It's portable. You can carry it anywhere (slung over one's shoulder in
an old pillowcase is the accepted mode of transport in my neighborhood),
and with the addition of even the smallest electronic gain booster, preferably
soaked in tubes, it can be heard for miles around.
You can play any kind of music on it. It lends itself
equally well to the polyphonic classics as it does to basic chord-and-a-half
rock, jazzbo comping, and country fried chickin-pickin'; and once electrified,
it has a tonal palette unrivaled in expressiveness, that is, if you like
fuzz tone, reverb, flanging, and tremolo. Clean or dirty. Mid-boost. Master
As the guitar flowed west from Europe-with a nudge
from Africa and Asia-over the course of centuries to find lodging in the
El Dorado that is America, the home of Messrs. Rickenbacher, Martin, Gibson,
and the sainted Leo Fender (and Les Paul, the fulcrum upon which all these
hollow- and solid-body visionaries balanced their evolutionary pickup
ideas), it became nigh ubiquitous. Now, with the final chord feedbacking
on the century-one that began with a people's instrument sold in the Sears,
Roebuck catalog for five
dollars and ended with the infinite possibilities of digital encoding-it's
time to tune up.
There is something fundamentally bass-ackwards about a museum exhibition
of guitars. When instruments are removed from their function-i.e., sounding-we
are constrained merely to look at objects that were meant to be heard.
We can only imagine their tone, their sustain, the sound bouncing around
the interior of a hollowed-out body or projected through magnetized poles
into the electronic airstream. Aloud: that is how a guitar is meant to
And then there is touch. I can tell you that hardly
anything feels more silky than the neck of a '57 Stratocaster, its varnish
worn away by countless barre chords, the slight hollow where the palm
cups the higher notes. It positively glows with the warm fibers of its
wood, its striations and grains breathing. Read it geologically, like
a rock formation worn by the wind, revealing strata, upheavals, sudden
aftershocks, and the continual wear-and-tear of centuries.
Guitars impart the personality of their players' skills
the nicks and scars of their playing. Pete
Townsend's smashed SG, the pick marks scraped along the guard. Chet Atkins's
courteous, restrained Country Gentleman, which responds more to the filigree
than to the flamboyance. Jimi Hendrix's upside-down Strat. B.B. King's
Lucille. Truly, these are instruments meant to be held, if only in the
imaginary music they make as they wait in readiness, the promise of melody
and rhythm awaiting their performer.
For those guitars whose owners aren't well known, or
whose owners never play them, the visual appeal is still visceral. We
slide slowly into matters of style here, musical genre but popular geometry,
the arrangement of shapes and sizings and decorative touches that spotlight
our given instant of culture. The hourglass figure, the quality of varnish,
the inlay all capture the moment of the instrument's intersection with
the newsreel; the scratch of a 78 record, the saturated Cinerama colors
of a 1950s Bible movie, the dark gleam of a 1930s Gibson gamboled down
a Mississippi crossroads at midnight, making its deal with the devil.
Shape is fluid, within the reasonable bounds of what
a guitar basically is. Start from the premise that you need a board on
which to stretch the strings, a means to tune them and project them, only
two hands (at the outer limits of which you invent the pedal steel, but
they-musician and instrument-are a breed apart). The basic blueprint of
the guitar is established. From there, it becomes a matter of custom shopping.
A neck. Staggered frets, crosswise across the length to specify intonation,
or fretless, like a violin, its nearest relation in the string-along clan.
Any number of stings, really, though most guitars have half a dozen; the
twelve-string a high-strung half-brother. Mario Maccaferri had a nine-string;
Korn favors the seven-string. Tuning is a myriad of secret handshakes,
but usually it's chord based, all the better to bend with a minimum of
fingers, preparing to plant the rest in a nearby seventh.
You don't choose a guitar; it chooses you, and shapes
your playing-form follows function follows fashion. The music's silhouette
is delineated and then customized by each player, involving and evolving.
The birth of the blues. Rock and roll. Don't forget to wiggle it around,
just a little bit; Jerry Lee Lewis made his entire eighty-eight-stringed
instrument sound like a guitar in "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." And
from the same '50s Sun studio, Scotty Moore gave the new music a swimming,
echo echo repeats per second. The guitar made way for entire subculted
languages, created its own ultrasound image, much as the well tempered
clavier assisted Bach in his watch-like contrapuntal precision, or the
smeared and pedaled piano allowed Debussy his liquid sense of dappled
light and dark, his pedal steel.
When someone asks me what kind of guitar to buy, I
say the one that makes you want to pick it up. That you'll leave lying
across the bed, on a chair, within easy reach. The one you'll keep playing.
Plumage is important. The haze of a color, the adornment, the artisanship
all play their part
in a guitar's costuming, its character, its role. A decade or two down
the line, the guitar that you bought new in a music store hanging on a
rack with a dozen others (all of which were quite beguiling, thank you)
will have opened up its resonance, stretched its wood in appreciation
of the music that has been made, and accommodated all willing hands, or
just yours alone. An instrument requires respect, give and take. You should
get to know each other.
The guitar is a family member, of the family Chordophone,
and the following assemblage is a rare reunion. I can imagine the instruments
in the Boston MFA exhibition climbing down from their displays after hours,
gathering for a late-night shoot of the breeze, seeing what distant cousins
have been up to, intermingling their music's. And because families help
each other out, one will gift a lick to a relation struggling in some
new clime, and a new music might get born. You never know.
guitar is a strummer's instrument: a strolling harp, the perfect tool
for a wandering minstrel. In the heyday if the Renaissance lute, guitars
began to mutate. By 1300, there existed a guitarra moresca, which resembled
a lute, and a guitarra latina, a primitive antecedent more closely emphasizing
the cinched waist and boned corset of the guitar torso. They'd met in
Spain. You can
see how intermarriage would produce such an offspring.
For a while, the guitar was the prodigal, tumbling
down the slippery slopes of class until it found root in the non-courtly
orders. The curvature of its upper and lower bouts gave it a disconcerting
sensuality that removed it from polite society. Life in back alleys and
taverns simplified the instrument to its bare essentials, refined its
basic uses. In the early 1600s, the chitarra was widespread enough to
warrant Italian instruction books. Working its way back to the drawing
room and concert stage during the 1800s, leaving the duende- the spirit-elf-of
flamenco in its wake, the guitar stayed underfoot (better for dancing)
in the roadhouses and the hills, until the folk boom of the 1960s. With
the guitar-slingers of rock and roll, it became a social signifier, not
only an instrument but an accepted lifestyle accessory and symbol of personal
liberation. Once only a player in the orchestra, now it stepped out to
lead the band. Took a spotlight solo. Made it big time.
That's the short view. The long unfolds in the overlapping
concentric orbits of each instrument's role as a go-between in the tacit
trio that is player and music and listener.
We have turned up the volume on the electric century.
If there is a narrative to accompany this procession of stringed instruments,
it is the guitar's journey to its amplification, its desire t be heard,
and the musics created in its wake.
The guitar is the only major instrument to be so transformed by a wall
outlet and a pronged plug. It perches on the borderline separating sound
generated from within and the ventriloquism projected through an out-of-body
source, manipulating its character.
The enhancement of acoustics began early in the 1920s
and resulted in such wonders as the microphone, radio, and talkies. It
would change the way singers sing and actors act. Les Paul remembers sitting
in his Waukesha, Wisconsin, living room wondering how these relatively
new technologies might be combined, jamming a phonograph record needle
into the wood of his guitar and sending it through the wire-coiled magnet
of a telephone mouthpiece into a radio speaker in hopes of generating
an electron stream that might be embellished in amplitude and tone. Literally
Early luthiers understood the vibration of the woods
they filed and carved into shape. Each guitar was like an ecology, each
piece harmonic. With a minimum of moving parts, the instrument was a tinker's
dream, and even the simplest innovation could radically transform its
sound and attack. When Christian Frederick Martin brought his art and
craft from the Viennese workshop of Johann Staufer to America in 1833,
he braced the soundboard of his instruments in the shape of an X. Thus
strengthened, the guitar would eventually be able to accommodate the grander
overtone tensionings of steel strings, instead of the gut or silver wire
over silk that ran through the courses of European instruments. The ringing
appealed to the industrial clamor of the new twentieth century.
Orville Gibson also liked the clang of steel. He thought
the guitar came up short compared with
the sophistication of the violin. Working in a music store in Kalamazoo,
Michigan, he combined what he felt were the violin's best design qualities
into his mandolins, zithers, and harp guitars, arching the top of the
instruments and eventually selling his patents to a consortium of investors
in the early 1900s who took his designs to the mass guitar market.
Gibson's arch vs. Martin's flat-top. The note swirled
around the belly of one, spun like a centrifuge from the circulatory soundhole
of the other, neck and inlaid neck through the first third of the century.
The tone shapes within the outer shell of the instrument, molding a frequency
of interior space, pumped through the body's soundhole-or in 1923, the
arch top's scrolled f-holes-to awaiting ears. Now Eddie Lang didn't have
to keep time on the banjo, and could chop and dice his comps on the big
Gibson L-5; Martin's Dreadnought series would become a bluegrass standard.
Not all sounds are burnished in the instrument's rib cage: there is the
scrape of the pick striking the strings, the thump of the forearm as it
hugs the guitar body, the hissing snake of the hip, and the ever-tapping
the mirror-image twin streams of country blues-Charlie Patton, Willie
McTell, Robert Johnson-and country string bands-Carter Family, Fields
Ward and his Mountaineers, Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers-coming to
prominence in the 1920s and 1930s, both driven by the guitar's sidekick
accompaniment, and the blue yodeling figure of Jimmie Rogers perhaps straddling
both, the instrument was well positioned to attack the flanks of the hit
parade. But in the swing era, only western combos allowed the guitar a
prominence; back East, where horns ruled the urban bandstand, the guitar's
role was still essentially rhythmic. The great Gypsy guitarist Django
Reinhardt brought a dapper flair to the instrument, perhaps one of the
first crossovers plying a folk tradition into a more sophisticated Hot
Club musicality (though even there, jazz was a little suspect). Along
with Charlie Christian-who had just gotten one of the first amplifiers
to trade solo fours with Benny Goodman's orchestra-Les Paul, Alvino Rey,
and Merle Travis helped extend the instrument's wingspan through World
War II, by which time Muddy Waters, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, Paul
Burlison, and Link Wray were ready to plug in.
When Bobby "Bill Parsons" Bare told the story of an
"All-American Boy" in 1959-"Get yourself a gui-tar/Put it in tune/you'll
be a-rockin' and a-rollin' soon"-he was heralding an explosion in the
instrument's popularity. Funky chicken or cracked egg, the guitar launched
the instant gratification of rock and roll, along with the magnetic attraction
of a solid-body pulsing with its own electrocuting song, the hum and buzz
of an axe turned up to Spinal Tap's "11."
When does a guitar become something else? When is it not a guitar? Electricity
opened a philosophical debate, that, regardless of which side you argued,
inflamed passions to a seismic degree and drew a fault line that could
have collapsed in on itself or changed the role of the instrument forever.
The guitar was lucky. Unlike the harpsichord making
way for the piano-forte (and what about the mellotron, not to mention
synthesizers?), its playing heritage-tunings, number of strings, and vast
literature, from Fernando Sor to countless Appalachian ballads-meant the
difference was more tonal and attitudinal. Guitars could continue to do
what they did best: proliferate, evolve.
The rush to electricity expanded the playing field,
broadening the guitar's horizons, making it nigh indispensable. No longer
confined to a subliminal supporting role within a band's momentum, it
could be the undeniable focal point. But when the time came for the formal
introduction of electricity, the source was unlikely: a small chain of
archipelagoes as distant from the United States as America is wide, Hawaii.
The acoustic lap steel is played with a bar in the
neck hand, resting flat, and in the 1920s became a popular recording instrument
via the island stylings of such as Frank Ferara and Sol Hoopii. Its wiry
tone and melodic phrasing, with many slurs and vibratos, lent well to
the acoustic horns that would capture sound before 1925, the year Bell
Laboratories introduced their electrical recording process. The image
of hulu maidens and beachfront sunsets didn't hurt. I am reminded of this
gazing at the National Triolian in my corner, waiting for me to tickle
its strings, which stretch over a conical diaphragm resonator, a virtual
speaker in a completely metal guitar, painted bronze, with a palm tree
stenciled on the back. Those were adventurous times.
Ironically, the acoustic lap steel-tied as it was to an island vogue-faded,
as electrical recording became the norm. But Adolph Rickenbacher had a
manufacturing outlet that pressed National's steel bodies, and so came
in contact with George Beauchamp, who had partnered John Dopyera at National
and helped pioneer the resonator guitar. Beauchamp was still working on
how to make the guitar louder when a disagreement with Dopyera moved him
into partnership with Rickenbacher.
Both saw a niche where they could apply George's ideas of doing away with
the soundhole altogether. Out of the Frying Pan (his most famous creation,
driven by pair of horseshoe-shaped magnets) and into the fire. Once amplifiers
were onstage, it was a simple matter to adopt them to guitars, and the
guitars themselves began to transform.
Suddenly, the body of the guitar could look like anything.
Practicality and comfort considerations led to a semi-standardized sense
of how an electric guitar should appear, give or take a single or double
cutaway, but Bo Diddley could play a square box, for all it mattered,
and Valco (themselves big in the lap steel business, witness the mother-of-pearloid
Supro) could make their Brentwood in the shape of the U.S. of A. In fiberglass,
The populuxe styling of the '50s replicated the Detroit
tail fin and sense of roar that was America in mid-century. Leo Fender,
in a southern California that was a custom car hotspot and future surfing
Mecca, invented the Broadcaster in 1948, improving on it with the Telecaster
and then the Stratocaster (the Jag-Stand would come much later), a template
of American archetypes that now constitutes one of the great guitar lineages
and has the surf music to prove it.
Gibson saw its arch top demand fall off sharply after
World War II. Though it matched Martin model for model in the flat-top
acoustic field (Martin opted for the traditional-they never successfully
went electric, though Bob Dylan certainly did), Gibson had promoted "electrical"
arch-top guitars as early as 1936. Charlie Christian used an ES-150, and
the bar pickup it featured is now nicknamed for him. Yet when Les Paul
brought a homemade solid-body electric to Gibson in 1941, a pine plank
on which he'd affixed two pickups and a bridge, surrounding it with pieces
from an Epiphone guitar body to make it look less alien, they referred
to it as a broomstick and passed.
The company could hardly ignore the stir that Fender
was creating. Already the Telecaster was influencing guitar phrasings;
the bright, brittle sound could cut through drums and bass and the most
unruly audiences. So in alliance with Les Paul, who by now had graduated
to his own garage studio and the wonders of multitracking, Gibson designed
a guitar with low-end authority
and endless sustain, a slightly carved top to recall its violinistic inspirations,
and gold finish, because "what other color?" It became the Les Paul in
1952 (make mine '59 and tiger-striped), and remains a fitting namesake
for a man who was in the forefront of guitar invention. Regardless of
which one reached the Pole first, "The Log" is arguably the first pure
Adolph Rickenbacker (he'd hardened his name's spelling
along the way) was not about to miss out on this frontier opened up for
settlement. Even after he retired in the 1940s, his company
continued their off-the-beaten-path explorations. They were a favorite
with the new English bands, especially the Beatles' John Lennon, and they
had a unique item with their electric twelve-string guitar, which would
be anointed the mediator between folk and rock in the hands of Roger McGuinn
of the Byrds, a band consciously formed as a link between the Beatles
The '60s sparked the fuse to a guitar boom. A host
of manufacturers rushed in to answer the skyrocketing demand. Some, like
Epiphone and Kay, were older firms modernizing; others, like Guild or
the later Mosrite (endorsed by the Ventures, an all-guitar band that taught
many young guitarists their opening licks), adapted themselves to the
times. Soon the sound of a painstakingly formed E chord was echoing from
garages across the land.
Luthiers became modern assembly-line factories, churning
out literally millions of guitars. Though the sheer numbers gave the instrument
a workaday, journeyman quality, it didn't necessarily mean any less emphasis
on personality. If anything, guitar makers seemed only too anxious to
indulge their most extravagant fantasies. Gibson flipped out and produced
the Flying V and Explorer. Gretsch had been manufacturing guitars in Brooklyn
since the 1930s, but their association with Chet Atkins in 1955 prompted
a Nashville swivel for the company. They soon has the Tennessean and the
Country Club models, though Gretsch's zenith would be reached with the
exquisite White Falcon (we won't even mention the impossibly rare White
Penguin), a six-stringed metal-flaked spangle of c&w fashion. There were
individual high0end artisans crystallizing tradition, the exquisite arch
tops of D'Angelico and D'Aquisto; and budget lines, with everybody's first
guitar, a Silvertone built by the Danelectro company of Neptune, New Jersey,
amp in the guitar case top.
Guitars were sold in department stores, passed around
and traded like good stories, had their own display in pawnshops. Pretty
soon, as the '70s tolled their way to that ultimate in slash chord reductionism,
punk rock, it seemed like every bed had a guitar stashed under it. Sometimes
they'd be taken out and played every day; sometimes they'd be found years
later, with the tags still on.
Guitar lore galore.
at a museum, very much like the one in Boston, only in a church basement
on Manhattan's East 12th Street. It's semiannual guitar mart, but I'm
not here to buy (well, maybe…).
a beaten-up Byrdland, thin-line, from the late '50s. I like the way the
fingerboard comes to a point as it joins the body. Here's a Dan Armstrong,
clear Lucite; its weight makes my arm sag. I note the full two-octave
fingerboard, the way the pickups can be quick-changed at will. It's next
to a first-generation Ampeg electric bass, with a scroll top reminiscent
of the behemoth instrument it was designed to emulate. Ampeg: amplified
peg, the pickup located in the floor-supporting rod.
I see a Paisley Telecaster from the late '60s. An Asian
ESP shredder from the mid-'80s, with its headstock filed to a stiletto,
tremolo clamped at the nut so that you can literally droop the strings
off the neck and then yank them back in tune for the next suspended chord.
A 1919 Martin ooo-18 with later tuning pegs and steel strings, and a slight
rub where the little finger of the picking hand anchors. A new Parker
Fly. I can imagine each of their mating cries: the sitaresque D string
drone; the blizzard of notes, two hands tapping on the neck; the slow
ragtime fingerpick of pre-blues; the future's cybersonics. The people
who play these musics and the music as it plays on them.
To immerse oneself in the guitar is to experience the
panorama of our collective musical memory.
As for older instruments, highly individualized products
of someone's acoustical imagination, this is as close as we'll get to
reliving what they might have sounded like, pre-recording. Some are to
fragile to string to pitch; we may not be able to revel in Antonio Stradivari's
1700 five-course guitar at standard A440, but we can try to fathom its
voice by reading its rings, like the tree it once was. The young'uns count
off down the street in an hour. Catch them if you can.
The remarkable thing is that more than half a millennium
of progress hasn't altered our conception of what a guitar can mean. Distorted
by a vacuum tube or lightly brushed in a late-night bedroom, the guitar
accommodates change without altering its basic nature; this is what gives
these varied instruments their lifeline. No matter who picks it up when,
the guitar will play the same song.
City, April 2000
Reprinted from Dangerous Curves: The Art of the Guitar
by MFA Publication