Guitar Basics – A Brief History of the Guitar
If you would like to learn to play the guitar you are likely to find this brief history of the guitar interesting. As part of this guitar basics series when I researched I also came across some facts I wasn’t aware of as well.
Origins in Babylon & Egypt
As far back as the Babylonian era there is evidence that people played small stringed instruments; instruments with a body, neck, strings and tuners. These instruments are also found in drawings from ancient Egypt dating back more than 2000 years. The predecessors of the guitar are the lyre, oud, vihuela and the guitarra. They varied from having 4 single strings (the guitarra) to five and six pairs of strings (the vihuela).
By the nineteenth century the guitar, having six single strings became universally accepted. Geared metal tuners replaced the violin style tuning pegs and the frets originally made from gut were changed to wire. More and more music was being written and performed specifically for the guitar and the interest in the instrument continued to grow.
The classical guitar as we now recognize it is generally attributed to the modifications by Spanish luthier, Antonio de Torres (1817 – 1892). He standardized the string length to sixty-five centimeters and placed great emphasis on the top soundboard in the production of tone as well as perfecting the fan-bracing under the soundboard.
In the very late 1800′s Orville Gibson designed the steel string acoustic patterned after a violin. It had an arch-top and f-shaped sound holes similar to a violin. With the steel strings and the larger body the guitar had more volume than the classical guitar.
About forty years later in 1936, Gibson introduced their first electric guitar. It was the ES-150, which was an arch-top guitar with their hexagonal pick-up. Some jazz musicians still consider this as the best pick-up for jazz.
In the late 1930′s Les Paul was playing a modified Gibson ES-250. He began working on Sundays at the Epiphone Guitar Company factory in 1941. There he experimented with his prototype electric guitar, “the Log” that he made from a 4” x 4” block of pine with a bridge, pickups and a tailpiece. This new instrument produced a rich, sustained tone. In 1942 he presented his “Log” to Gibson where they laughed at and belittled his guitar calling it a “broomstick-with-pickups.”
In 1949 Gibson added two new guitars to their line-up; the ES-5 which was the first three-pickup guitar, and the ES-175, with its sharply pointed cutaway. In 1958 Gibson debuted the semi-acoustic ES-335 which was an instant success. Other “icon” Gibson guitars such as the Flying V, Explorer, Moderne, SG and the Firebirds followed during the next decade. (More on Gibson’s guitars under Les Paul)
In 1947 Leo Fender introduced the “Broadcaster” which later became the “Telecaster®.” The Telecaster® was the first solid body electric guitar to be mass-produced. Incidentally, during the same year Leo Fender introduced the Fender Precision® Bass. Previously bass players played the big upright bass.
The significance of these instruments cannot be overstated. It is this combination of the electric guitar and the electric bass that gave small combos the ability to have enough volume to be heard. It is the combination of guitar, bass and drums that is the core of the modern combo or rock band.
The Fender “Stratocaster®” was introduced in 1954. The “Strat®” included three single coil pickups, body contours and a deeper cutaway as well as the addition of a vibrato (whammy bar). It is without a doubt the most popular and influential electric guitar of all time.
Fender expanded the guitar line in subsequent years to include the Mustang, the Jazzmaster and the then, top of the line Jaguar. Fender also introduced a complete line-up of amplifiers including the Fender Champ, the Super Reverb, the Twin Reverb, the Bandmaster and the Showman. Leo Fender’s contribution to guitar making is as Henry Ford’s to the auto industry.
With the success of Leo Fender’s Telecaster®, the head of Gibson (M.H. Berlin) called to get “that guy with the broomstick-with-pickups back.” Les Paul was contacted by Gibson and in 1952 the Gold Top Gibson Les Paul was introduced. This guitar featured a mahogany body with a maple top, Kluson tuners, two P-90 pickups and a trapeze bridge/tailpiece. The “Les Paul”, by 1954 had spawned into a family of four models; the Junior, Special, Standard and Custom. In 1954 Gibson introduced the tune-o-matic bridge on their top models including the Les Paul Custom. These are still the standard Gibson electric guitar bridge.
The Humbucker Pickup
One of the characteristics of the Fender single coil pickups as well as the P-90’s and other single coil pickups such as the Alnico (aluminum/nickel/colbalt alloy) is the presence of s 50/60 cycle hum. In 1955, innovator Seth Lover wrapped two single coil pickups opposite each other to cancel the hum. The resulting pickup is the famous Humbucker. Although the patent was applied for in 1955, it was not granted until 1959. Remakes of these pickups are generally referred to as PAF’s (patent applied for).
Although the Martin Group had been building guitars and other musical instruments for a number of years, in 1931 the Martin Guitar Company began producing the models D-1 and D-2 steel-string, flat-top acoustic guitar under their own name. The D-1 was destined to become the D-18. The Martin Dreadnought, which is the size of the standard acoustic guitar, quickly became the preferred instrument of country, folk and bluegrass players.
Martin maintained steady growth throughout the years but in the 1970’s there began a tremendous interest in the acoustic guitar which somewhat paralleled the “soft-rock” and the “unplugged” eras and still continues. Martin guitars feature quality of materials such as Sitka Spruce and Indian Rosewood and exhibit craftsmanship to aspire to. They have five famous Dreadnougt models D-18, D-28, D-35, D-41, D-45 as well as numerous smaller sized guitars.
There are many other guitar makers that have revolutionized the music industry such as Rickenbacker, Gretch, Guild and more recently Godin and Taylor. However, the impact of Fender, Gibson and Martin have been undeniable and phenomenal. They have been and frequently still are the “measuring sticks” against what other brands are measured.