Whence the Steel String Guitar? – 2/2


by Ervin Somogyi

In Part 1 of this article I wrote about the origins of the steel string guitar from the vantage point of the macro socio-economic culture of the New World. I used the Spanish guitar, which was developing simultaneously with it, a point of reference and comparison whereby to have a better understanding of both. In this section I will continue to examine the genesis of this most American instrument, take a look at the structural and design elements that make it a unique instrument, and take a guess at its future.



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.