a SHORT HISTORY OF THE GUITAR
The guitar has been one of the most popular instruments of all time. Since its introduction in Spain in the 1500’s its popularity continues to grow. This popularity can be largely attributed to the guitar’s versatility and portability. It can give hours of pleasure to the user after learning the simplest three chords, or it can be used for the most complex of music and provide the player with a lifetime of challenges and achievements.
The guitar’s lineage includes the round-backed lute and vihuela popularized by traveling performer/composers as they traveled throughout Europe literally singing for their supper. Over time the original thin body, higher pitched 4 string, double course (much like a 12 string) style gave way to the 6 string, single course instrument we know today.
There are early examples that indicate that the guitar was brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadores. An English traveler of the time writes of Indian children dancing “after the Spanish fashion to the sound of the guitarra”. Benjamin Franklin (1709 – 1790) was said to be a keen player of the guitar.
The history of the steel string acoustic guitar in American can largely be traced to the C.F. Martin and Gibson Guitar companies founded by Christian Friedrich Martin, Sr. (1786 – 1873) and Orville Gibson (1856 –1918).
C.F. Martin, Sr. received his training in Vienna under a well-known luthier, Johann Stauffer (1778 – 1853) in the 1820’s and became the shop foreman for Stauffer. Martin wanted to open his own guitar shop and returned to Saxony in 1825 only to be met by resistance from the German violin makers guild who held a low opinion of guitar makers. As a result of this contretemps, Martin and his family emigrated to America, landing in New York in 1833 where he began building and marketing his gut string guitars with a lateral bracing pattern as was common in Europe.
In the 1850’s Martin is credited with the development of the “X-brace” method for bracing a guitar’s top. This not only strengthened the top, but added its own tonal characteristics which have become a Martin “trademark” sound noted for its singing clarity and sustain.
Orville Gibson began his instrument building career in the early 1890’s and is primarily known for bringing violin, carved-top processes to guitar and mandolin building, producing an assortment of archtop guitars. It wasn’t until the late 1920’s that Gibson made a serious commitment to compete against Martin in the flat-top guitar arena. Like Martin, Gibson also used the X – brace system but migrated towards larger body sizes with sloped shoulders rather than the smaller, square-shouldered body style favored by Martin.
Most, but not all contemporary builders use a variation of the X-brace system modified for the type of guitar and characteristics of the wood of choice. Some contemporary luthiers use electronic equipment for measuring the stiffness and elasticity of wood to assist them in voicing the instrument. Others rely on their senses and experience to coax the best sound from the instrument. Some now use a combination of science and art to produce optimal quality.