Whence the Steel String Guitar? – 1/2


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.