Biblioteca de la Guitarra y Cuerda Pulsada

Biblioteca de la Guitarra y Cuerda Pulsada

Whence the steel string guitar?

Or: The Steel String Guitar, For Dummies



by Ervin Somogyi

Although guitar-like stringed instruments have been identified in tomb paintings from as long ago as biblical Egypt, guitars themselves only emerged as instruments with their own identity in sixteenth century Europe -- and what we think of as the modern guitar didn't exist before about 1850. As its "invention" by Antonio de Torres -- who is considered to be the father of the modern guitar -- preceded both nylon and metal string-making technologies these, and earlier, guitars were all (like violins) gut-strung.


It is difficult to overestimate the importance of stringed musical instruments in nineteenth century American popular culture. The guitar, the mandolin, the fiddle, the banjo, etc. were all very user-friendly; they were portable, they were affordable, and one could learn to play recognizable music on them fairly easily. They were, along with song, the solvent for any social activity; they were how people entertained themselves, acculturated themselves, met one another, and simply passed time when they weren't at work. Music societies and clubs, reams of printed music of simple and romantic ballads, guitar and mandolin bands and orchestras, music methods and instruction of every type, dances and musical social events, formal and informal parlor get-togethers, outdoors festive entertainment, traveling musical shows, etc. were a mainstay of social life in the days before there were movies, radio, television, theatre, widespread literacy, organized sports, the vast modern array of self-improvement activities, or easy means of traveling (and destinations to travel to) in one's leisure time. People simply occupied themselves with music a lot 1. And what an immense musical market this was for those on the supply end! This is where factories such as Gibson, Washburn, Epiphone, Harmony and Martin come into the picture.

For all these reasons that existed within the context of the American musical, social and cultural market, the steel string guitar as we have known it has not been associated with the genius of any individual luthiers -- certainly not in the way the pioneers of the Spanish guitar are thought of. The pioneer American makers whose names we associate with the guitar today, such as Martin, Washburn and Gibson, aimed at and achieved production, not lutherie. In contrast with the trained-craftsman inception of the classical guitar, the steel string guitar has been a creature of the factory. Those pioneers who survived and thrived at guitar making did it in a thoroughly businesslike way through establishment of production facilities, organized advertising campaigns, systematic catalog sales, targeting of the greater instrument-teaching community, widespread marketing of a multiplicity of features/options/designs [exactly like we sell cars today], large-scale subcontracting of assembly operations, importing and, finally, hard-working distribution, sales and shipping networks. There were scores of small and independent makers in and near the big cities all throughout the 1800s and later, to be sure, but they were serving a mass market of enormous size, and their individual identities became entirely subordinated to it 2. In consequence, the small-scale American makers -- whether they made a product under someone else's brand name or their own -- are all forgotten. The single exception to this is the Larson brothers (see below), who, from the 1890s to the 1930s, made pioneering contributions and significant innovations to steel string instrument-making. Yet, even their work was largely lost to memory and would now be forgotten had it not been rediscovered in the folk music culture of the 1960s. The steel string guitar has never been the Star in the same sense that the classical guitar has been the Prima Donna in much of the music played on it: it's been far too populist and popular an instrument 3.


The overwhelming majority of guitars of the mid-to-late 1800s were gut-strung. Gut strings were expensive: a single one could cost as much as a working man's weekly disposable income; therefore the guitar tended to be owned by middle class people who could afford to feed it.

But metallurgy and wire-making technology was making great strides in the early and mid 1800s, driven largely by the huge migration of settlers moving Westward; they needed wire for fencing with which to mark their homesteads, farms, ranches, and fields. Untold thousands of miles of wire for fencing were thus made . . . and in the process some of the wire was adapted to the needs of musical instruments. When metal strings became available they were quickly found to be one-fifth the price of gut strings, and longer lasting, and louder -- which of course made them doubly appealing to a growing mass market.

However, the quest for louder guitars came up against the laws of physics and most of the first guitars strung with steel strings didn't last long: they commonly developed bent necks, warped faces, pulled-off bridges, and suffered various other failures 4. Starting in the late 1800s, brothers Carl and August Larson made the first durable steel string flat-top guitars in response to these circumstances. The success of their designs were based in two things: first, excellent workmanship; and second, the intelligent application of engineering-sense to flat-top instrument making. In fact, their seminal contributions are recognized today largely because their instruments have survived -- when most of their predecessors' and contemporaries' have not. This is yet more remarkable in light of the fact that the Larson brothers' overall production was minuscule in quantity compared with factories that were turning out thousands of instruments yearly 5..

At about the same time as the Larson brothers were inventing the durable flat-top steel string guitar, Orville Gibson was solving the same structural problems by making his steel-strung guitars arch-topped; while that design/technique is the subject of a separate article, it should be pointed out that here also, as far as the emergence of any individual American craftsmen whose names might be associated with improvements in the steel string guitar is concerned, only that of one other -- Lloyd Loar -- has come down to us.

Once the Larsons and Orville Gibson had created durable versions of the steel string guitar, it participated in all the musical fads and ferment that came and went in the late 1800s; but it didn't become an instrument made in large numbers or with a principal identity of its own until the 1920s -- surprisingly late in its history. There simply wasn't sufficient critical mass of interest in its sound until then, and the factories had not seen it as a moneymaker. Gibson made the first factory-made steel string guitar produced in quantity -- the archtop jazz L5 -- in 1922. Martin & Co. switched to making mostly flat-top steel string guitars only in 1929, after almost a hundred years of having made everything else. And the rest, as they say, is history.


While the flat-top steel string guitar became accepted into the popular musical mainstream in the 1930s, it only began to be taken as a serious instrument in the 1950s.
Before then the steel string guitar was, musically -- at least in white society -- something fairly tame and sedate; it had found its place mostly as a parlor instrument or as a rhythm, accompanying or orchestral instrument and, as mentioned above, as an instrument of broad and frequently informal social entertainment. With the exception of the archtop guitar's extensive use in jazz by prominent players such as Django Reinhardt, there was no solo guitar to speak of until the 1950s. There wasn't even any serious or challenging body of music for the steel string guitar until recently and, outside of jazz and blues, most songs played or accompanied were folk melodies, simple ditties, classical transcriptions, fiddle tunes adapted to the guitar, or orchestral arrangements.

The folk music culture of the nineteen sixties brought into mainstream consciousness the Mississippi Delta blues stylists and singers who would otherwise now be forgotten but who have influenced a new generation of blues players and singers. Individuals like Hank Snow and Merle Travis pioneered the playing of actual melodies on the guitar. Doc Watson, within our lifetime, became the first serious steel string guitarist the world knew, and remained the only one for about ten years. He was eventually joined by players like Clarence White and Dan Crary, who became seminal influences in opening up the musical possibilities of flatpicked steel string guitar -- and John Fahey and Leo Kottke, who are the initiators of the continually growing fingerpicking idiom which now includes players such as Alex de Grassi, Chris Proctor, Peppino D'Agostino, Duck Baker, Stefan Grossman, Peter Finger, Ed Gerhard, Tim Sparks, Martin Simpson, Pat Donohue, Doyle Dykes, Michael Hedges, Jacques Stotzem, Pierre Bensusan, John Renbourn, Lawrence Juber, Shun Komatsubara, and many, many others.
This music is enriched by its receptivity to and inclusion of elements of folk, ethnic, ragtime, Celtic-Irish, jazz, blues, Latin, Caribbean, African, and classical music -- and those instrumentalists such as Dale Miller and Steve Hancoff who are transcribing from such influences for the guitar must also be acknowledged. Then, one mustn't forget to include mention of the re-popularization of Hawaiian slack-key music through the efforts of musicians such as Keola Beamer. Finally, no list is complete without mentioning Chet Atkins, whose influence and work with the guitar is impossible to overstate and requires a book all its own. obtainable. The list of individuals who have been prominent in the various types of its played music is long and includes prominent players of bluegrass, blues, folk, country, jazz, fingerpicking, ethnic, balladeering, fusion, new age, and just about every other idiom. Nonetheless it is most important to note, with regard to the history of the modern steel string guitar, that it is so new that many of the very important people in its musical development are still alive, and their music freely obtainable 6.

If the Spanish guitar was established as a serious instrument within the timeline starting with Torres and ending with Segovia, then one could equally maintain that this -- now -- is the golden age of the steel string guitar. Within the past fifty years it has gone from being a mostly unknown backwater to the point that it has worked itself into all music, especially ethnic music, worldwide -- and is now being used to play music that is serious, complex and challenging.

In the second installment of this article we'll continue to examine the cultural and economic forces that gave birth to the steel string guitar, although from not so Macro a point of view. We'll also examine the main structural/tonal element that is the signature difference between the steel string guitar and its Spanish sibling -- namely, the "X" brace -- and how it came into being.

1. Actually, people in those days threw themselves into musical fads with an energy and on a scale that is hard for modern folks to appreciate: the mandolin craze dominated popular music for about ten years -- during which guitar music took a back seat; jazz became its own craze -- but not initially for mainstream white people; banjo music was extraordinarily popular for some years, during which sales of other instruments leveled off. Steel strings themselves got a major boost in 1915, when bands playing at the San Francisco Pan-Pacific Exposition ignited a serious craze for the whiny steel-string sound of Hawaiian music which had, until then, been middlingly in vogue. Hawaiian music became the style of the day and pianists, guitarists, mandolinists, etc. fell in love with and played endless Hawaiian rhythms and melodies; in fact, so huge was this new interest that for several years after the Exposition companies such as Martin were making and selling more Hawaiian guitars and ukuleles than anything else. But somehow, through all these musical fads, influences and cycles, the guitar seems to have had greater staying power than its companions the mandolin, banjo, and the ukulele.

2. Consider, also, that there were no prominent solo guitarists such as the Spanish guitar makers had already begun to make individual and personal instruments for -- and would continue to make them without competition, until steel string guitar players first began to become soloists in the 1950s.

The earliest Spanish guitarists were stars such as Sor, Pujol, Tarrega, Llobet, etc., whose names we remember today. But even before these came to the fore, the Cremonese (and other) European violin makers had since the 1600s been making instruments for the likes of Sarasate, Paganini, and countless other prominent individual, court and concert violinists, etc.

By way of contrast, the earliest Heroes of the Guitar that American culture produced were the Depression-era folk singers like Woody Guthrie and the singing-cowboy heroes that were simultaneously manufactured in large numbers by 1930s Hollywood.

3. This is quite literally true. Musical culture in which individual personalities became societally prominent had its genesis in the courts and wealthy patrons of European capitals. This became fully as true for performers and for composers as for instrument makers. Socio-economically, this has always been a package-deal kind of thing.

4. Mandolins, etc, could hold up because they had shorter necks and their faces were arched to hold the bridge tensions. But guitars had no such protection: their faces were bigger but flat, their necks were long and unreinforced, and their bridges were small with inadequate gluing surfaces. Consequently, the necks warped, the bridges pulled off and the faces caved in. Furthermore, the same guitars would often be marketed with both metal and gut strings, without any structural provision being made for the increased tension other than a retrofit tailpiece.

Or, people would put the cheaper metal strings on whatever guitar they had simply because they were affordable. A steel string guitar's high "e" cost about ten cents; a gut one about fifty cents: that was a week's disposable money for a lot of people. And if one wanted to pick their music in vigorous Nick Lucas style rather than to pluck in the gentler, more romantic parlor-balladeering style, then one could fray one's way through a whole set of expensive gut strings in a single evening.

5. Today there's an appeal to the small-scale business or operator. But in the early days of rapid American economic expansion, when large immigrant populations struggled to establish themselves in the ferment of its commercial culture and plunged into business possibilities which all seemed wide open, "big" was admired and "small" was not. It's sometimes difficult to evaluate just how large a factory or the scale of operation might actually have been, because businessmen learned quickly to aim high and to exaggerate in order to project success. Photographs of otherwise modest production facilities were sometimes doctored to make them look like sizeable industrial complexes; in musical instrument production figures were inflated, sometimes by the direct method and sometimes by including imported instruments as well as made ones, etc. The Washburn Company -- which was in reality a very large complex of subcontractors, factories and importers -- in 1900 alone claimed production of 100,000 instruments. If this is accurate, then it very likely included instruments imported from Europe. But it is a nice, big, round number which is remembered more than a hundred years after the fact.

6. My thanks to Dan Crary and Muriel Anderson for these perspectives.




The Spanish guitar has come to us out of a European tradition in which fine things are made by, and associated with, individual craftsmen. This doesn't mean that Spanish (and pre-Spanish) guitars weren't produced in large numbers in guilds and factories: they were. And it is not that hand craftsmanship is inherently superior to other forms of organization of production. It is rather that the roots of European lutherie predate the industrial revolution and hand craftsmanship was the main option for a long time. As such, the level of skill brought to lutherie was quite high, as a visit to any museum with a good collection of historical string instruments will show. But because this kind of lutherie was associated with real individuals -- despite the historical existence of numerous major centers of large-scale production of musical instruments -- a tradition has been created whereby modern Spanish guitar makers are the inheritors of some past heroes to look up to and whose work they can emulate and not depart too radically from. These revered icons are people like Antonio deTorres, Hermann Hauser, Luis Panormo, the Fletas, the Ramirezes, Francisco Simplicio, Santos Hernandez and other famous European makers. Modern Spanish guitar luthiers like to think of themselves as walking in these originators' shoes, or at least on the path that they traveled. As I said, none of this has stopped Spanish guitars from being produced in great numbers in factory settings; but the basic design has not changed much in all this time because its acceptability is still rooted in the traditional look -- as well as the fact that the design continues to be a successful tone producer.

On the other hand, American factories were for many decades the only source of steel string guitars. Lutherie in the European craftsman's sense of the word never took hold on this side of the Atlantic, and the Martin, Gibson, Washburn and Epiphone guitar companies, more than any other brands, have provided the models and standards of what a steel string guitar ought to be. Accordingly, the design of the steel string guitar has always been subordinated to the requirements of the production process, and this has in turn dictated the possibilities of the guitar as a musical instrument. With the exception of the prolific Larson brothers, and jazz guitar makers such as John D'Angelico and Mario Maccaferri in the early 20th century, no individual luthiers became prominent, successful or famous 1. In consequence, however, the contemporary American steel string guitar maker is deprived of a personal link to the past and he must either identify with a largely production tradition, or claim independence from tradition and sort of give birth to himself 2. There is now a small core of very good contemporary individual steel string luthiers who could serve as models to others. They're all from the postwar period, and it's not the same as having pioneer models from a hundred and fifty years ago. Yet, it's a beginning.


The "X" bracing associated with Martin guitars is the model, pattern, template and standard used the world over for reinforcing steel string guitar faces. Pretty much all steel string guitar bracing is based on that model (fig.1). Those who don't copy Martin's "X" bracing outright produce minor variations of it, making the tone bars or fan braces a little flatter or taller, or longer or shorter, or spacing them farther apart or closer together, etc. This is all for good reason: the "X" brace works. Well-crafted steel string guitars using this bracing system can produce sounds that no other arrangement of parts has been found to surpass in either volume or warmth. Not least, "X" bracing is the steel string guitar's chief distinguishing structural and tonal feature that sets it apart from the Spanish guitar, which is almost universally constructed and voiced with fan bracing.

Fig. 1 Interior view of a Martin guitar face: it is the model for virtually all steel string guitar bracing as depicted in any book, how-to video, newspaper/magazine story, published lutherie article, or guitar magazine/trade journal advertisement.

Interestingly, the "X" brace, which we all think of as being well adapted to handling the pull of metal strings, was being used by the Martin Guitar Company as early as the 1850s, when it was (along with every other manufacturer) making only gut string guitars -- a full sixty to seventy years before metal string guitars came into general use. Of course, in those early times and for those stringings, the "X" brace was comparatively small and delicate.

Structurally speaking, gut strung guitars didn't require "X" bracing -- even when soundboxes were enlarged and scale lengths increased. But the structural reason why "X" bracing works so well in the modern steel string guitar is that it is most resistant to distortion in the area in front of the bridge, where the stresses pushing down on the face are greatest. The reason for its tonal success is that it succeeds in unifying the face, for vibratory purposes, better than anything else previously devised. It seems unlikely that "X" bracing was the result of any tonal considerations in the way of improvement over the possibilities given by the fan bracing universally used in the Spanish guitar of that time: fan bracing was only first being used in these at about the same time as the earliest "X" braces appeared in the United States, and there would have been little if any frame of comparative reference at the time. Both, in fact, seem to have been developed simultaneously out of the earlier smaller fan and ladder-braced instruments, as well as from the pursuit of different social imperatives, musical challenges, commercial needs, and plain old mechanical inventiveness 3.

It seems to me undeniable that we have the Larson brothers Carl and August -- already mentioned above -- and not the Martin Company or any other manufacturer to thank for adapting the gut-string guitar's "X" bracing successfully to the needs and design of the modern steel string guitar. To repeat: starting in the 1890s, they made the first steel string guitars sturdy enough to not collapse under the pull of steel strings, and yet not so overbuilt that they lacked sound. The Larsons achieved this in part by enlarging and beefing up (with increased size and laminated construction) the previously too delicate "X" bracing, by doming their guitar tops, by reinforcing the guitar necks, and by increasing the size, shape and gluing surface of the bridge. These design advances notwithstanding, it wasn't until the 1920s that such guitars were produced in sufficient numbers by factories for them to become -- as it were -- principal players in the popular market.


The commercial, developmental, musical, technical and artistic history of the guitar has been a complex one. The design and parameters of the Spanish guitar have been largely set for a hundred and fifty years. Classical guitars made a hundred years ago and guitars made today don't look all that different from one another; the traditional look of the instrument has prevailed. At the same time this instrument's music has of course advanced and its repertoire been enlarged, and the techniques for its playing have been refined although not changed much. The steel string guitar, in comparison, is experiencing a contemporary explosion of design, shape, dazzling and original ornamentation, technique, music, and, not least of all, seriously talented makers and players.

To date, many books have been written about one or another aspect of how all these things came to be, and about the individuals who wrote and played significant guitar music -- and many more will yet be. But there exist a few pivotal elements and individuals behind the success of the guitar as we know it today, without which almost none of us in the business (at any level) would be able to survive. I would say that the worldwide acceptance of the Spanish guitar can rightly be attributed to the DuPont employee who discovered nylon, if only by accident, in 1930: within fifteen or twenty years this led to making an instrument which had until then been notoriously expensive to put strings on, and therefore limited to being a middle class musical object, all of a sudden accessible to the masses 4. Also, the worldwide popularity and acceptance of the flat-top steel string guitar as we know it today is, in my opinion, attributable to the genius of the Larson brothers who, regardless of how cheaply (and therefore accessibly) a guitar could be made in their day, made the first ones that could be used without sooner or later collapsing under the pull of metal strings.

While the hand/small-scale making of guitars has grown on this continent to compare with anything that exists in Europe, so has factory guitar making grown. And then some. Industrial-level guitar making such as has dominated the American scene since the beginning has been rapidly spreading -- into Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, and now China: anywhere, as a matter of fact, where there is cheap labor. I'm not optimistic in contemplating the future of American lutherie -- as far as the making of any kind of guitar goes -- from the standpoint of the requisite basic hand skills that an individual must master in order to become a self-sufficient and skilled workman. The roots of such skills need to be put into place rather early in life for them to be fruitfully and fully integrated into one's adult work and, from what I've seen, today's younger generation is much more deficient in such basic skills than my own was. Young people don't seem to tinker, futz, putter, sculpt, whittle, make model airplanes, play with erector sets, fix up old jalopies very much, or participate in imaginative play/role playing with real things 5 -- as opposed to engaging in virtual pastimes designed by people who have been paid to do that -- and the manual arts in this culture are, in general, lagging far behind ability to manipulate 6 computers and other electronic devices. I think this is a fundamental loss the results of which won't be understood or missed, or perhaps even noticed, for another generation. If we are or have been in any sort of golden age of guitar making, it will have been built on a combination of manual skills and creative intelligence, not labor and time management in the service of acquiring practical, technical and virtual skills.

1. Even the Larson brothers, who had made pioneering contributions and significant innovations to steel string instrument making, were forgotten after their deaths -- until they were rediscovered by American musicologists, and the guitar culture, of the 1960s. A large part of the reason for this is that, unlike the Spanish luthiers whom we know of who made guitars under their own names, the Larsons produced instruments under many others' labels, including Euphonon, Prairie State, Maurer, Dyer, WLS ("World's Largest Store"), Stahl, Stetson, Leland, Meyer, Larson and other labels.

2. I think it's interesting that the highest-quality European guitars are associated with an individual maker's name, and that young luthiers try to make a career out of furthering their own names as associated with their products. In this country, however, it's not uncommon for young luthiers to try to market their instruments under a commercial-sounding name to which they've subordinated their own, such as: Running Dog, Moonstone, Bear Creek, Timeless, Golden Wood, Evergreen Mountain, etc. This is an interesting cultural difference.

Another one is that since at least the 1930s, when Andres Segovia was concertizing around the world, it's been common -- in classical guitar performances or recordings -- that the maker of the guitar being played is mentioned in the concert program or on the record jacket. To my knowledge this was unknown for the steel string guitar and its music until the late 1970s, when I began asking that my name be mentioned on record jackets as the maker of the guitar being played. Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that there really was no significant steel string solo guitar outside of John Fahey, Leo Kottke and Doc Watson, until the Windham Hill label established solo guitar music as a viable musical genre in the mid 1970s.

3. Although gut-strung guitars do not and never did, strictly speaking, require "X" bracing, it undoubtedly worked to make the guitar a more successful musical instrument than the earlier, smaller, ladder-braced and fan-braced versions had been. As far as the advent of the "X" brace on American shores goes, it seems likely to me that it was noticed that (1) lightly constructed longitudinal or diagonal bracing elements made better sound than the ladder bracing which was common to earlier guitars, and that (2) diagonal bracing that bound the topwood's fibers together in a cross-grain latticework would (3) enable guitars to survive seasonal climate changes better than braces which simply followed the grain, as fan bracing does. After all, the early American makers and players all had the greatly-changing East Coast seasons to deal with. This (4) would also have gone hand in hand with the fact that, unlike the concurrently developed Spanish classical guitar and its increasingly formal middle-class uses, Martin, Washburn, Gibson, etc. were making instruments in these greatly-changing East Coast climates for the playing of steadily increasing-scale popular and folk musical entertainments at both indoors and outdoors events. "X" bracing served the needs of wooden soundboxes played under those ambient and atmospheric conditions.

4. The DuPont company found it could make stockings and fishing line out of this new substance. But it was fishing community of Southern Spain, and the fishermen of the Spanish port of Cadiz in particular, that brought the attention of this inexpensive new guitar-string-substitute material to its guitar playing community; thus it was really the flamenco guitar players of Andalusia who discovered the nylon guitar string. My thanks to luthier and guitar authority R.E. Brune for these insights.

5. Toys, dolls, tools, furniture, paint, clay, wood, camping equipment, clothing, etc., as opposed to what might appear on a computer or television screen. It's what Piaget called "formal operations", which he identified as an important developmental stage in his study of how young humans grow.

6. It's an ironic choice of a word within the context of this discussion, given that it originally meant "use of the hand to effect something". Another irony is that "manufacture", which has the same root [manu, mani, or manus , meaning hand], originally meant "the making of something by hand". These things are manifestly so.


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