The development of a distinctly American guitar
In the harsher climatic, economic and social conditions in America, the lightly constructed European guitars did not fare well.
American makers including Martin and other immigrant German luthiers developed an X bracing to strengthen the soundboard and made the construction of the guitar simpler.
The result was a distinctly American guitar that could be quickly and easily built in large workshops or factories and was simple, sturdy and moderately priced. This made the guitar accessible to a broad section of American society.
The folk guitar
It was only gradually in America that the guitar became a 'folk' instrument. On the American frontier, traditional ballads were at first accompanied by the dulcimer (introduced by German settlers).
Guitars appeared from three directions: the Eastern cities, The Spanish southwest and from the black blues players in the South.
Steel strings arrive on the scene
Steel strings for the guitar were introduced on the market around 1900.
It was a heavier and stronger version of the X bracing system that Martin and other German luthiers developed that was used for many of the new steel string guitars.
However, the 'ladder' bracing system that was used in the gut strung European
salon guitars was also used for steel string guitars. From the 1890s into at least the 1930s, black blues guitarists and white southern rural musicians all tended to play cheaply made ladder braced guitars.
The steel string guitar found a ready market in America as it was ideal for the growing popularity of blues and country music.
European immigrants had brought to America the standard gut strung classic guitar. However it was in the music of the blues and of country music that the guitar caught on in early 20th century America.
The Blues guitar
In particular, the black blues players embraced the guitar for their unique blend of European diatonic scales and African pentatonic scale patterns.
The musical result of this blend was neither a major or minor tonality, it was a combination of both. Unique to the blues are sliding inflections between major and minor thirds, major and minor sevenths, and between perfect and flat fifths.
To create this sliding effect on the guitar, a technique called 'bending' the string is used. A string is fingered by the left hand, played, then pushed or pulled by the left hand finger across the fingerboard then returned to its original position.
This stretches then relaxes the string making the sound go up then down in pitch producing the wailing sound that is so characteristic of blues playing and singing.
This bending technique can be played on a gut or nylon string guitar... however it is much easier and more effective on a steel string guitar because of the higher tension, thinness and flexibility of these strings. So when steel strings came on the market in America, they readily caught on with blues guitar players.
Some famous blues players from the 1920's and 1930's are Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Robert Johnson.
The Country guitar
White Country musicians also embraced the steel string guitar. What we nowadays call country music was a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the southern USA, the 'hillbilly' music of the Appalachian Mountains and the 'cowboy' music from the pioneers and ranchers who settled the western plains.
Country music has its roots in traditional folk songs, instrumental dance music and gospel songs that were brought to America by immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany.
The bright twangy sound of the steel string guitar was ideal for playing along with folk instruments such as the banjo, mandolin and fiddle at barn dances.
Well-known country musicians in the 1920's and 30's were the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and later the 'singing cowboys' Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and the influential Hank Williams of the 40's and 50's.
In recent decades, the sound of country music has changed dramatically. The guitar is still prominent, but now complete orchestras, studio effects and over-dubbing are used to add a lushness, or softness, to the country sound.
This era of country music is sometimes called the 'Nashville' sound because it was pioneered by RCA Records and Columbia Records in Nashville, Tennessee. This was the beginning of contemporary country music with well-known performers such as. Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Merle Travis, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
The Folk Revival
The steel string guitar was to the fore in the American folk music revival in the 1950's and 1960's. A typical performance would be a solo singer accompanying himself or herself on the guitar.
In the beginning of the revival, most of the interest was in discovering and re-creating the traditional music of America.
Increasingly, a new generation of singer/songwriters used folk elements to create a contemporary music that was often strongly critical of the American political situation at the time.
Some of the prominent American singer/guitarists of the revival were Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Peter Paul and Mary.
The American folk revival caused a wave of popularity for this type of music around the world, with each country re-discovering its own traditional music and also following the trend towards contemporary 'protest' type songs.
Two types of steel string guitars
As the steel string guitar evolved, two different types developed. The first type of steel string guitar came to be known as the 'flat-top' guitar. The second was called the 'arch-top' guitar.
The flat-top guitar
The flat-top guitar was the type that descended from European gut strung guitars with the X bracing. The name refers to the soundboard (also called the 'top'.)
Until the 1960's, the most popular forms of music played on the flat-top steel string guitar included blues, country, bluegrass, folk, and several genres of rock.
During the 20th century, the flat top-steel string guitar gained popularity around the world. The first purely instrumental solo playing with this type of instrument in a concert setting was introduced by such performers as the English guitarist Davey Graham and the American John Fahey in the early 1960's, who used finger picking techniques to compose original pieces with formal structures somewhat like classical guitar music.
Other guitarists in the same solo genre are John Renbourne from England and Leo Kottke from America. Today, there are many steel-string soloists, including Americans Duck Baker, Alex de Grassi and Al Petteway; Frenchman Pierre Bensusan and German Steffen Basho-junghans.
Luthiers have been experimenting with redesigning the guitar for this type of solo player. These flat top, steel-string guitars are constructed more for classical-like finger picking and less so for chordal accompaniments.
The arch-top guitar
The second type of steel string acoustic guitar is called the 'arch-top' or 'f-hole' guitar. These guitars are descendants of European violin construction.
Developed by Orville Gibson in the 1890's, the arch-top guitar has a contoured soundboard. Both the soundboard and the back are carved from single pieces of wood. Instead of the traditional hole in the soundboard, the arch-top has two f-shaped holes that are like the ones used in the violin family.
Other design aspects of the arch-top that were borrowed from violins are the tailpiece and floating bridge. The instrument had a short sound sustain, but it was relatively loud. Jazz musicians played them mainly as chordal or rhythm instruments in small bands and in large jazz orchestras. Eddie Lang was a famous jazz arch-top player in the 1920's.
The musical world would be a poorer place today without the famous steel string guitar and its inspiring players. For a glimspe at another aspect of guitars, take a look at History of the Classical Guitar
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