The Guitar in America

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The acoustic guitar came to America in the 1850s, thanks mainly to immigrants from EasternEurope. Guitar maker Christian Friedrich (C. F.) Martin left his native Germany because ofdissatisfaction with the restrictive guilds that oversaw all instrument making back home.Meanwhile, factories were built to turn out inexpensive guitars by the dozens, and mail ordercatalogs like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward began selling five-dollar instruments.

In the nineteenth century the guitar was promoted as a parlor instrument for young ladies toplay. In the time before phonographs and radio, music-making was a favorite amateuractivity. Young women were especially encouraged to learn music as an important socialskill. While the piano was large and ungainly, the guitar was small and sweet-voiced; at thetime, most guitars were far smaller than today’s jumbo models, and they were all strung withgut strings in the classical style. Because of this, the guitar was thought to be an ideal instru-ment for young ladies, and it soon became popular.

As stage performers began taking up the guitar in the early twentieth century, they clamoredfor louder instruments that could fill a concert hall. Guitar makers responded by makingbigger guitars; others began experimenting with different shapes for the guitar’s body toimprove bass response and volume. The Martin company made an important contribution inthe teens with the introduction of their so-called D or Dreadnought guitar. With a widerlower bout (or half of the body), and with construction strong enough to withstand thenewly introduced steel strings, the instrument was immediately popular for its loud bassvolume and carrying power.

In the twenties and thirties, guitars began replacing banjos as the instrument of choice injazz bands. Jazz players needed guitars that were louder still. The Gibson company intro-duced jumbo-sized instruments with carved tops and f-holes that were ideally suited to thenew jazz music. Soloists like Eddie Lang helped popularize the guitar in jazz, although it tooka French gypsy musician named Django Reinhardt to really show the jazz potential of theguitar.

The search for louder guitars led to some odd hybrids, including all-steel-bodied guitars withbuilt-in, cone-shaped resonators. But it was the experiments of player Les Paul that led to thebiggest innovation of them all: an electric guitar featuring a solid wood body. Instrumentmaker Leo Fender was quick to pick up on Paul’s lead, introducing three solid-body modelsin the 1950s: the Broadcaster, the Telecaster, and the Stratocaster. The latter two instrumentsare still made today and remain favorites of rock players everywhere.