[Episode Summaries] [Oral Histories] [The Songs and the Artists] [Eternal Songs] [Instruments and Innovations] [Behind the Scenes] [Links] [Into the Classroom] [Credits] American Roots Music
B. B. King's famous guitar  
Instruments and Innovations  

The Guitar
The Fiddle
The Accordion
The Banjo
The Harmonica

The Guitar

If American vernacular music has an archetypal instrument it is certainly the guitar. Though figures like Benjamin Franklin played a guitar-like instrument, and genteel ladies like Andrew Jackson's wife Rachel played a gut-stringed "parlor guitar," the instrument didn't really achieve widespread use in the country until the twentieth century. As early as the 1600s, Spanish settlers had brought to the New World a European style guitar with five sets of double strings. By 1800 the six string instrument known today had evolved in southern Europe and was brought over from places like Italy and France. The instrument was popular enough by 1816 that the first instruction book was published. Most of these guitars were smaller than modern models and were strung with gut strings and plucked with the fingers. Though they were seldom known in the mountains or with the white working class of the South, a study of ex-slave narratives reveals a number of memories of guitar-playing by blacks in pre-Civil War times, almost all of them located in the Mississippi River delta. There is little documentation as to how these guitars were played, but the location is significant: it would later be the center for the classic delta blues.

By the turn of the century, improved guitar-making techniques allowed manufacturers like Martin (founded 1833) and Gibson (founded 1894) to offer steel-string guitars. When played with picks, this allowed a much brighter, louder sound and let the guitar hold its own in a string band, at a square dance and as a solo instrument in its own right. It was about this time that the singer Lead Belly discovered an inexpensive Stella 12-string with steel strings and as loud as a piano. Soon mail-order catalogue stores like Wards and Sears-Roebuck were adding inexpensive guitars to their catalogues. Sears' models ranged from $2.70 to $10.30, and one inventory in 1900 reported that over 78,000 guitars had been manufactured that year. Throughout the1920s, American musicians set about inventing new ways to tune and note these instruments.

The first generation of country or "hillbilly" musicians tended to play a style one of them described as "threshing maching," with loud, percussive strokes designed to provide little but rhythm. But soon key players, like blind Riley Puckett, a north Georgia native who made hundreds of records as a singer and band guitarist, showed the guitar was capable of adding melody lines as well as rhythm. And in 1927, at the famous Bristol sessions in northeast Tennessee, Maybelle Carter (of the Original Carter Family) introduced what would become known as "the Carter Scratch," playing a melody on the bass strings and brushing the higher strings for rhythm. It would become the quintessential "lick" for country music. Down in Tennessee, a brash young man named Sam McGee, the traveling partner of Uncle Dave Macon, watched with fascination as black section hands near his farm in middle Tennessee played a blues finger picking style. He would soon combine this with ragtime he had learned from a parlor guitar teacher in nearby Franklin to create some of the first solo records featuring the guitar: "Buck Dancer's Choice," "Railroad Blues," and "Knoxville Blues."

Another popular playing style had its origins in the Hawaiian guitar. As early as 1830, Mexican cattle herders had brought the guitar into the Hawaiian islands, and the local natives soon adapted it to their own music, creating a "slack key" or open tuning. A man named Joseph Kekuku began noting the guitar with a comb or penknife, placing it across his knees and manipulating the knife to get different keys. In the early 20th century, this style swept the US as part of a fad for Hawaiian music, and soon American roots musicians like Jimmie Tarlton ("Columbus Stockade Blues") were learning from touring Hawaiian guitarists how to play this style. Both white and black guitarists (from Bashful Brother Oswald to bluesman Son House) developed the slide style, and its popularity gave rise to a hybrid instrument called the resonator guitar, or "dobro."

Along the Texas-Mexico border, another type of guitar called the bajo sexto emerged as a central instrument in popular conjunto string bands. Looking like a cross between a standard guitar and a cello, the large bajo sexto featured twelve strings, most tunes an octave below standard guitar. This gave the player the chance to play bass and chord at the same time, and gave the music a propulsive bass sound. When combined with the button accordion, the drums, and possibly an electric bass, the bajo sexto became a crucial ingredient in the popular tejano music of today.

By the 1930s a number of new guitar styles emerged in the South and Southwest. In 1933 the Delmore Brothers from Alabama began featuring a little tenor guitar in their work on The Grand Ole Opry and on records. The little tenor, noted like a ukulele, was used to take single-string instrumental breaks on the Delmores' records like "Brown's Ferry Blues." In western Kentucky a new style sometimes called "choking style" emerged in which artists like Merle Travis began picking a syncopated melody on the bass strings while simultaneously playing the lead on the higher strings with the index finger. This so-called "Travis picking" was later developed even further by Chet Atkins, and became one of the standard methods in modern country music.

In Texas and Oklahoma a new style of rhythm plating developed using what were called "sock chords" - tight, jazzy 4/4 chords played high up on the neck as opposed to the older "open" 2/4 chords still favored in Nashville.

The next major innovation was to amplify the guitar. The earliest attempts at this involved the electric Hawaiian guitar of the 1930s by Rickenbacker, but by the late 30s jazz guitars like Eddie Durham and Charley Christian were using the amplified standard guitar as a solo instrument. By 1946 California engineer Paul Bigsby built the first solid-body electric guitar for Merle Travis, and by 1948 the Fender "Broadcaster" went on sale to the general public. Among the early bluesmen to use this and its successor the "Telecaster," were T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. It was Waters who brought the delta blues to Chicago in the late 1940s and transformed it with the solid body electric guitar - and made the next step toward rock and roll.

Back to Instruments & Innovations


Home   |   Episode Summaries   |   Oral Histories   |   Songs & Artists   |   Eternal Songs
Instruments & Innovations   |   Behind the Scenes   |   Links   |   Into the Classroom   |   Credits   |   Reviews
Bring American Roots Music home

© The Ginger Group 2001