Jurado made many key changes, that in essence is what we know today as the modern classical guitar.

The body was made larger and wider to help make sound travel farther and that would allow it to be louder. The construction was also sturdier and more technical in nature.

Antonio de Torres created and made popular, the "classical" guitar. The acoustic guitar is usually mistaken as being the same as the classical guitar. This is not true, as there are many key-differences in the design of these two separate guitars.

The most important of which is in the acoustic guitar which has steel strings, while the classical guitar is strung with nylon strings. The body was also made larger and even more sturdy. The acoustic guitar was better to use in larger areas as it was more loud than the classical guitar. Contradictory to what many may believe, the acoustic guitar was actually developed in America by European immigrants. The last major development of the acoustic guitars the electrical-acoustic guitar. These acoustic guitars can be plugged into an amplifier for louder volume or can be left unplugged as well. So next time you pick up an acoustic guitar, keep in mind that you are holding quite a bit of history in your hands.

By definition the guitar is a musical instrument having a flat-backed rounded body that narrows in the middle, a long fretted-neck, usually six strings and is played by strumming or plucking the strings.

As I mentioned above, the form of the modern classical guitar is credited to Spanish guitar maker Antonio Torres, circa 1850. Torres increased the size of the guitar body, altered its proportions, and invented the "fan" top bracing pattern. Antonio Torres' design greatly improved the volume, tone, and projection of the instrument, and has remained essentially unchanged.

At around the same time that Torres started making his breakthrough fan-braced guitars in Spain, German immigrants to the United States among them, had begun making guitars with X-braced tops. Steel strings for instruments were invented in 1900. Steel strings made for louder guitars, however, the increased tension that the steel strings created didn't work with Antonio Torres' fan braced design. Guitar makers, such as Christian Fredrich-Martin invented the X-brace for the new steel-stringed guitar.

This historical fact disputes the more commonly-held theory that the guitar descended from the lute and kithara, a musical instrument of ancient Greece consisting of an elaborate wooden sound-box having two arms connected by a yoke to which the upper-ends of the strings are attached. The Lute, the true forerunner of the guitar (kithara), is considered a medieval instrument, but was played by the ancient Romans. The Roman Lute had three strings and was not as popular as the Lyre or the Kithara, but was much easier to play. As seen played here below.

The Kithara was the premier musical instrument of ancient Rome and was played both in popular music and in serious forms of music. Larger and heavier than a Lyre, was the Kithara, which was a sweet and piercing instrument with precision-tuning ability. It was said that some players could make it cry. From the Kithara comes our word guitar, and though the guitar more directly evolved from the lute, the same mystique surrounds the guitar-idols of today as it did for the virtuoso Kithara players, the citharista, and popular the singers of ancient Rome. Like other instruments, it came originally from Greece, and Greek images portray the most elaborately-constructed Kitharas. It was considered that the gods of music, the muses and Apollo, gave Kithara-players their gift to distinguished listeners of music.

By the end of the 1930s, electronic amplification proved to be one of the most successful nnovations for building a louder electric guitar, despite the misgivings of some traditionalists about the new technology.

Beginning Of The Electric Guitar

The development of the electric solid-body guitar owes a great deal to the popularity of Hawaiian music in the 1920's and 1930's. Hawaiian guitars were solo instruments played with a metal slide. Electric Hawaiian guitars were the first instruments that depended entirely on their sound being amplified electrically, not just acoustically.

A key figure was Adolph Rickenbacker who originally made metal components for Dopera Brothers' National Resonator Guitars. While at National, Rickenbacker met George Beauchamp and Paul Barth who had been working together on the principle of the magnetic pick-up. Together they formed the Electro String Company, and in 1931 produced their first Hawaiian guitars. Their success prompted Gibson and others to start producing electric guitars.

In the 1940's Gibson's new electric guitar models became firmly established. People began to work on ways of applying the solid body of the Hawaiian and steel guitars to regular instruments, and In 1944, Leo Fender, who ran a radio repair shop, teamed up with Doc Kaufman, a former Rickenbacker employee, who then started the K & F Company and produced a series of steel guitars and amplifiers. Fender felt the large pick-up magnets in use at the time, need not be so large. He then incorporated a new pick-up which he wanted to try out in a solid- body guitar and based on the shape of the Hawaiian-guitar, except with a regular properly-fretted fingerboard. Though only meant to demonstrate the pick-up, the guitar was soon in demand. The year 1946 saw the formation of Fender Electric Instrument Company and the introduction of the Broadcaster.

At the same time Les Paul was working in the same direction. Paul experimented with pickups throughout the 1930's but, had experienced feedback and resonance problems and began to think about a solid-body guitar after hearing about a solid-body Violin by Thomas Edison… Paul was convinced the only way to avoid body-feedback was to reduce pick-up movement and the only way to do that was to mount it in a solid body.

Paul persuaded Epiphone to let him use their workshop on Sundays, where in 1941 he built the historic "log" guitar. Les Paul’s “LOG” Guitar, circa 1939, is the guitar that came to bear Les Paul’s name. Seeking to develop an up-market alternative to the plain, slab-body Telecaster, Ted McCarty another towering figure in the early development for the electric guitar) came up with the idea of building a solid-body guitar with a carved maple top or “body cap.” He knew that the Fender factory didn’t have the machinery to do this kind of work, so in the year 1950, McCarty brought this guitar to Les Paul, who approved the design, feeling it was right in line with what he’d been trying to achieve. He reportedly said to his wife and musical partner, Mary Ford, “They’re getting too close to us, Mary. I think we better sign up with them." So great were Gibson’s reservations about getting into the newfangled solid-body electric guitar market that the company at one point, considered leaving its name off the guitar and just putting Les Paul’s name on it. But they mustered up their courage, and in 1952 the first Gibson Les Paul model appeared on the market. It was very similar to the Les Pauls that are around today, with a few key differences. For one, it had a trapeze-style tailpiece. This was a source of some contention between Les Paul and the Gibson Company, as Gibson wrapped the strings under the tailpiece’s crossbar in order to achieve lower action; Les Paul wanted the strings wound over the crossbar so he could better execute the palm muting technique that became an important element of his playing style in the 1950's.

Ted McCarty finally settled the dispute by developing the stop tailpiece, which replaced the trapeze on Les Pauls' in 1953. Two years later, McCarty introduced another refinement; the Tune-O-Matic bridge. Both the stop tailpiece and Tune-O-Matic bridge have been staples of electric design ever since.

In 1947 Paul Bigsby in consultation with Merle Travis built a solid-body electric guitar that shared certain design features with the Broadcaster that Fender introduced in 1948. Bigsby wasn't far from the Fender operation in Fullerton and there is some question as to who was looking over whose shoulder...

Fender was more concerned with the utility and practicality, rather than looks and wanted a regular guitar with the clear sound of an electric-Hawaiian but, without the feedback problems. The result was the the Broadcaster, which he began producing in 1948 and later renamed it the Telecaster.

In 1954, Fender began producing the Stratocaster. Along with the Telecaster, and the guitars Les Paul was designing for Gibson soon set the standard for solid-body guitars.

The guitar as a whole is such a fantastical instrument that I could see myself writing about it for many, many pages, but I think you understand the gravity of its historical past and why it means so much to myself and of many musicians that have had the pleasure or studying it, playing it and sharing it with the masses of those of us who have walked, and continue to upon the Planet Earth… No matter where you are in the world, the guitar is a staple in the music communities. It pulls a song together, it whines and cries our tears, and it brings us solace and comfort when the pain won't disappear.

Till next time my friends, I leave you with Peace, Love and Music. ------------------- Alison Nicole Osmond


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