Guitars, Virtue, and Nudity: The Guitar as an Icon of Culture, Class Status, and Social Values

by Ervin Somogyi

In a recent conversation I was asked my thoughts on what, exactly, makes the guitar so alluring? What has made it so… well… so widely loved by people? I mean, it has managed to capture popular imagination so thoroughly that it is a bona fide world-recognized icon. Such things don’t happen by accident. So: how did it do it?

I don’t claim to definitely know what has made the guitar so easy to bond with; it’s neck-and-neck in acceptance with the violin — which, along with its separated-at-birth-twin the fiddle, has enormous currency in very different social-musical circles. I mean, I’m told that there are at least as many violins as guitars made annually world-wide, and somebody has to play them, right?

I more or less doubt that the reason we have perfected the designs of these instruments has to do with anything like a genetically innate sense of preferred shape; if it were, we’d have had guitars and violins 25,000 years ago. But the guitar has been said to be a stylized representation of the female form — the allure of which is certainly timeless. I do believe that there’s something to be said for the prettiness-in-simplicity of the guitar: it pleases the eye right off the bat: it consists visually of a few nicely curved lines (made by two bent strips of side wood rather than the violin’s broken-curved six) that contrast, in an uncomplicated way, with the (mostly) straight lines of the neck and frets. It’s a combination of line and curve that is so elemental that even Picasso found inspiration in it.

There are some obvious reasons for the guitar’s popularity. For one thing, it is portable and one can take it anywhere. In a word, it’s convenient. [NOTE: that word comes from the Latin con (with) and venire (come, or coming); in other words it comes with you; it’s at hand; things that are convenient don’t resist you or put up a fight.] Second, the guitar is capable of playing polyphonic music. Compared to wind, reed, percussion and bowed instruments which can play only one or two notes at a time, the guitar can play chords and melodically complex and interesting music. Third, the guitar is well suited to accompanying man’s primary musical instrument — the human voice — in all its ranges and registers. Indeed, this instrument’s first uses were mostly devoted to that; it was only gradually that the guitar developed its own voice.

Next, I believe that much of the guitar’s charm comes from the fact that it is a physically intimate instrument. As one strums or picks on it one hugs and enfolds it. One literally puts one’s arms around it, and even bends the body over it, as it rests on one’s lap. And there’s a genuine somatic pleasure in feeling it vibrate and respond . . . something a bit like the purring of a cat on one’s lap. At least, this is true of the nylon-string classic and the acoustic steel string guitar, when the player is sitting. I don’t think one should underestimate the sheer physical pleasure of playing this person-sized instrument. I mean, one also hugs one’s cello and harp in much the same way, and the bass drum hangs from one’s tummy; but these lack the guitar’s personal-size quality. Most other instruments don’t offer or require that much body-contact; hands yes, mouth yes, fingers yes, chin yes, ears yes . . . but not much else. The guitar is very much a physically user-friendly instrument.

A fifth reason for the guitar’s pleasingness, I think, is that it is made of wood. There’s something friendlier about wood than metal, ceramic, glass, or plastic can generally manage to provide; wood is warm and invites the touch and handling it has given pleasure ever since people began to use it. Other materials don’t offer quite so much of that.

And then, the guitar makes a lot of music easily accessible. Pretty much anyone can learn three chords in about ten minutes and actually play (strum) songs! And yet, this instrument can, from such a simple beginning, pull one in to an entire lifetime of learning and exploration without getting to the end of its musical, rhythmic, tonal, and expressive potential.

This potential is based in the guitar’s amazing versatility. Whereas most other instruments — whether they be plucked, bowed, percussion, or wind — can’t easily produce more than one voice, the guitar can express many. It can do this because it is capable of emitting a huge range of sheer sound depending on how and where it is played, plucked, strummed, hit, stroked, strung, thumped, or scratched. It can also play pretty much any mode of music and musical expression: fast, slow, rhythmic, syncopated, Phrygian, Myxolidian, Dorian, romantic, richly round and colored, tinny, sappy, sad, ominous, trills, contrapuntal, pop, percussive, sweet, ethnic, classical, blues, sea chanties, cantatas, country, flamenco, fiddle tunes, piano music, Hawaiian, fingerpicking, flatpicking, Klezmer, tremolo, bluegrass, folk, Celtic, gypsy, New Age, mariachi, spiritual, heavy metal, jazz, twelve-tone, mournful, happy, sharp and jangly, bossa nova, monophonic, polyphonic, waltzes, scherzos, schotisses, minuets, tangos, czardas, fado, lieder, Japanese/koto, tambor effects, chordal, choral, atonal, martial, Baroque, Indian, Arabic, Spanish, Balkan, Jewish, Mexican, Italian, ragtime, rock’n’roll, rubato, pizzicato, waltzes, minuets, fox trots, Huapango, madrigal, Andean, Chet Atkins style, Django style, campfire music, fusion, gospel, Caribbean/reggae, acid rock, dirges, tarantellas, show tunes, pop tunes, ballads, son, Bach, Afro-Cuban, klezmer, salsa, ska, New Age, electronic, skank, experimental, impressionistic, bebop, doo-wop, minimalist, Habaneras, Andean Huaynos and Cumbias, Christmas songs, lute and fiddle and piano transcriptions . . . and tons of arrangements of all the above, and every composer from every culture and period you can name, and more. This is sooooo awesome.


All these things certainly illustrate the fact that a large part of the guitar’s charm is that it is extraordinarily adaptive and user-friendly. But there’s more to the guitar’s popularity than a mere list of what music it can play and how comfy it is to hold it: the modern guitar has insinuated itself into world audiences and cultural demographics in strikingly different symbolic as well as musical ways. I don’t know if a lot of people think of the guitar as a symbol of anything, but it is. As to exactly what it symbolizes, bear with me a bit here as I lay out some context.

Symbols are proxies for, and represent clumps of, concepts. Concepts (any concept at all: “mother”, “left hand”, “river”, “love”, “Malaysia”, “protein”, “gearshift lever”, “kangaroo”, “honesty”, “blue”, “mud”, etc.) are formed by our collective sensory experiences (images, sounds, smells, touch, movement, hearing, feelings, etc.) and thoughts/ memories. Well, of course, you say: so what else is new? But the fact is that the guitar exists in a particularly rich and interesting soup of learned conscious and unconscious memories and life-associations. It involves much more of us than just our ears, fingers, and musical tastes. It’s the bedrock rolodex of what we personally know and identify with as members of any group that has any connection with the guitar. Indeed, its tremendous popularity has to be based on this being so. This personal involvement is as much an element of the guitar’s allure as are its musical adaptability and physical friendliness — particularly as one is normally not very conscious of the fine points of this personal involvement.

And, as participants a capitalist society, it is fair to say that we are discussing the guitar not from the point of view of a fan or admirer, but of a consumer (or at least citizen/member) of guitar culture.

I’ve written elsewhere and at length about the developmental, musical, commercial, technical, and cultural history of the modern acoustic guitar, but it wouldn’t hurt to quickly revisit that last one now: it’s relevant to the point I’m trying to make. In brief, the Spanish (gut or nylon string) guitar is a European invention. Originally used by the, er, disreputable and, uh, unwashed masses, Andres Segovia made it his life’s work to rescue this guitar from such ignominy and transform the [classical] guitar into a respectable instrument suitable for playing serious music in the Concert Hall. He succeeded well; the flamenco and folk guitars have had no such champion and have struggled to gain such acceptance.

The steel string guitar is an American invention that was, likewise, only a moderately accepted folk string instrument for much of its early life. It was mostly a creature of the, uh, unwashed masses. It struggled to compete with other popular string instruments such as the banjo, the fiddle, the ukulele and the mandolin — until about 1915, when the Pan-American World’s Fair brought it to people’s attention by partnering it with the then-new and gigantic Hawaiian music craze. The steel string guitar got another huge boost in popularity in the 1930s and 1940s when it became a centerpiece element in the singing cowboy movies. You know, the ones where the good guy (the one with the white hat) fought off great black-hatted odds and through sheer virtue and pluck overcame them and won. Then, at the end, he’d pull his guitar out and sing a song; and instead of riding off into the sunset with the girl he departed with his horse, his guitar, and his intact sexual virtue. I can tell you with authority that that formula really works for eleven-year olds. And it also worked for an American population that was beaten down by the Great Depression and sorely needed heroes and upbeat entertainment. An even more important source of solace and entertainment for people in these times was the radio — and the folk-and-country-music steel string guitar benefited massively by being heard over the airwaves by millions of people.

In effect, this folk guitar had begun to acquire a symbolic identity outside of and quite beyond its practical, social and musical uses.

O.K., SO . . . ???

Here, things get even more interesting. While this history has failed to give the acoustic steel string guitar anything like the cachet of sophistication that the classic guitar has managed to attain, it did something else just as remarkable: it has driven the steel string guitar deeply and indelibly into people’s minds as something associated with the honest, hard-working, always-acting-in-good-faith-against-strong-odds good guy. And this acculturation has been unquestioned and successful beyond belief. Consider: not one of you reading this has EVER seen ANY movie, stage play, or tuned in to ANY radio or TV show, or read ANY magazine or book . . . in which the bad guy plays the acoustic guitar. It just isn’t done. The bad guy plays piano, organ, or the electric guitar. There are NO exceptions to this that I know of: the American acoustic guitar is indelibly associated with Virtue, not Vice. Period. Isn’t this a totally cool yet never-consciously-spoken-of social identity? These things are also true, in a way, of the Spanish nylon-string guitar — except that it hasn’t had much of a supporting role in films, and it’s usually played in public by people wearing clean, pressed clothes. And really: who doesn’t want to think of themselves as the good guy?

But what about the electric guitar, you ask? Well, the electric guitar is also an American invention — and it is the black sheep of the guitar family. Played world-wide, it caters to a very different musical demographic. I don’t think it would be far wrong to posit that, given that Maestro Andres Segovia considered the flamenco/folk guitar to be something to get as far away from as fast and far as possible, the electric guitar would have been, by his standards, something to entertain Martians, but not people, with. I mean, no one particularly minds if the electric guitar player sweats while he plays his amped-up decibels under the stage lights, right? One can imagine what Segovia must have felt when his son, begotten rather late in the Maestro’s life, went through a teenage phase of being besotted with the electric guitar.

In any event, the pairing of the acoustic guitar with virtue has some interesting cultural corollaries which necessarily inform the lure and lore of today’s guitar. For instance, my own sense of the iconography of this instrument coincides, to some extent, with the iconography of the [more or less artistically photographed] nude female form. Let me explain what I mean.


The guitar isn’t much of a feature in the world of historical painting as far as I know; and for good reason: much painting was done before the guitar even existed. But photography has come about within the lifetime of the modern guitar, and in the “nude art photography” books and magazines of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, especially, one can see the occasional Spanish guitar being used as a suitable accessory to highlight and contrast with the shape of the nude female form. The same is true in cheesecake pix of the same general period — except that the steel string guitar makes an appearance there. Also, in this genre, the partially clothed or perhaps hiding-behind-the-guitar model will be smiling coyly or beguilingly — and this, along with the fact that cheesecake pix are usually in color whereas “artistic” nudity is photographed in “classic” black and white — is a make-it-or-break-it factor. “Art” strives to inspire; “cheesecake” attempts to seduce. In the latter, the guitar is a prop whose job, along with the model’s coy smile and eye contact, is to suggest that there’s fun (rather than inspiration) to be had here.

The fun element I mentioned above is an ingredient that is used with some discrimination. In “real” or “serious” art photography the model does not express any emotion, much less make faces that, through any suggestion or depiction of enjoyment or pleasure, detract from the . . . cough cough . . . rarified artistic integrity of the oeuvre. The model looks off into the distance, or has her eyes closed. She’s untouchable. If she were real and you tried to approach her and chat her up she’d probably give you a withering look that would lay you out on the floor. And the props themselves (flowers, stones, and vases as well as the guitars) look equally sober. Happily, they are all usually in focus — although I suspect that this is ancillary to anything. But the point is, the Spanish guitar gives sober-looking naked people a touch of exclusivity and class that the steel string guitar doesn’t quite, and the electric guitar doesn’t at all.

To the extent that the cheesecake genre’s props are associated with fun stuff; non-electric (Spanish and steel string) guitars and smiles can go together (I mean, when is the last time you looked at a photograph of a naked babe in a negligee, in the bedroom, holding a saxophone or mandolin?) With electric guitars, on the other hand, things seem to work equally well if the player or model is enraptured, drugged, snarling, sneering, deadpan, or looking at the viewer with outright disdain. This version of the guitar is more familiarly a prop for the type of barely-clothed women who are otherwise showing off their muscles, muscle cars, Harleys, and other accessories of life in the fast lane. Finally, in contrast with its acoustic siblings, the electric guitar isn’t held against the body. At least, not in the same snug and intimate way — and especially not in action shots. There, it is usually hung on a strap and, certainly in the Rock Music version, it hangs down to the player’s crotch, There, the player plays it with largely extended arms (elbows open, definitely not in “holding” or “cradling” position) — in which position instrument’s neck suggests a certain, uh, phallic look. All in all it’s, uh, fairly lubricious. Finally, the decibel count is high. It’s definitely not the listening-to-Bert-Bacharach-in-the-background-with-a-glass-of-wine-by-the-fireplace-at-night kind of thing.

I’ve searched in vain for images of nudes (of either gender) holding trumpets or saxophones, playing pianos or drums or tambourines, plucking on the lute or Jaw harp, blowing on French horns or bagpipes, strumming a banjo or mandolin, or hammering on marimbas. There aren’t any. And one can honestly ask: why not? This must certainly mean something.

Finally, while I am hardly an expert in internet pornography, my researches have located only one image of ANY guitar whatsoever anywhere in cyperpornospace. And it was an ELECTRIC one, not an acoustic one. I think this goes with the reputation of the electric guitar as being the bad boy of the guitar family . . . but then again one suspects that adding a touch of culture and restraint is not, how should I put it, a priority in this domain. I might need to do some more research.

Parenthetically, there’s a parallel process with non-musical props. In “art” photography one will occasionally see the model with a bow and arrow; this usually suggests Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt. It certainly suggests long-ago and classier things, albeit with a hint of danger and deadliness. There are also decorative vases and neutral outdoor scenery. On the other hand, it is exclusively in the world of contemporary pornography that one sees nudity paired not only with guitars but with rifles, pistols, knives, swords, or other implements that emphasize menace over warmth and safety. In cheesecake the non-musical accessories are generally domestic items such as fireplaces, oil paintings, beds, towels, pools and pool tables, fruit, trees and plants, wine glasses, and horses — and, I repeat, the musical props that one does see in these sets are generally not the ones you have to plug in. In that genre it somehow all works to convey a certain sense of . . . well . . . private coziness.

So, anyway, that’s it: the acoustic Spanish guitar (when it’s playing classical music, but definitely not in its flamenco or folk guise) has longstanding and amply documented associations with highbrow culchah. “Classic” and “classy” have the same root, unsurprisingly. One wonders about the pairing of “cheesecake” and “cheesy”. Insofar as the most expensive acoustic guitars are made of rosewood and spruce, the instrument echoes the formal black-white/dark-light sensibility of the average tuxedo (do you ever wonder about the significance of tuxedos and tails being pretty much only black and white? It’s a highbrow look).

The steel string guitar is currently trying to achieve greater respectability but it still has deep roots in the music of the folk — you know, people who wear brightly colored ordinary clothing, but who do not generally paint their hair nor guitars green or blue. The “rock” electric guitar, famously, doesn’t seem concerned with normal middle-class social approbation. The “country/rhythm-and-blues” electric guitar is loud and fun, but is not outrageous. Last but not least, the archtop guitar has gained a solid foothold on respectability in the rarified world of jazz . . . which was, until not long ago, exciting — but simultaneously disreputable — black people’s music: one had to go to a different part of town to hear that stuff.

In sum, I think that part of the guitar’s allure has to do with our traditional regard for its woods, design, engineering, artistry, physics, sonority, musicality, ergonomics, and historical origin. It also has to do with its phenomenal musical versatility and one’s cultural and social identification. As far as this last element goes, the guitar acts as a proxy for one’s uniform, in a way. One could say that, in addition to all the other things the guitar is and can do, it’s a sort of membership or i.d. card that helps pigeonhole one’s educational and social status. It is also an indication of people’s need for hierarchy, order, and boundaries that some versions of the guitar have been selected out for and dedicated to playing serious music, and some for playing fun music, and some for playing outrageous/outlaw music.

On a different level entirely, and without trying to be facetious, I also believe that there’s an argument to be made for a persuasive fit between the above socio-musical reality and the psychologically informed proposition that there are guitars for the ego, guitars for the superego, and guitars for the id. Not all guitar music soothes the heart of the savage beast; some stirs and stimulates it.