References to the guitar more or less in its modern form date back to the 14th century. In its infancy it had four courses of double strings and a rounded body like a gourd or a pumpkin. Its mother would not recognize it today! Around the sixteenth century the guitar was a popular musical instrument amongst the middle and lower classes of Europe, and as it increased in popularity it began to undergo a change of shape. Luthiers began making instruments with single strings instead of courses and experimented with its form until, by the 19th century, the body of the guitar was made wider, and flattened out. In the twentieth century the wooden tuning pegs which adjusted the tension of the strings were replaced by metal machine heads. Now we have the shape that the modern electric guitar is based on.
The first electric guitars were made in the 1930’s in response to a demand from guitarists in bands whose rhythmic stylings could not be heard above the other instruments. The main problem with these electric guitars was that feedback was coming through the amplifier from the vibration of the guitar’s body. This challenge began the evolutionary process of the solid body electric guitar.
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The early electric guitars had sound holes in the body that were smaller than the sound holes of conventional guitars. In 1924 Lloyd Loar, an engineer with the Gibson factory, used a magnet to change guitar string vibrations into electrical signals, which could be amplified through a speaker. Now it was possible to build guitars that did not possess sound holes but could be heard clearly through an amplifier. Amateur guitar players were able to get their hands on electric guitars through the efforts of Paul Barth, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker who founded the Electro String Company in 1931. Their guitars resembled steel guitars, and were played in the guitarist’s lap using a slide.
Modern electric guitars are made of many thin layers of wood glued together. The top layer is often a more attractive wood to give the guitar a pleasing appearance, and the other layers are of a wood which gives a good tone such as poplar or ash. The use of laminates endows the instrument with the robust body and tonal quality that would be impossible in one piece of wood. The original solid body guitar was however, made from one piece of wood. In 1941 Les Paul turned a railway sleeper into an amplified stringed instrument. He called it “The Log”. When production of his instrument began he stayed with the conventional guitar shape to give his market a familiar image to relate to. Les Paul’s invention marketed as the Gibson Les Paul is still extremely popular.
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In the 1940’s, the Fender Broadcaster Electric guitar came into the world. Nobody really noticed until Arthur Smith used a Broadcaster to record “Guitar Boogie” in 1949. After being renamed the Telecaster, it was put on the market in 1950. Another Fender model, the Stratocaster, caught guitarists’ attention with its distinctive tone and light weight. It’s still the second most popular guitar in the world.
Ibanez, Jackson, Paul Reed Smith, ESP and Yamaha have made solid body electric guitars with original designs, distinctive shapes and new materials mixed with modern technologies to produce more efficient and versatile electric guitars. Today’s electric guitars produce tones varying between futuristic music or quasi-acoustic sounds.
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In the 1960’s, effects boxes introduced fuzz, delay, echo and the wah-wah sound to the arsenal of sounds available to the modern guitarist. A pedal operated by the guitar player’s foot turns the effects on or off. Now guitars contain software that lets guitars sound like other types of guitars or reproduce the sound of other musical instruments. With developments like the latest self-tuning guitars, maybe the old joke about a guitarist “phoning in” a solo will become a reality!
Beautiful Nylon String Acoustic Guitar Music
The nylon string acoustic guitar has a softer, mellower sound than the steel string guitar. Strangely, modern audiences can still be spellbound by the depth of feeling of a nylon string guitar. It’s entirely up to you which one you choose to play. I could cite a list of artists who used either nylon or steel string for this or that record, and make a wild guess or two at why the artists made the choices they did, but the bottom line is that if you want a deep, quiet sound that doesn’t compete with your singing, the nylon string guitar is the way to go.
When you go out to buy a guitar, go past the general music store and on to your local guitar dealer if you have one. That way you will have a guitar expert guiding you and not some dufus who only plays two-and-a-half chords. Don’t let the guy in the store automatically steer you to the top-of-the-range guitars, and equally don’t succumb to your inner cheapskate. Pick a guitar that you like the look, sound and feel of, then come down in price range if you really need to.
To get some idea of the range you could be looking at, the Alvarez Masterworks Series MC90 Classical Guitar, a more pricey instrument, has solid rosewood back and sides, western cedar top with precision scalloped bracing, mosaic rosette and gold tuning pegs with tortoise buttons and sells for over $600. The Alvarez Regent, a beginner’s model, is about $150. Of course there are many grades of price and quality in between.
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The kinds of music that the nylon string guitar was designed for are classical and flamenco music. Classical guitar music is classical music composed for other instruments but arranged for the guitar, and classical style pieces composed especially for the guitar or other stringed instruments. There is a wide repertoire of music composed in the medieval or renaissance eras for the vihuela or mandolin and arranged for the guitar which can be extremely enjoyable and satisfying to play. Flamenco music is a folk music of Spain, and is usually comparatively technically advanced simply due to flamenco being a “flashy” kind of music. If you are interested in exploring either of these kinds of music I suggest you go to YouTube and check out the classical or flamenco guitar videos. John Williams (the British guitarist, not the Starwars guy) and Julian Bream are two obvious starting points for classical guitar. Paco De Lucia, Paco Pena and Sabicas will open your heart to flamenco.
We can’t finish without mentioning the nylon string guitar-driven folk music boom of the 1960’s which has given us a lot of great music which can be easily picked up by beginner guitarists. The music of Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Joan Baez or The Kingston Trio still holds some interest for modern guitarists.
So that is an overview of the world of the nylon string guitar. I hope you have found something to spark your interest.