Dangerous Curves -- The Art of the Guitar

Flat-Top Guitar
Probably by Lyon and Healy

Hawaiian Steel

Arch-Top Guitar
Orville Gibson

Arch-Top Guitar
Selmer Maccaferri

Classical Guitar
Francisco Simplicio

Resonator Guitar
National Tri-cone

Flamenco Guitar
Santos Hernandez

Flat-Top Guitar
C.F. Martin D-45

Arch-Top Guitar
Gibson Super 400

Arch-Top Guitar
Synchromatic 300

Flat-Top Guitar
Gibson SJ-200

Arch-Top Guitar
New Yorker

Cowboy Guitar
Singing Cowboy

Guitars by Popular Demand, 1880's-1950's

he popularity of the guitar swelled tremendously in the late 19th century, and by the early 20th century manufacturers had introduced countless models that appealed to all levels of customers. A prosperous American economy created a broad consumer base and the United States became the world's dominant force in guitar design and manufacture. Two particular innovations coincided with this explosion in the guitar's popularity-the introduction of the bright sounding steel-strung flat-top guitar and the creation of the arch top guitar.

   The most ornate of the early steel-strung guitars were made by Chicago's Lyon and Healy Company, the nation's largest instrument dealer. The fingerboard of their fanciest known Washburn-brand guitar from about 1900 is intricately decorated with mother-of-pearl reminiscent of profuse inlay seen on early Baroque instruments, but the bold asymmetrical leaves on this instrument are executed in the Art Nouveau style of the time. Presentation-grade pieces like this were later ignored by most customers, as less-expensive instruments became readily available.

   The evolution of the steel-strung flat-top guitar is illustrated in Dangerous Curves with instruments such as Martin's O-42 model (1927) and D-45 model (1938), and Gibson's SJ-200 (1938), still considered the benchmarks of excellence in acoustic guitars. The O-42 included in the exhibition was owned by Hollywood's singing cowboy Gene Autry, who could be seen strumming guitars-inlaid with his name-in many of his motion pictures. The wide-bodied Martin D-45 was the company's most expensive instrument, complete with a border of abalone shell around the top, back and soundhole, and has met with success than any other acoustic guitar of the 20th century. The size and volume of the D-45 led Martin's competitors to reconsider their own offerings, and the Gibson Company designed their SJ-200 to complete with it. The SJ-200 in the exhibition, one of possibly 96 made before the model was discontinued during World War II, features the instrument's trademark large rounded body and narrow waist, rosewood back and sides, mustache-shaped bridge, gold-plated hardware and crest-shaped pearl fret markers.

   Gibson is also credited as the first to carve the top and back of a guitar into an arched shape rather than making them flat, and three early Gibson arch-tops are included in the exhibition. The first, an arch-top guitar dating to about 1900, is of walnut and spruce with steep curved edges along the top and back. It is one of a handful of surviving instruments made by Orville Gibson himself (1856-1918) before a group of investors bought his business in 1902. The other two Gibson arch-tops-the Style O Artist (c.1918) and Style U harp-guitar (1920) are early models made by the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company. The Style U harp-guitar was Gibson's attempt at expanding the musical range of the instrument by adding 10 to 12 bass strings to a standard 6-string model. Part of one of the most interesting groups in the exhibition, the Style U is joined by: a one-of-a-kind Martin Harp guitar (1850-60), one of the earliest of this genre; a bizarre Harp guitar made by Chicago's Harmony Company in 1920, which appears to be tow guitars connected to each other by a set of long harp stings resulting in a twin-like instrument measuring more than four feet long; and an Art Nouveau styled Guitar lyre (c.1910) made by Italian luthier Luigi Mozzani (1869-1943) with organic, curvilinear shapes derived from nature.

   Gibson's early arch-tops caught the attention of other guitar builders, and by the 1930's several other luthiers were creating similar instruments of remarkable style, beauty and tone. The rise of jazz coincided with the spread of the new breed of arch-tops, and the instruments reflected this relationship, exhibiting the flashy styling that the music embodied. John D'Angelico (1905-1964) is regarded by many to have been America's most gifted 20th-century guitar maker, and his elegant New Yorker model (1954) is an example of his best work. Based on Gibson's Super 400 model, the New Yorker's distinctive look incorporates geometric decoration inspired by the Art Deco outlines of Manhattan skyscrapers. Unfortunately, as the jazz age faded with the rise of rock and roll, so did the big archtop in favor of a new breed of instrument-the electric guitar.