Essay: Guitar Evolution

Guitar EvolutionA festival devoted to the guitar? A great idea and, not to mention, an ambition of Eric Clapton’s for many years that finally came to fruition in Dallas, Texas, in June 2004 as the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

The guitar is an instrument that, although neglected for a long period of its existence, has become central to popular music today and a vital part of blues, jazz, classical, and many other genres. Its ancestry goes back to the Arab world, from which a many-stringed instrument with a flat, fretted fingerboard and a huge gourd-shaped body called an al’ud was brought to Spain. Both instrument and word mutated into lute, and by the 16th century, it was a common accompaniment to vocal and instrumental music, with a growing number of pieces written specifically for it. The instrument did have drawbacks, however: it wasn’t very loud and couldn’t produce much in the way of harmony. But it was portable and light, as was its cousin, the guitar, which began to show up in southern Europe in the 17th century. (Trivia: Antonio Stradivari was as well known during his lifetime for his guitars as for his violins.)

By the middle of the 19th century, the guitar was well established in the popular and folk traditions of Spain, Portugal, and Italy. European sailors brought it all the way to Hawaii, where the residents enthusiastically adopted it. According to legend, one day in the 1890s a music student at the Kamehameha School was walking home with his guitar and found a metal bar by the side of the railroad tracks. His experiments with the bar, sliding it up and down the strings, produced a remarkable sound and led to the development of the Hawaiian guitar.

By 1900, the guitar had spread all across the United States, thanks to mail-order houses like Sears, Roebuck, and great luthiers (guitar makers) like C. F. Martin & Co. and Washburn were supplying high-quality instruments at modest prices. It had also become popular with home music makers, especially those who didn’t own pianos, and commercial sheet music often had guitar-chord diagrams above the piano parts.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition had fired a craze for Hawaiian music, and groups performing on ukulele, guitar, and slide guitar (and, of course, those daring hula dancers!) played vaudeville and tent shows across the nation — and Europe. Thousands of people took Hawaiian guitar lessons, but in rural areas, they taught themselves or adapted the technique to what they were already doing. In his autobiography, the self-proclaimed “Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy, recalls in a famous passage how a “lean, loose-jointed Negro” woke him up in Mississippi as he dozed waiting for a train, by “press[ing] a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars.” Twenty years after this incident, which occurred in the early 1900s, Jimmie Rodgers recorded some of the first million-selling country albums with a similar guitar accompaniment.

Other players, both blues and country, preferred to play the guitar “straight,” and developed complex flat-picking and finger-picking styles. By the 1930s, guitar players found themselves playing for larger and larger audiences and up against the same limitation the lute had had: the guitar was hard to hear. So American ingenuity went to work. Two Slovakian immigrants, the Dopyera brothers, invented a thin resonant metal piece that made Hawaiian-style playing much louder on the guitar: the dobro (played at the Crossroads Festival by Jerry Douglas) was born. Leo Fender, an inventor and guitar player, came up with a way of transforming a steel string’s vibrations into an electric signal that could be amplified by a separate device. This idea also led the Rickenbacker company to reduce the Hawaiian guitar to an instrument that was basically all neck. The electric guitar and the lap steel guitar had arrived.

Both blues and country performers adapted immediately: Ernest Tubb, a Texas country singer and fan of Jimmie Rodgers, added an electric guitar to his band so they could be heard in the loud honky-tonks near the Texas oil fields, and T-Bone Walker, a Texas blues player, found he could play on an equal footing with a band of brass instruments when he had an amplified guitar. In Oklahoma, a young player he inspired, Charlie Christian, brought a new harmonic sophistication to the ideas Walker had originated and was propelled to a starring role in Benny Goodman’s orchestra, while Leon McAuliffe, playing with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, completely reinvented the steel guitar.

By the mid-1950s, electric guitars were everywhere. Muddy Waters, a Mississippian transplanted to Chicago, took the Delta slide-guitar style W. C. Handy had heard, adapted it to the electric guitar, and became the reigning king of the blues. In Nashville, Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons, two lap steel guitarists, became frustrated with having to switch between necks to play their solos and installed a series of levers and cams to precisely stretch or loosen the strings on a single neck, thereby devising their own pedal steel guitar, the Sho-Bud. And in California, Les Paul, a guitarist who liked to tinker, found a way to harness the annoying tendency of electric guitars to feed back and make squealing noises by developing one with a solid body and pickups that fattened the instrument’s sound, which made it even louder.

The coming of rock ‘n’ roll made the guitar king: Chuck Berry, discovered by Muddy Waters, became a teen idol through both his inventive songwriting and his distinctive electric guitar style, while Elvis Presley, who played acoustic guitar, was backed by Scotty Moore, a Memphian who played in a tradition begun by Paul Burlison, another white Memphis guitarist who had worked with bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. Wolf later discovered a teenager named Hubert Sumlin, whose wild, distorted sound became the backbone of Wolf’s band.

The folk revival of the 1960s saw guitars flying off the shelves of music stores as college students and others rediscovered the masters of 1930s blues and country music, and the arrival of the Beatles, playing electric guitars, caused another boom in the industry. When Eric Clapton left the pop-oriented British band the Yardbirds in 1965 to join John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, the age of the guitar hero had already begun, starting with the American Mike Bloomfield, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and British guitarists Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies.

All of which fails to mention the spread of the guitar to Africa, where it became central to Congolese rhumba and soukous, as well as South African township jive, Ghanian highlife, and Malian pop; or the long-standing guitar-based flamenco tradition of Spain; or the daring adaptation of slide guitar to the Indian classical tradition by visionaries like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Nor does it take into account the completely unique Hawaiian slack key genre, the astonishing guitar music of Madagascar, or the virtuosos of Brazilian popular music. A couple of these traditions made it into the Crossroads Guitar Festival, but to try to incorporate all of them would probably have extended the festival to the present and beyond.

–Ed Ward