Selecting a Guitar

Friday, November 24, 2006

This is the type of guitar that developed from the earliest forms of four-and five-stringed instruments, reaching its final form in the earlynineteenth century. In addition to being the type of guitar used for thesolo“classical” repertoire, the Spanish or classical guitar is used for theaccompaniment of folk songs, for the songs and dances of LatinAmerica, and for the flamenco music of Spain. Throughout Europe ithas long been the favorite accompaniment instrument for love songsand serenades.

Traditionally the sides and back of a flamenco guitar differ in that they’re made of cypresswood, which is distinguishable by its yellow color and lighter weight, but this is not alwaysthe case today because some of the great flamenco players prefer hardwood.

Classical guitars usually have a slotted peg head and are strungwith nylon strings. Generally they are smaller than acoustic orelectric instruments. The neck width is greater than on acoustic orelectric guitars to facilitate the intricate left-hand work demandedin classical compositions.

Although the term “acoustic” really applies to any non-amplifiedguitar, it is commonly used to describe the steel-strung guitar usedin country, folk, and blues styles. The steel strings give morevolume than nylon, and also have a “brassier” sound.

Acoustic guitar players can play with their fingers (as do classicalplayers), sometimes adding metal thumb and fingerpicks toenhance their sound. Others strum across all the strings—or playcomplex melody lines—using a flatpick (also called a plectrum).

The acoustic guitar has a beautiful rich sound in the hands ofplayers like James Taylor, John Renbourne, Leo Kottke, and manyothers. It works well as an accompaniment instrument, and thebest players also use it for solos and improvisations. However, forintricate solo work it is somewhat harder to play than the Spanishguitar.

This type of guitar is normally played with a plectrum, and represents a transition fromacoustic to electric guitar, because the guitar itself has some acoustic property althoughnowadays it is normally amplified. Although a component of the rhythm section of earlyjazz groups where its distinctive “chunk” sound would cut through and be heard withoutamplification, this guitar was also used extensively for melody and solo work, an examplebeing the work of great players such as Django Reinhardt.

Distinguishing features include the violin-like f-holes which replace the circular sound holeof the traditional guitar. Often jazz guitars are larger in size than classical or acoustic guitars,and they usually have arched tops and backs, like a violin. This is said to improve theirsound projection. Pickups are now built into the guitar, as are volume and tone controls.

The pioneering guitarist Les Paul was a technical as well as musicalwizard. He is famous for multitrack recorded performances, and hisdevelopments on the instrument itself led to the extensive use of solid-body guitars with no innate acoustic resonance. Used for chords andlead in contemporary rock groups, the solid-body guitar has no sounduntil it is plugged into an amplifier. The electronic sound from pickupsis processed in inventive ways for special effects, including deliberatedistortion. The result is a new creation that has a fingerboard andstrings but acoustically shares little with the traditional guitar.