I’ve spent close to fifty years by now being fascinated by the six-string guitar, exploring its possibilities, and making various versions of it — despite the fact that underneath it all it is no more than a long-term but nonetheless a contemporary convention and a fad, and not essentially different from propeller airplanes, typewriters, lutes, galleons, vinyl records, bows and arrows, and the Roman Empire. It is simply a wonderful, useful, interesting, and effective cultural element and icon of our times . . . but by any long-range measure it is surely impermanent, and temporary.
The guitar as we know it is only some 170 years old and has ALREADY morphed into something that the originators would only recognize with difficulty. At the same time the challenges of daily life, of growing up, of finding meaning and significance, of the interactions between the sexes, of personal gain and loss, of identity, and the problems family and money and survival and responsibilities and bringing up children . . . are permanent and are the stuff of life itself. The guitar itself, morphed or not, is only a part of all that.
Speaking of the guitar’s having morphed, it’s morphed very interestingly. Let’s start with the fact that the humble guitar started out as something to plunk, twang, and strum songs on, and nothing more. I mean, Antonio Torres, the man who “invented” the modern guitar, was a carpenter, for cryin’ out loud, so there wasn’t much of a bottom line attached to making guitars. There were proto-guitars and guitar-like stringed instruments, but nothing approaching even a hobby as far as the modern guitar is concerned!
Actually, I mis-spoke with my comment on the guitar being useful for twanging and plunking on; that was mostly true of the American steel string guitar. The precursor of the Spanish guitar was being used early on to compose and play sophisticated melodies on; this speaks to the different cultures that had adopted the guitar; there were people even then who saw serious musical possibilities in it. Then, eighty-plus years later, about the time the guitar was beginning to be electrified, the acoustic steel string guitar’s voice began to be heard for the first time by itself and without accompanying instruments — in the singing cowboy movies of the 1930s and 1940s. You know: the ones where the good guy — the one with the white hat — fought off the black-hatted evil guys and through sheer virtue and pluck overcame them and won. As it happens, these movies served a social need. They came to the fore in the Depression-era social landscape in which people needed something to feel hopeful about. And Hollywood capitalized on that — and singing cowboys became stars!
At the ends of these morality-with-six-guns films the triumphant hero would pull his guitar out and sing a song. And instead of riding off into the sunset with the girl he departed with his horse and his guitar . . . with his sexual virtue intact. These movies were chaste; there was no sex in them and the hero’s chief love object was his horse. I can tell you with authority that that formula really works for ten-year olds. And it certainly did so for an American population that was beaten down by the Great Depression and sorely needed heroes and upbeat entertainment . . . especially when no one knew that the actors and actresses were, in real life, fucking like rabbits when off-camera.
And then, in the early 1950s, Elvis Presley came along and shocked everyone by swaying his hips seductively and strumming on his guitar on national television; it was the first time a whole lot of people had ever heard the guitar’s voice more or less by itself. In any event, 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 working man and good guy. And winning.
Consider this: not one of you reading this has EVER seen ANY movie, film, or stage play, or tuned in to ANY TV show, or read ANY magazine or book … in which the bad guy plays the acoustic guitar.
It just isn’t done. The acoustic guitar is the hero’s instrument. The bad guy plays the piano, the organ, or the ELECTRIC guitar. Check this out for yourselves.