This could be a long ramble!
It's not just the fact that I play guitars and have got some rather nice ones that make me want to say so much about them. They are a wonder: I can't think of many other man-made objects that tell you so much about social, technical and cultural history over such a long period. Cars, planes and television: yes - but their history is so much shorter. Guitars' looks, their variety, their versatility, their power and their symbolism have always said something about the times, and the people who have used them.
Andrew's very personal essay on guitars .....
What other single instrument has been capable of the delicacy of Elizabethan madrigals; the dark power and passion of Villa Lobos and Flamenco; the challenging but spine-tingling innovation of Jimi Hendrix; the mournful atmospheric slide-playing of Blind Willie Johnson; the perfect and incredibly complex accompaniment to passionate songs written and sung by the likes of Robert Johnson and Richard Thompson; the stadium-filling madness of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, and the driving but simple jangly accompaniment for the singable songs of people like The Beatles and Bob Dylan? And yet the guitar has been just as easily accessible as a means of expression and accompaniment for billions of amateur music makers over several centuries.
Please note that this is not meant to be a publishable or perfectly accurate and complete history. It's just an Andrew Ramble!
There are references to what sounds like a guitar as far back as the 13th century, but it didn't really begin to develop as a distinguishable instrument until the 16th and 17th centuries. There were quite a few fashionable stringed, plucked instruments during that period, but there was definitely one which looked different from the others. The chittara or cittern (a name nowadays applied to a large mandolin-type instrument) had an exaggerated waist, when all other such instruments were pear-shaped, and - in terms of tuning and stringing - were more like mandolins and lutes.
I can only imagine that this shape was to make playing it on your lap easier, although all these early instruments were bowl-backed, and - if you were sitting down - must have slid off your lap ( a bit like those silly Ovation guitars did in the 1970s!).
In those days, the instruments were designed more for looks than sound. The presentation of music was part of the "showing off" within the courts and salons of genteel Society in England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria and France.
The instruments were very highly decorated and - I have to admit - bloody gorgeous (I've seen a few at auctions). The bodies, fingerboards and tuning heads were elaborately decorated: usually inlaid with ivory or mother-of-pearl. The rosette (the hole in the middle) was often very finely carved or cut from a piece of parchment, and looked like a piece of lace, or one of those Japanese Netsuke ornaments. This decorative insert in the sound hole was the clearest evidence that the sound of the instrument took second place to its appearance: this was, after all, where the sound came out, and - if it was partially blocked - there wasn't much hope of any decent volume or sound coming out!
Other compromises were the tying-on of gut position markers (rather than frets); the construction of delicate, small bodies from pretty rather than resonant timbers, and the fixing of (usually) catgut strings by tying them at the bottom end, then looping them round a pushed-through beautifully-carved wooden posts at the top. In an attempt to get some sort of volume, the strings were arranged in pairs (or "courses"); four at first, then - later - five, and eventually six.
In the 18th century, serious musicians at last began to realise the potential of the guitar as a proper musical instrument, and there began a quest which continues to this day for - in my opinion - the four key and magical ingredients of a good guitar.....
The body shape became more exaggerated as it increased in size to create a bigger sound-chamber: the number of strings settled at six, to enable a greater range of notes: frets were fixed into a permanent position to make sure the notes were accurate: strings were fixed at the bottom end with pegs, and at the top end (usually) with steel worm-gear capstans, and the wood for the body was chosen as much for its ability to vibrate as its prettiness. Finally - as a result of all the above - strings could be reduced to singles rather than doubles; making them much easier to press down and play.
This new ease of playing, together with better volume and accuracy, led to an increase in the popularity of the guitar: enhanced also by a fascination with all things Spanish (although for quite some time the Spanish were more keen on a more lute-like instrument called the vilhuela. They also - right up to the present day - were reluctant to ditch old methods like tying the bottom end of strings to the bridge, and the top end on to push-through wooden pegs).
The definitive manifestation of this ideal design was perfected by the Spanish maker Antonio de Torres, in the mid-1800s. His combination of carefully-selected resonant woods (with a system of bracing inside), raised fixed frets, and firmly anchored and accurately-tunable strings set the pattern pretty much for ever.
Spain wasn't alone, though, in this search for the four requirements for a better guitar. Countries such as Germany, Britain, Italy and - particularly - France, were still producing very pretty little guitars in the first half of the 19th century, but decoration was slowly giving way to practicality. This one was made in the 1830s by one of the French Mirecourt group; Rene Lacote.
But how did we get from this to the screaming stadium-filling electric jobbies we take for granted today?
We need to go to AMERICA.
America wants guitars!
The USA in the middle of the 19th century was a melting pot of cultures, races, skills and tastes. Not only that, but - as the century turned - it was a land of optimism, curiosity and a lack of wars and tension. In a way, therefore, it was ready to embrace music and innovation from other cultures.
It's no surprise, therefore, that immigrant musical instrument makers, as well as entrepreneurs, found a good market for their skills and their ideas. Not only that, but - as music-making became more widespread and less class-bound - the instruments needed to be much more accessible, versatile, and LOUD!
In the first decade of the 20th century, several important technological developments led to an unprecedented demand for music and musical instruments.
One of these was the invention of the phonograph (The Victor Talking Machine Company was established in 1902 and branded their idea the Victrola). At the same time as this came a a boom in the music writing and publishing industry ("Tin Pan Alley" acquired its nickname in 1903). The mass-production of an affordable motor car brought a new mobility to many more people, and the Moving Picture Houses brought stardom, romance, fun and music much nearer to a starstruck and optimistic public.
Some of the popular interest in self-made music was kick-started by one particular event in New York back in January 1880 (and then around the country): a concert performed by the Figaro Spanish Students. Most of them played the Spanish bandurria - which looked a little like a mandolin. What struck the American public about this visiting troupe was their incredible group musicianship, but also their lack of written music, conductor or apparent direction.
Despite a stunningly-performed repertoire including Mozart and Beethoven, many of them could not apparently read music - a fact which didn't take long to be revealed in the national press and beyond.
One of the first effects of these concerts was to arouse an interest in the mandolin - a fact which a certain Orville Gibson was quick to capitalise on. Another more general one was the belief that anyone could make music - especially with the encouragement, fun and anonymity offered by forming groups and clubs. So began a massive craze to form small community bands, choirs and orchestras: driven later by the availability of recordings, shows and sheet music, plus the ingenious efforts of some musical instrument manufacturers.
The instruments had to be portable and relatively cheap, and it was inevitable that the mandolin became the instrument of choice in the early days. Having said that, the banjo was still fairly popular - having been around for nearly a century, and associated with still-popular minstrel and vaudeville music.
But the guitar was also very much around at the turn of the century, and soon became adopted - and eventually gained ascendancy - as a much more versatile and powerful instrument than either the banjo or the mandolin. It's interesting to note that the "tenor" and "plectrum" versions of guitars were a conscious attempt to tempt banjo players towards guitars.
The trend towards guitars became even more apparent when blues and jazz were published and recorded for the first time in the 1920s.
The best-known early American guitar-makers were, of course, from immigrant European families. Like Gibson, and Lyon and Healy (British); Epiphone (Greek - from the family name Epominandas); Rickenbacker, Martin and Gretsch (German); National/Dobro - (Czechoslovakian - from the family name DOpyera BROthers); d'Angelico (Italian). Then there were more anonymous makers/entrepreneurs who formed companies with general brandnames like Regal, Harmony, Kay and Stella.
With one notable exception (which I'll talk about shortly), most of these names didn't really get into top gear until the "boom years" in the 1920s. But at the end of the 19th century , you would have been just as likely to pick up a small-bodied "parlour" model made (or at least distributed) by European names such as Maurer, Larson Brothers, Straub or Bauer. Many, though, were sold under American-sounding names like Tiltson, Bay State, Regal, Harwood and Ditson.
These little guitars were pretty much based on those earlier models made in countries like France and Italy by makers such as Lacote and Panormo. But they were clearly becoming less decorative, and more practical and versatile. This is almost certainly due to the influence of the very plain Spanish guitars, bearing in mind the history of Spanish presence in The States. But there was another influence ...
Of all the European guitar builders, there was one who played - unwittingly - a huge part in the development of the guitar in America, and - eventually - the rest of the world. He was an Austrian: Johann Stauffer.
Stauffer didn't move to America, but one of his apprentices did: Charles Friedrich Martin. Martin came to America in 1831, and brought with him the styles and technical influences from his Master, but also Stauffer's eye for innovation. He set up his own firm in 1833, but in the early days he was happy to share the credit by calling some of his instruments "Martin Stauffer", as in the case of the one shown on the left. Since its beginning in 1833, Martin has been one of the biggest influences on guitar design and taste, and has consistently made simple, strong, very high quality instruments. It is still owned by the Martin family!
Martin introduced innovations such as "X" bracing inside; new, larger body shapes; steel rather than gut strings: even a very early version of an adjustable neck! Decoration was always minimal, but the numbering system has always indicated the level of embellishment (the 45 model being at the top end).
By the end of the 19th century, most of the makers in the USA saw their main task as trying to emulate Martins, but maybe a bit cheaper! Lyon and Healy (who mass-produced their guitars under the Washburn brand) made 10,000 guitars in 1897, when Martin produced only 1000. A few years later Gibson were producing around 10,000 a year.
It wasn't until the early 1920s that American guitars really hit their boom years, and became the true "people's instrument". Makers including Lyon & Healy were working hard to create the true "American" guitar, but still had to meet public demand by continuing to produce a range of mandolins and banjos.
One of the more interesting makers at this time was Orville Gibson. He started up the Gibson mandolin and guitar company in Kalamazoo in 1896. He believed in crafting beautiful instruments with the same qualities as violins.
When most other guitar builders were churning out simple flat-tops, Gibson was carving his tops into a distinctive arch-shape. Early guitars even had the back and sides carved out of a single huge chunk of expensive timber!
Despite Orville effectively giving up any control of the company after about 5 years, Gibson continued to produce high-quality and innovative guitars, banjos and mandolins. One of their early innovations was a flat-backed (but still very ornate) mandolin.
Probably Gibson's greatest innovation, though, was its sales methods. At a time when a music-hungry population was being bombarded with competitively-priced, straightforward guitars from a growing number of factories, Gibson were hoping to sell a huge range of expensively-built instruments. How?
Gibson was aware of the desire for communities to form their own little groups and orchestras. So they went into these communities and offered to help them to organise themselves, sell all the instruments they needed on a hire-purchase basis, and give lessons!
The strategy worked a treat, and Gibson didn't hesitate to publicise these successes, and incorporate photos of many of the Gibson Orchestras in their sales brochures.
And the guitars?
Well, as the popular demand and aggressive competition grew towards the 1920s, Gibson had no choice but to produce simpler, cheaper models. But that was by no means the end of Gibson's nose for opportunity and innovation, as we shall see shortly.
A new - and unlikely - influence
As guitars began to compete in popularity with banjos and mandolins in the 1920s: so did the qualities demanded of that instrument. Yes - accuracy, playability and tone were crucial, but there was an ever-growing search for more VOLUME.
This was due to many of the things we've already talked about: the need to play in large groups being one. There was also the ever-growing craze for jazz and dance-band music: heightened by the development of phonographs, movies and - a little later - radio stations. The social scene - with dancing at the hub - was booming in the years after the First World War (not for everyone, of course!). In ever-growing sizes of band, individual instruments struggled even harder to be heard. Particularly if they had to play a solo.
Which is where a most unlikely influence came in: HAWAII.
So - before I go on to try to expand my theories, let's go back a few years, and to another part of the world ...
In the 1870s, Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii introduced a small 4-stringed instrument called a braguinha (after the town of Braga). Despite Portuguese instrument makers and teachers offering their help, the native Hawaiians ended up adapting the instrument and the style of playing it to their own ends.
They changed the shape to one more aligned to the familiar guitar: built them out of the native koa wood; and - most importantly - changed the strings and tunings to suit the kind of melodic, romantic style needed to accompany their hula-dancing. The end result was what we would now think of as a ukulele.
But then they came up with another innovation: playing by sliding something along the strings. SeveralHawaiian musicians subsequently claimed to have been the originators of the style, including the Indian immigrant Gabriel Davon, who said it was based on an ancient Indian instrument called the gootvadyam. The most credible claimant, though, was Josef Kekuku.
His credibility as the true discoverer of the sliding style is slightly undermined by the fact that he has told two different stories about his moment of enlightenment: one when he was walking along a railroad track, and picked up a railroad spike and decided to slide it along the strings of the guitar he just happened to be carrying at the time: the other when he was leaning over his guitar, when his steel comb fell out of his shirt pocket and slid along the strings.
Whatever: Hawaiian music was enhanced by this new romantic and atmospheric technique (which soon became known as "steel" guitar, as a piece of steel soon became established as the best means of sliding). Josef Kekuku, Gabriel Devon, James Hoa and other slide innovators became part of the Hawaiian music scene: led by King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani.
Hawaii's joy in its beautiful romantic music soon spread to the USA and beyond. Queen Liliukalani's "Aloha Oe" was published in The Sates in the 1870s, and was part of the repertoire of The Royal Hawaiian Band during their tour in 1883. America fell in love with Hawaii and its music, partly as a result of it being declared a US Territory in 1898, but then boosted by the appearance of its top musicians at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
By 1916, Victor Records sold more Hawaiian-style records than any other category.
It wasn't just America: I once owned a recording of the British band Felix Mendelssohn's Hawaiian Serenaders' famous record "By a Sleepy Lagoon", which eventually was adopted by the BBC for the theme tune to "Desert Island Discs".
Some years later, I was playing guitar alongside a very glamorous old steel-guitar player at an open mic session in a village pub in Suffolk. We chatted afterwards, and it turned out she was Mendelssohn's lead steel (slide) guitar player!
so why am I attaching so much importance to all this, in our guitar story?
Well, firstly, because this slide style of playing was infectious, and soon started to appear in other styles of music. Slide playing is a hugely important strand of blues - right up to today. It appears in blues recordings back to the 1920s, and W.C. Handy's famous description on hearing a farm-hand playing late at night on Tutweiler Station, Mississippi, in 1903 includes; "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar, in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars".
The technique later became very strongly associated with Country Music too, and there are stories of guitars being played this way by travelling cowboys early in the 20th century - many of them Portuguese (which can't be just a coincidence - remember the bit about Portuguese immigrants bringing their instruments to Hawaii?).
But this quirky technique had significance in two other ways. Firstly, in the design of particular kinds of guitar to make the style easier. But secondly, in that it brought to everyone's attention the potential role of the guitar as an instrument upon which to play solos. More of this a little later
Remember this, when we were talking about the requirements of the guitar as it became taken more seriously as a popular and versatile instrument?....
In those early days of Hawaiian slide playing, the guitars didn't have to be strummed frantically or heard above a whole group of similar instruments. The instrument was mostly used to play solos and melodies, with a softly-strummed ukulele or two as backing. And the music was generally soft and gentle. But it was the actual playing technique that suggested a whole new approach to the "4 requirements".
The basic technique involved only changing the notes by pressing a steel bar lightly on the strings and occasionally sliding it along. There was no pressing the strings down on the appropriate frets to get the right notes, and therefore no need to grip the back of the neck with your thumb. The guitar could therefore be turned to face upwards on your lap: hence the name adopted shortly: "lap steel".
Not having to press the strings down also meant that you could raise the strings higher away from the fingerboard, to avoid any rattling. Plus the strings could be a good deal thicker (and therefore louder and more resonant). Plus - as the neck didn't need to be narrow enough to get your hand round, you could actually make it a big, hollow neck; extending the size of the guitar's sound-chamber, and improving the volume and tone.
Oh - and one more thing! ... accuracy wasn't such a big issue, as you could slide the bar to roughly the right place on the fingerboard then wobble it around, just using the position dots as a guide. As long as the strings were in tune with each other.
The big exception here involves early blues players (and later new ones, like me!). Most solo blues players stuck to traditional guitars (albeit with changed tuning) and combined traditional "fingering" with sliding. Not easy! The main reason for this is probably because solo country blues players had to provide their own backing, through chords and rhythms. Cost may have also been an issue: many of them simply couldn't have afforded one of the new "specialist" Hawaiian guitars.
With an increasing demand for guitars in general, American makers were quick to cash in on the Hawaiian craze. Some craftsmen designed and built special guitars from Hawaiian Koa wood, with raised strings and huge sound chambers going right up the square neck. The most famous was Weissenborn (although apparently he was the actual builder behind several other brands). Another specially-built and completely revolutionary guitar came from National; but I'll leave their long and fascinating story until a little later!
The big makers like Gibson and Martin also responded to this new demand, either producing "kits" to convert existing guitars (mainly enabling the raising of the heavier strings, and inclusion of steel bars and fingerpicks), or by marketing Hawaiian versions of their standard models. Gibson preceded their model numbers with "S" for the traditional Spanish setup, or "H" for Hawaiian. To this day, many Gibsons still have things like "ES" (Electric Spanish) in their model number.
Even if you skip forward to the early years of the electric guitar; some of the very first models (late 30s) were designed specifically for the Hawaiian style. Either that, or Hawaiian versions were offered at launch.
The other reason I think this Hawaiian and slide-guitar innovation was so important to guitar development is this: it was suddenly fashionable - and desirable - for guitarists to play solos! The popularity of Hawaiian music, jazz and blues; along with the growing musical experiences of the public through dances, records and radio broadcasts, put huge pressure on guitarists - and guitar makers - to GET LOUDER!
The Boom Years - 1920-1960
By 1920, there had already been several attempts to increase volume, but mostly through size - the theory being that the size of the sound chamber was the main determinant of volume. Lyon and Healy, for example, came out with an outrageously vast guitar (20.5 inches across, when your average "jumbo" acoustic nowadays is around 15 inches). It must have been well nigh impossible to get your arm over (it was actually called The Conservatory Monster)!
Gibson's approach was - for now - to continue carving their instrument tops from selected aged timbers.
Orville's original design of a back-and-sides cut from a huge, single chunk of wood had to give way, for obvious cost reasons. But Gibson persisted in their carving of the separate top and back, resulting in a higher volume than many of their "flat-top" competitors. My 1918 L1 model (right) is only 13.5 inches across, but it's volume beats the hell out of most of my mates' modern, much bigger flat-top equivalents.
Meanwhile, Martin - along with their many emulators - were largely sticking to the classic flat-top design. Their search for volume and tone was based mainly around the selection of choice timbers, and - a little later - a different internal bracing system, to also enable the change to steel strings. Body sizes generally increased from the old "parlour" size to around 14 inches.
But it just wasn't enough. Whether it was amateur players in the growing community music groups, or professional jazz/swing/Hawaiian specialists in the huge raucous dance bands, the guitar just wasn't cutting through, and they had a long wait before electric guitars came to their rescue!
It was Gibson who - in 1922 - changed all that and set a new trend for guitar design with one of the greatest guitars they have ever made; the L5.
It was one of a range of the "5" series of instruments, designed by Lloyd Loar. Its characteristic "f"-holes seem almost a tribute to Orville Gibson's original violin construction principles. But it didn't stop at a different-shaped hole. There were little things like the the fingerboard "floating": over the beautifully carved arched top, and the longer neck to increase the range. The major innovation, though, was the care taken over "tuning" the wooden body. Loar added "tone bars" inside the instrument, which - along with the careful graduated carving of the particular piece of wood used on each guitar - were tuned and adjusted to achieve the optimum resonance and best tonal response. Loar added his signature to confirm that he had examined and approved each instrument produced.
Such attention to tonal quality and innovation not only set the new mark for other makers to think more seriously about tone and volume through craftsmanship rather than size, but blueprinted a beautiful style and shape which became the only way ahead for those who needed to raise the profile and volume of the guitar.
The "f-hole", "plectrum", "jazz" or "cello" guitar was born, and holds an important and iconic place in guitar development and history, which continues to this day.
The trouble was, Gibson didn't know just how good it was, but all the other makers did! Right up until 1931, the highly-priced L5 was the only Gibson model representing this sensational breakthrough in design. In that year, Epiphone saw the sales potential, and introduced a range of 9 similar-looking but mostly cheaper models. They even called the range "Masterbilt"; pinching the Gibson 5-series generic name of "Master Series". Whilst the top-of-the-range DeLuxe was the same price as the L5 ($275), the rest of the series offered lower finish and prices right down to $50!
Gibson finally responded with a range of cheaper new models; but the die was cast, and pretty soon Gretsch, Harmony, Stromberg, D'Angelico and many others came out with similar-looking guitars; many of them a good deal cheaper. A little later, several European makers (such as Hofner) cashed in on this craze for archtops.
Despite these innovations to enhance sound, size was still reckoned to be a key factor in volume, and many archtops started being produced up to 17" across. It was Gibson again who came up, in 1934, with the ultimate, at 18" across: the Super 400.
Its quality is reflected in its name: many Gibson model names indicated the price: $400 in this case - a lot of money in 1934! You couldn't really get much bigger, and - with many variations like this "natural" finish and cutaway, and (later) electric pickups - it is still produced as Gibson's top-of-the-line today. I saw a brand new Super400CES (Cutaway Electric Spanish) for sale recently at £16,000.
So, in the 1930s, the discerning and ever-demanding guitarist had a range of new-style, beautiful-looking, great-sounding and loud guitars to choose from.
But what about the good old traditional round-hole, flat-topped guitar that Martin, Washburn, Gibson and many others (including the makers of traditional Spanish guitars)had been developing for the last hundred years or so? Well, the market was far from dead, and this was as much to do with price as tradition and loyalty. For the average amateur home-strummer (who maybe wanted to join one of the local guitar, banjo and mandolin orchestras), a big, expensive, loud beast of an instrument was just not an option. Small, cheap and simple was what most of them sought, and those makers who were around at the turn of the century were still the key providers.
In the early 1920s, a little Gibson could be bought for around $60, with new flat-top versions of the old archtop L1, L3 and L4 models later giving way to the new L0, priced at only $35. You could get a Stella (made by Harmony) for $6, and there were even budget instruments supplied by Gibson, Harmony and others to department stores and catalogues (with credit terms!) for as little as $10. They used brand names like Kalamazoo, Silvertone and Stella.
Higher-end flat-tops made by Martin, Gibson and others were favoured by a new wave of cowboy and country singers. Whilst they needed a fair degree of volume, they were - for the most part - singers accompanying themselves, and needed that full, jangly sound when strummed, rather than piercing solos. Early pioneers of Country Music such as Jimmie Rogers and Maybelle Carter (of The Carter Family) played Gibson flat-tops early in their careers, but went a bit more "up-market" as they made a bit of money.
Going back to what we discussed in the last section, it's interesting that both Rogers and Carter included a bit of slide playing in their early recordings: confirming that the Hawaiian influence was very much present in Country Music as well as The Blues.
Maybelle is most famous, though, for playing a 1928 Gibson L5. She was probably more able to afford one once The Family were selling records and performing, when all she could afford in the early days was a little L1 flat-top.
I have another hunch about this, though. Maybelle has forever been credited with pioneering a (then) odd style of playing, which involved hitting a bass string with the thumb, then strumming all of the other strings for the up-beat (maybe flicking them again on the way back up).
I remember, back in the 1980s, there was a guitar tuition series on the telly called "Hold Down a Chord", presented by John Pearse. I remember him describing this basic technique by using the phrase "dum-changa-dum-changa-dum", when accompanying the song "The Grand Old Duke of York". To this day, whenever I hear that song, I can't help singing
"Oh, the dum changa dum changa dum
He dum-changa-dum-changa-dum". etc.
We take this simple technique so much for granted now, but Maybelle started the whole thing (at least, as far as the record-buying public were concerned) on The Carter Family's records. Her choice of a bigger guitar may well have been to get a much bigger first-bass-note "DUM". But then she might just have thought the L5 looked a bit more flash! I suspect not.
Now we're into Country Music players, we can leave this focus on Gibson, and bring in the other major innovator and manufacturer at this time: MARTIN.
Country music was growing in popularity in the 1930s, and several stars were emerging, such as Jimmie Rogers and Gene Autry.
Many of them chose Martin guitars. Why?. Well, they were expensive but classy (especially the top-of-the-range 000-45), which sort of fitted the image (despite photos of Jimmie Rogers, like this one!). Many players sent their guitars back to Martin to have their name engraved on the fingerboard. But the tone, too, was suited to the big, jangly backing needed for country singers.
But what really made the difference was something Martin did in 1931: they launched the Dreadnought models.
Having witnessed the huge reaction to Gibson's revolutionary L5, and the subsequent copies, Martin realised that they couldn't sit on their laurels for much longer, and deny the public their demand for greater volume. But they didn't - despite one or two efforts - just try to do what everyone else was doing: they capitalised on their well-earned reputation for making high-class flat-top guitars, and made an even bigger and better one.
This "D-series" design originally appeared under the Ditson brandname, but - after the failure of that company during the Depression, Martin decided to relaunch the model under its own prestigious banner. It wasn't exactly revolutionary, but - as De Torres had done 50 years earlier, Martin decided to incorporate all the best attributes of a flat-top guitar in a new and immediately recognisable product. The body (made from spruce, with Brazilian rosewood back and sides) was 155/8 inches wide, but with a very unfamiliar wider "waist". The 14-fret-join bodies had equally odd-looking very square "shoulders". Strings were steel, and the interior had an "X" bracing pattern.
The style today looks quite boring, but that's only because everyone has been copying it ever since! Martin still make them, with the basic DM priced at around £800, and the top-end D45 at around £6000. Everyone tries to make them, but only a few - like Santa Cruz and Collings - achieve the same high standard.
Gibson, too, had to concede that - despite the huge success and influence of the revolutionary archtops - Martin had come up with a very successful and popular alternative. It wasn't long, therefore, before they came up with their own line of equivalents: the "J" (for jumbo) models. Again, these have been hugely successful - right up to the present day.
We've nearly reached the end of this story of the acoustic guitar, with the exception of one little (well, actually, quite big) twist which needs a whole section of its own: especially as it's my favourite subject - resonator guitars.
Acoustics carried on selling in healthy numbers well beyond the 1930s. But the search for volume (needed initally for dance and jazz-bands, but later for blues, rock and pop bands) reached its inevitable conclusion in the late 30s/early 40s - aided by advances in technology - in the form of the ELECTRICALLY-AMPLIFIED GUITAR.
Just a little bit about blues guitarists...
I can't believe I've got this far without talking about this, as it's what I am! There's a separate section on The Blues on the website, but I'll just say a little bit here in the context of guitars.
The guitar-playing Southern States blues singer in the early part of the 20th century had to be a very special kind of entertainer. Armed with only a cheap and not particularly loud guitar (often a "catalogue" Stella, Washburn or Silvertone, or maybe a bottom-end Epiphone or Gibson); no microphones or amplification, and no accompanying musicians ( he didn't want to split the meagre tips or free booze), he had to entertain a raucous, drunken, and - sometimes - murderous crowd.
These audiences were people whose lives were atrocious, so who could blame them for wanting to go to their local "barrelhouses" and have a good time at night? In terms of musical entertainment, probably the last thing they wanted to hear about was sadness and misery (which is exactly what many now think is the essence of Blues!). Whilst the occasional tender song about lost love might have rung a bell and shut them up, what they really wanted to hear were upbeat, lively, sexy and humorous songs; preferrably something they could also dance to. And if the player was good, they just wanted to be able to hear it!
The old solo performers developed a style of playing (just as Maybelle Carter did with her "dum-changa") which combined bass, chords and tunes. In what is sometimes referred to as the "Delta" style, they would play a driving bass on the lower strings with their thumb, then pluck chords or melodies (sometimes with a slide or "bottleneck") with the fingers on the higher strings. They were like a one-man (very rarely one-woman) orchestra.
There seemed to be a trend a little further East (Georgia, Virginia etc.) for a slightly more melodic style, with guitarists like Blind Willie McTell using a more folksy "claw hammer" style of picking the strings.
When tens of thousands of Southern blacks migrated to the big, Northern cities like Chicago in the 30s, 40s and 50s, the music took on a different shape. Although living conditions were in many ways just as dreadful; small, stable communities evolved in - often - tenement blocks, with people settled in their shared poverty, rather than having to move from farm to farm or town to town. As fas as blues music was concerned, this could more easily take the form of small bands - often involving permanently-based pianos and drums.
Whilst the arrival of the electric guitar didn't in itself, create this new ensemble-based blues feel, it did much to influence it in the 40s, 50s and 60s. The old blues became, in a way, marginalised and outdated; even the black city communities, who were at this time fighting for their own identity, didn't want to be reminded of the "old days"of slavery followed by repression and segregation. Instead, the blues evolved and survived (apart from street-corner buskers) in a more aggressive, passionate, smouldering form, with the stinging solo electric guitar sound setting the tone and the mood - especially in the hands of people like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and many others.
Today, most people's idea of a blues song is a straight 12-bar passionate, rhythmical song featuring a loud virtuoso single-note electric guitar solo. Very different to what was being played in the Southern States back in the 1920s!
I'm not going to go into anywhere near as much depth about electric guitars. Their development, impact and versatility have had a massive influence on all forms of popular music, but I don't personally find them anywhere near as interesting. It's just me - I'm not judging! Also, after reading back all that I've written above, I wouldn't dream of expecting anyone to read that much all over again!
I do have one or two reasons for my relative lack of enthusiasm. Firstly, the catalysts for their existence were basically technical, and I'm not! I have this mental block about things that can't be seen; like electricity, radio waves, God, trigonometry and economics. Things like wood and strings and interesting shapes are things I can see and feel, and I therefore have a reasonable grasp of what goes on in an acoustic guitar.
The second reason is not so clear, and I'm not even sure even I know what I'm talking about! Through all these stories about the acoustic guitar, it's been - to a large extent - social changes and international influences that have shaped the music, and - consequently - the instruments it has been played on. I find this social influence fascinating: although I hated history at school, when I see the influence it has on tangible everyday stuff, it comes to life for me.
Examples: the beautiful, highly-decorative little guitars of the 17th and 18th centuries were the way they were because they had to look impressive and pretty in pretty hands and pretty places, amongst the "high society" salons and palaces of Europe. Then the strange-looking Hawaiian guitars made by Weissenborn in the U.S.A in the 1920s were designed to make it easier to play a style of music from a country which completely enchanted mainland America and beyond, early in the 20th century. The revolutionary "archtop" guitars of the 1930s and after responded to the need for a lot more volume from the poor old guitarists in ever-bigger orchestras and bands; which were catering for a new music-mad society (live, recorded or on radio).
On the other hand, I believe that the sound and versatility of the electric guitar did much to shape - as much as be shaped by - society's music demands. I'm thinking, for example, of the whole concept of "solo" playing on the guitar. Although started by the early famous Hawaiian players; once the guitar could be increased in volume, it leapt to the forefront in so many songs and styles. Early players like Les Paul, T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian thrust the electric guitar into the limelight of their respective genres, and new styles and audience expectations resulted. I'm generalising horribly, I know (I did say this was a "personal" essay!): Andres Segovia and Django Reinhart were examples of acoustic guitarists who had an equally massive influence on their respective styles and audience demands.
It's so easy to follow this theory of "guitar sound influencing demand" through to the likes of Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, Wes Montgomery, The Shadows, Eric Clapton: even the later "jangly" guitar groups like The Byrds, The Beatles, Oasis, and thousands of others.
That's not even to mention the sheer power and "unnatural" sounds you can get by exploiting the electrics: Sonic Youth and Radiohead, for example. Oh yes - and Jimi Hendrix!
There - for all I've said about not being interested - I've just said a load about electric guitars without even blinking!
I'm always staggered by how long ago electric guitars were invented There's always been a heated debate about who actually came up with the idea, but it was Adolf Rickenbacher (yes - the same Rickenbacker whose company later made the guitars John Lennon and George Harrison played: Roger McGuinn pretended to play, and Pete Townsend smashed up) who first produced a guitar with an electric pickup.
This was as early as 1931.
The idea was - I keep reading - very simple: (remember that I just can't figure out anything I cannot see!). A big horseshoe magnet was positioned over and under the strings, and an electric coil placed underneath that. Apparently, when the vibration of the strings disturbed the magnetic field, an electrical signal was generated in the coil, and sent out of the guitar to an amplifier, where it boosted it and sent it out to a loudspeaker.
Rickenbacker stuck one of these assemblies on top of what looked like a bedpan (it was actually nicknamed "The Frying Pan"), and set it up for the then-popular Hawaiian style.
Rickenbacker was already involved in the "how do we get the guitar louder" business, having manufactured the steel bodies for National resonator guitars since 1928 (yes .... yes... I promise I will come on to that!). Not only that, but the "Ro-Pat-In" Company, which Rickenbacker formed to market these revolutionary products, included Paul Barth and George Beauchamp; former founders and executives of National, who went off in a huff over patents.
A couple of years later Rickenbacker tried putting this pickup on to an archtop guitar, but later went back to making small bodies (out of bakelite or aluminium) for Hawaiian playing.
For a few years, Rickenbacker were the only viable electric guitars around. Lloyd Loar - formerly Gibson's chief designer, and creator of the groundbreaking L5 archtop - made some strange solid-bodied efforts in the early 1930s, but not much is known about them. But it was Gibson who eventually, in 1936, came up with a rival electric guitar that really started to muscle in on guitarists' consciousness. They placed a newly-designed flat "bar" pickup on one of their L5 derivatives: the L50, and put tone and volume controls on the body. It was named the "ES150" (continuing the prefix classifications: "Electric-Spanish").
Gibson continued to make a whole range of electrics based on their increasingly-popular "f-hole" guitars, both in "S" and "H" versions, and these continue to be amongst their greatest models. But they were also - along with Rickenbacker and National/Dobro (left) starting to make small, strange-looking solid-bodied guitars specifically for the still-popular Hawaiian style of playing. It was this design that started people a-thinking about the future of electric guitars.
There was (and still is) a problem, you see. The natural acoustics produced by the sound chamber of an acoustic guitar sort of conflict with those produced by the electro-magnetic pickup. Consequently you get "feedback". This is still a problem for those who play an acoustic guitar with a pickup attached: especially if there are microphones involved too! I'm not really sure of the details (remember my difficulty with "things I can't see"?). But basically the sound waves created by the electrical jiggery-pokery get back inside the hollow guitar again, and then - in turn - get picked up again by the amplifying device, forming a sort of sound loop. It's also to do with the vibration of the wood being out of kilter with the note produced (and amplified) by the pickup or microphone. It's quite telling that the most successful Hawaiian solid-bodied guitars were made from aluminium or even bakelite. But I might have this all wrong! Its definitely a problem though
Whatever - it can be a bugger, and ever since those early days guitar players and makers have battled with the problem, and often given up and turned to the inevitable alternative: the solid-bodied guitar.
This is where the biggest arguments occur about "who was first?".
In the late 1940s, several crackpots (sorry - innovators) were fiddling about with the concept of making an acceptable solid-bodied standard electric guitar. But the idea wasn't all that new: as far back as 1939, guitar virtuoso and technical innovator Les Paul took a weird effort he called "the log" to Gibson, but they laughed him out of the house. It was essentially a big Gibson archtop which had been sawn in half, and a big solid chunk of wood placed in the middle, with the electric pickup mounted on it. The solid bit eliminated all the vibration and consequent feedback.
Even earlier - around 1935 - Rickenbacker experimented with a "standard" version of their very successful solid-body Hawaiian guitars, but they didn't catch on. But there were two fairly unknown tinkerers who who could maybe rightfully claim the "me first" crown.
The first was Paul Bigsby. He was better known initially as a motorcycle racer, but it was through this that he met country music star Merle Travis. Travis asked the skilled mechanic Bigsby to do some repairs on his guitar, then challenged him to come up with an electric guitar. Bigsby later became the inventor and builder of the now-famous Bigsby vibrato arm.
Bigsby's 1948 guitar included characteristics which were blatantly copied by later big-name producers: most notably the single-sided machine head (although Johann Stauffeur had done this in the mid-1800s) and the single cutaway (hitherto unknown on a solid guitar).
Leo Fender was the other tinkerer/innovator. Initially an electrician, he was joined in his Fender Electrical Instrument Company by George Fullerton, and they produced - in 1950 - the Esquire and Broadcaster solid electric guitars. They shortly had to change the name of the latter to "Telecaster", as Gretsch drums had a similar name, and threatened legal action. If only Gretsch had known how popular those Fenders would become!
Gibson - just for once - found themselves having to react to others' innovations, rather than create their own. They also went crawling back to Les Paul (who was pretty famous by now, and whose name on the guitar would be quite a draw) for help in designing their new solid guitar. They came up - in 1952 - with the legendary Les Paul. It was a bit of a different kettle of fish to the Fenders: a carved mahogany "cap" painted gold on the top; traditional tailpiece and ornate headstock, and very different pickups and controls.
Now it was Fender's turn to respond; to the popularity of the more elaborate Les Paul. This was the space-age, and Fender called this new 1954 model the "Stratocaster", to go with its modernistic styling. The simple "slab" of the Telecaster was now smoothly contoured and shaped, with two sharp cutaways, and all models had three pickups from the start.
To this day - just as Martin had done with their flat-top Dreadnought series - these three very different-looking solid electric guitars have set the pattern for others to follow (followed by a few of their own deviations, like the SG and the Jaguar). They have sat perfectly comfortably alongside the big, hollow "F-hole" arch tops with pickups - favoured by jazz players for their richer, warmer tones. The old problem of the acoustic resonance clashing with the pickup sound began to be approached by installing a solid bar down the middle under the top (not that much different to Les Paul's "log"!). There has even been a range of "hybrids" - thin but hollow bodies with pickups, such as the Gibson 335, and many of the Rickenbacker models.
Once these ideas had been proven to work well (a solid body, or pickups attached to an adapted hollow body), there wasn't basically much more you could do with an electric guitar (although electric guitar buffs will probably murder me for saying that!). Development since then has been partly in the detail of the electronics inside the pickups, and partly in the quality the amplification and supplementary gadgets: all to create a bigger range of sounds, and - of course more volume! When you think of those early radio-type amplifiers, and compare the sound quality and sheer volume of big stadium-filling bands like AC/DC, it's pretty mind-boggling. And yet, when you look at the kinds of guitars the players use, they're as often as not Fender Strats or Telecasters, or Gibson Les Pauls. Or models pretty-much based on them. Many big-name players like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Dave Gilmour choose to play old Fenders and Gibsons, with very little in the way of modifications.
Where a lot of effort and ingenuity has been needed, though, is in the need to amplify acoustic guitars: avoiding the feedback problems I mentioned earlier. I can personally empathise with those who prefer the sound and feel of an old acoustic guitar, but need it to be heard in pubs and concert halls. New non-magnetic pickups have been developed, which transmit and amplify vibrations either from the wooden body (transducers), or where the strings press down on the bridge (Piezo). These help to try to emulate the raw sound of the acoustic guitar, but still cause amplification problems., which have to be dealt with.
But my heart sinks when I read articles in guitar magazines which purport to be about acoustic guitars, when players are asked about the equipment they use on stage. They often start with "Oh - I like to keep it simple.... " then come out with a huge list of pedals, pre-amps and processors: all to produce the sound of - well - an acoustic guitar! There was an innovation a few years ago whereby a plastic disc was placed into the sound hole of an acoustic guitar. when played on a big stage, to avoid the feedback "loop" problem. It cured the feedback OK, but eliminated any resemblance to the sound of an acoustic guitar!
The real thing is much better. I still play my gorgeous old guitars into a microphone, but I admit it is tricky avoiding the feedback problem - especially if you want volume. It's especially bad when you have foldback monitors: the speakers that face you, so you can hear yourself. The sound from the monitor gets inside the guitar, bounces around inside then comes out of the hole again, and gets picked up by the microphone, setting up a "loop".
The 50s, 60s and beyond - getting away from the U.S.A.
I make no apologies for dwelling so long on America's key role in the development of the guitar. America has been the hub of guitar music and construction for nearly 200 years: initially influenced by European designs and immigrant makers, then allowing the designs to evolve in response to its own changing public tastes and demands. But then things turned around, and the world was looking to America for inspiration: not just in the guitars it produced, but its social trends in music and entertainment.
Several European guitar makers were successfully reproducing the American trends in parlour, flat-top, archtop and then electric guitar styles. Best known were Hofner and Framus (Germany), Eko, Eros and Egmond/Rosetti (Italy and Holland), Levin and Hagstrom (Sweden), then a little later - Vox and Burns (Britain).
The German family firm Hofner was typical, but one of the best. Their archtop series (Senator, Committee, President and others) were fine copies of the Gibson L5 and its successors. The "Club" series echoed the design of the Gibson Les Paul, and several solid-bodies such as the Galaxy were aimed at the Fender market. The "Verithin" (made famous by Bert Weedon) looked very much like the semi-acoustic Gibson 335. And then of course there was the famous 500/1 bass, still played today by Paul McCartney!
The importance of these European-made guitars took on a new significance in Britain in the 1950s, when severe restrictions were imposed on imports from The States - including musical instruments - by the Board of Trade. This was just at a time when British teenagers were falling in love with the whole American music scene - rock 'n' roll especially. Loud, echo-y American electric guitars could be heard everywhere, and it was inevitable that budding players in the UK would lust after them.
European guitars filled the gap, and - even though the restrictions ceased in 1959 - American guitars were still financially beyond the reach of most players.
Most young buyers got their guitars through catalogues published by UK importers like Selmer and Bell. In the later ones, Gibsons and Fenders started to appear, but the European copies looked so good, and cost so much less! I know all this from personal experience: my first "proper" guitar (I had a home-made one at the age of 7!) was bought for me as a Christmas present from the 1963 Bell Musical Instrument catalogue.
It was a Rosetti "Lucky 7": a little cherry-red cutaway f-hole model, with a single pickup mounted on a plastic pickguard incorporating the control knobs. It was actually made by Dutch makers Egmond. The cost was 15 guineas, but one of the features of these catalogues was the "hire purchase" scheme offered, as this entry shows.
I wasn't the only one buying cheap European imports. Paul McCartney's first guitar was a German Zenith, before he got into Hofners. Keith Richards' mother bought him a Dutch-made Rosetti on a hire purchase scheme, when he was 15. George Harrison started on an Egmond, before going on to Hofners, then a Swedish Hagstrom-built Futurama solid electric (Jimmy Page also had one of these).
One of my favourite stories, though, is of Cliff Richard and The Shadows. When they first got together in 1958, Hank Marvin was playing a very cheap Antoria - made in Japan (more of this shortly). Cliff and Hank dreamed of using Fender Stratocasters, to complete their American rock image. They'd seen their guitar hero James Burton holding one in a Fender catalogue (little knowing that Burton's preference was for Telecasters!). They got round the import restrictions by a "private purchase", and the image was complete, with beautiful red Strats. Strangely though, it was only a few years later that they must have come up with some sort of deal with British maker Burns, as all of the group started using their guitars on stage, and ditching (for now) the red Fenders..
The UK import ban was lifted in 1959, and dealers like Ivor Mairant in London made great publicity of the fact that they were now stocking great American guitars. But the glory was short-lived, as a new source of inexpensive but highly playable guitars started to hit the UK market; Japan.
Some of the earlier Japanese imports were simple affairs like the one Hank Marvin is playing in the photo above. They were marketed by Guyatone under various brand names, like Antoria, Ibanez and Broadway. But as the 60s went on, the Japanese makers started to "out-flash" some of the Gibsons and Fenders that were starting to appear, and made some very gaudy (and still quite cheap!) instruments. Much of the point of these strange shapes was to avoid prosecution by the American makers. However, as the 60s progressed, these Japanese makers were becoming so successful that they effectively gave up worrying about legal action, and produced exact copies of Gibsons, Fenders and others. The big American names seemed to back off from legal action (although I understand that Gibson unsuccessfully filed lawsuits in 1977, 2000 and 2015).
The quality of some of the "copies" was very good, and today, 1960s Tokai copies of Fender Stratocasters are almost as highly sought-after as the originals.
Then a similar thing started to happen with acoustic guitars. OK - they didn't go through that over-flashy phase, but makers like Antoria, Ibanez, Suzuki and - especially - Yamaha, started to export fine copies of Martins and Gibsons.
In 1970, I have to confess to being guilty of "guitar snobbery". At the end of my first year at college, I decided to trade in my Italian-made Eros jumbo guitar for a "proper" American one. I'd set my heart on a Harmony Sovereign, at 60 guineas. I went to Ivor Mairants in London to buy it. He asked if I'd tried one of the new Japanese guitars they had just imported: a Yamaha FG180. I played it, and loved it. But I stuck to what I thought was the tried-and-tested Harmony. Mistake? Nah! .... I loved the Harmony, and was still playing it 30 years later.
The growing success of these Japanese copies had a huge impact on American and European guitar makers, and - as the 70s wore on - many old makers either went bust, or had their guitars built in Japan, then - later - China, Korea, Vietnam and other Eastern cheap-labour countries. Brands like Epiphone, Guild, Kay, Fender Acoustics and Harmony either disappeared altogether, or re-emerged with initially inferior (or, at least, inconsistent-quality) products.
The Gibson Story tells us a lot about those times, and the ups-and-downs which followed a hundred great years for American guitars.
Since 1944, Gibson had actually been owned by Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI). In 1957 they bought out Epiphone, then used that brand name to produce cheaper copies of the rather-expensive Gibson range. These were good years for Gibson, as well as many others: especially into the early 60s, when the rock and pop boom in America and Europe suddenly made guitar-making look like a good investment. Especially when their products were seen in the hands of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and hundreds of others!
In 1969, the majority of shares in CMI were bought by an Ecuadorean-based beer and cement company called ECL, and the merged companies re-named themselves Norlin. Whether this was a case of CMI realising that "the bubble was bursting" due to the Japanese invasion, or ECL seeing musical instruments as a good investment, I can't figure out (I've tried!). Probably both. CMI were allowed to continue controlling their music specialism, without interference, until 1974, then Norlin took over total control, and started to "rationalise".
Norlin was mostly interested in cost-cutting, and got rid of most of CMI's other musical-instrument makers, like Lowry Organs, Moog Synthesisers and Buffet wind instruments. The cost-cutting had an inevitable impact on the quality and consistency of Gibson Guitars. The final blow came in 1986, when Norlin sold out to a company called SRC, who had absolutely no interest in musical instruments; just reducing costs.
All was not lost though: 3 young former Harvard business buddies, who owned an investment company called PHI, bought the Gibson Guitar brand, and set out to restore Gibson's former reputation for quality (two of them were guitarists). From then on, Gibson set out to restore their reputation for high-quality, innovative guitars.
The objective was achieved, in that subsequent Gibsons were indeed fine instruments.
Not a happy ending though: in 2018 Gibson filed for bankruptcy. The reasons for this were put down to the surviving "rescuer" deciding to branch out into "lifestyle" products, by buying suppliers of audio and video equipment. The terms of the bankruptcy were such that production of guitars could continue, provided that the other loss-making streams were sold off. So we live in hope!
And now? ...
There's no doubt that the Japanese invasion has made us much more broad-minded about our choice of guitars, and diminished some of our snobbery about the traditional American "big names". Brands like Takamine and Yamaha are very highly regarded. Then there are hundreds of Western-sounding headstock names like Faith and Vintage; and then resurrected classic names like Danelectro, Washburn and Kay, which perform perfectly well, but are just importer names for instruments fairly cheaply-made in Asian countries.
But then the last 20 years or so have seen the emergence and acceptance of new, individual makers. Some are now very famous, like PRS, Parker, Lowden and Taylor. But others, like the British makers Fylde, Manson, Moon and Kinkade, and American/Canadian firms Santa Cruz, Colllings, L'Arrivee and Bourgeois,; are just gaining acceptance as great instruments with a future.
I'm sure there are many who would feel these don't warrant a section all of their own. But they're my favourites, and I did say it was a very personal essay!
We're going back a bit in the story now, to those music-hungry days in the mid-1920s, when guitar players - whether visiting Hawaiian lap-sliders, community music group players, dance-band reluctant soloists, or one-man-band blues pickers - just had to have more volume, and firms like Gibson, Martin, Lyon & Healy and others were doing their best to provide it.
I've already mentioned a few innovators and tinkerers, but it's time to introduce one of the strangest, and - in my book at least - most innovative and important: John Dopyera.
The five Dopyera brothers migrated from Czechoslvakia to Los Angeles early in the 1920s, and John had set up a little store/workshop to make and adapt stringed instruments and sound-enhancing gadgets by the middle of that decade.
But it was the outcome of a visit from a well-known vaudeville guitarist (specialising in the Hawaiian lap-style) and entertainer - George Beauchamp - which marked Dopyera down for a place in music history.
Beauchamp showed Dopyera an idea he'd already had to amplify a violin: based on the Victrola principle of a vibrating aluminium disc, which then pumped the sound into a huge horn speaker. Dopyera tried to come up with a guitar equivalent, but it didn't really work. So he went back to the drawing-board, and eventually came up with something completely different (but using the same "vibration" principle).
What he came up with was - on the face of it - just a Hawaiian-style lap-steel guitar (but curiously made of metal, not wood), with a big hollow square neck continuing the main body cavity, just like the style marketed by Weissenborn (Dopyera's brother Rudi was actually a friend and associate of Hermann Weissenborn, so John must have seen how well this shape worked). But here are the amazing revolutionary bits....
Set just under the top of the body were three aluminium cones, the open ends facing down into the steel body. The guitar strings rested on a T-shaped bridge, which had three points resting on the apexes of the three cones. The resulting cone-enhanced sound was then sent inside the metal body, bounced around, and came back out through a grille at the top end of the guitar body. It bloody worked!
The guitars were beautiful as well as loud: the steel body was coated with "German Silver" - a mixture of copper, nickel and zinc; later called nickel silver - and hand engraved with floral patterns. Dopyera wisely (as it turned out) filed for a patent for this revolutionary design in 1927.
The astute Beauchamp immediately saw the potential, and the National company was formed. His contacts and his ambition boosted sales, with promotional tricks like giving top-end models to Hawaiian players like Sol Hoopi, who loved them, and was happy to be photographed playing them. By 1928, the "Tri-Plate" (later known better as the "Tricone") was available as a square- or round-neck, with 4 levels of decoration. The top-end Style 4 was $195, with the Style 1 at $125. In that year, Gibson's top-of-the-range L5 was $275, with the cheapest L-0 model at just $35.
Despite this success, it became obvious to many at National that a cheaper, simpler guitar was needed to attract more people to buy. The idea of a cheap-bodied guitar (it didn't seem to matter what it was made of) with just one cone, was being talked about. But it was the question of whose idea it was that soon caused a very nasty breakup of the partnership between Dopyera and Beauchamp.
In 1929, Dopyera found that George Beauchamp had filed for a patent for the single-cone guitar in his own name, whereas Dopyera said he had been working on it for ages previously. Dopyera simply walked out, and a series of very bitter lawsuits and nasty public recriminations ensued. John signed all his interests and patents to National - partly to protect his brothers, who stayed with the Company.
While the battle was going on, John Dopyera filed another patent for a different kind of single-cone resonator, and formed a new Company called Dobro (Dopyera Brothers).
The final outcome was an agreement between the two companies in 1933, resulting in the Dopyeras regaining financial control of National. Then in 1935 the two separate firms merged again, and Beauchamp was fired. Beauchamp went on to work with Adolf Rickenbacker and others on the development of electric guitars.
So what about these single-cone guitars which were both the cause and the outcomes of this dispute?
The one that started it all was this: a wood-bodied Triolian. In fact, the first few had three small cones inside - hence the name "Triolian". It was shortly decided that this wasn't working (or maybe cost too much), so the idea of a single cone was re-established. It was a big 10" aluminium cone pointing downwards inside a wooden body, with a simple wooden bridge attached to a disc mounted on the apex of the cone (known ever since as a "biscuit bridge"). The peculiar bit, though, was the finish. The theory being that it was the cone that produced the sound, not the material. Carefully-selected and polished woods were not deemed necessary -particularly if the idea was to save cost. So the wooden case was painted a sickly yellow colour, but with little coloured splodges added randomly here and there. Finally, Hawaiian-themed transfers were added to the front and the back: initially flowers, then - later - rocky islands, Hula-girls, surfers and palm trees.
The cone was covered by a screwed-on circular metal plate, and it was this that caused an early problem. The yellow paint sprayed all over the assembled guitar stuck very nicely to the wood, but started to peel off the metal! So - after a year or so - National commissioned Rickenbacker to make simple steel bodies for the single-cone guitar. This picture is of a wood-bodied tenor version of the early Triolian, which I own.
The mis-named Triolian proved very successful (partly due to its relatively low price: $45), and was a key part of the National line up until 1941. There were some early variations, such as a Walnut Sunburst finish, and a Bakelite neck (a very short-lived experiment!). The original yellowy finish started to be known as "polychrome", to differentiate it from the "walnut" version.
National added several other single-cone guitars to their catalogue over the ensuing years, and many of them ended up in the hands of country blues singers, like Bukka White and Son House (below). This may have been partly because of their price (there were probably plenty of cheap second-hand ones around once electric guitars met the "volume" demands for many players).
Another reason, though, was its versatility.
From the very start, all the Tri-Plates (OK - let's give them their better-known name now: "tricones") were available in square neck (for Hawaiian and lap-steel styles) and round neck (for playing traditionally) options. But for several years, the single-cone guitars were only available as a traditional round-neck "upright" - playing-style model: the key attribute being the strings closer to the neck, so that chords and notes could be pressed-down easily and accurately.
For solo blues players, this was perfect for the songs they were performing, combining a traditional guitar with the ability to add a loud, powerful sliding chord or individual note to emphasise the drama or sadness. Most traditional-style guitars simply couldn't do both these things (although Robert Johnson made a damned good effort with his Gibson L1). And - of course - the resonators had a lot more volume!
Dopyera's early Dobro guitars were a little different: I guess they had to be, as the continuing legal battle over patents could come a bit unstuck if he then produced a similar guitar, and lost the battle!
Their appearance was very different: made from nice-looking polished timber, and with mesh "portholes" rather than the simply-cut "f-holes"on the early Triolians. The central cover plate was also more decorative, and there were no cheap-looking transfers or splodges of coloured paint.
But the big difference was in the cone. Instead of pointing downwards inside the guitar, it pointed upwards, so most of the sound came straight out through the holes in the cover plate.
The cone had a sort of dome in the middle, and the bridge was attached to this, as well as on to a ring with 8-arms, which rested on the wooden top of the guitar. It was nicknamed a "spider bridge". This multi-point contact between the strings and the vibrating top of the guitar produced a mellower, warmer tone, which has ever since appealed to a different kind of player; the Country Music guitarist.
It's this market which has helped preserve the original style of the Dobro through all the changes in fashion and ownership over the years (John Dopyera's brother Emil actually bought the brand back in 1959). To this day, top country players choose old (if they're lucky enough to find them!) or beautifully-made new Dobro resonators.
As far as "Nationals" were concerned; the gorgeous but pricey Tricones, the simpler single-cone Triolians and their successors (such as the Duolian, Style O and Style N) were hugely successful throughout the 1930s and early '40s. But the original principle of making acoustic guitars as loud as possible was dented from the late thirties onwards by - of course - the electric guitar. After starting simply with electrified resonator guitars, National responded well by adopting - rather than fighting - new technology. Through various take-overs and mergers, they produced a good range of acoustic, arch-top and electric guitars, reflecting current trends set by other makers and - of course - buyers!. Headstock names like Valco, Supro and Airline appeared, reflecting either ownership changes or attempts to modernise and get away from previous associations.
And now? ..
In 1970, the Dobro name was rescued for the second time by Emil and Rudi Dopyera, as owners of the company Original Musical Instruments (OMI). They had been making resonators under the name Hound Dog. In 1993, OMI and the Dobro name were bought by Gibson, who are now in trouble (as at 2018), so the future of Dobro is a little uncertain
As far as National is concerned, two former OMI employees formed a company called National Reso-phonic in 1988 and - after a few years making Dobro-style models - are now making very fine copies of the old steel Nationals, plus one or two interesting re-interpretations.
The resonator guitar scene is booming!
It's hard to put your finger on exactly why: probably a combination of several things.
Huge interest in the stunning and quirky looks of the shiny Nationals was boosted by a Style O appearance on an early Dire Straits album cover (Mark Knopfler also played it bloody well on the album, so it wasn't just looks!). Then there's been a genuine resurgence of interest in old-style "country" blues from the 1930s, much of which featured the bottleneck style - often on old Nationals.
Finally, country music has recently gained a much bigger audience, and has expanded its appeal through mainstream marketing, innovation and incredible musicianship by Dobro virtuosi such as Gerry Douglas. His appearances with Alison Krauss, and in BBC's Transatlantic Sessions brought this extraordinary style of instrument and playing to a much wider audience.
As far as the instruments are concerned; alongside the resurrected (for now) original names of National and Dobro, you'll see much cheaper resonators sold under classic old brand names like Fender, Regal, Gretsch and Epiphone (albeit made in Asia) and others like Vintage, Samick and Ozark.
But there's also a new breed of manufacturers like Beard, Crafters and Rayco - expensive, but apparently very good..
You've probably gathered that I love resonator guitars!
And so ...
there we have it all about guitars.
Of course it isn't! It was only ever going to be what I knew (or could be bothered to find out) about, and was inevitably biassed towards my own interests and tastes.
I've missed out loads, like....
Can you imagine how revolutionary it was when Fender - in the early 1950s - didn't just put a pickup on a double bass, but suggested you held it in your arms rather than standing it on the floor?! As with Fender and Gibson solid electric guitars, that early idea and design set a pattern which others have more-or-less followed ever since (with some notable exceptions, of course).
There have been many attempts to create an electro-acoustic bass guitar.
The first (as far as I know) was a collusion between Ernie Ball and ex-Fender's George Fullerton: it was marketed as an Earthwood in 1972. Other makers followed, but the whole idea didn't really catch on until pickups were automatically included in the 1980s. Adding pickups seems, to me, to rather defeat the object, when there are much better electric basses around! Based on the few I've played, I can see why a pickup is needed: it must be something to do with the string thickness and tension not being capable of making the wood reverberate in the same way as a 6-string acoustic. But the tone and volume just aren't there. I suppose it's good for practising at home though, so you don't have to plug in.
Electric lap-steel guitars
In the "electric guitars" section, I said a bit about the very first electrics being set up to suit the Hawaiian "lap-steel" way of playing. While makers of archtop acoustics started to offer Hawaiian alternatives, innovators like Rickenbacker and Paul Bigsby (and Gibson) were coming up with special solid electric instruments specifically designed for this style.
One problem was weight! So - some time in the mid-1940s - these heavy steel guitars started to be mounted on stands. The other was versatility: slide players were pretty much stuck to one key, unless they were retuning between numbers all the time. An early solution was to mount anything up to 4 guitar-tops on to one stand. Later, an ingenious solution was to add pedals, which could change the tuning of the strings - even while you were playing!
I've also glossed over the whole, very significant world of Spanish, classical and flamenco guitars. There's no excuse: one of my first decent guitars was a Tatay nylon-strung Spanish, which I loved, and which developed my playing skills enormously. One of my favourite recent purchases is a 1905 Ramirez flamenco model. The mid-19th century Torres style has not really changed much, and some of the great old guitar-making families are still producing wonderful traditional instruments. But other European craftsmen have also made some high quality guitars - as, indeed, have many Japanese makers!
But I hope that - despite my omissions and prejudices - I've managed to convey my childish (and professional) joy at the very being of the guitar, as well as it's origins, historical significance and development. If you don't understand, just pick up a D'Angelico archtop; admire the very subtle inlay on a Martin D45; listen to the natural "sustain" on an A-string plucked on a National Tricone, or its equivalent on a Gibson SG plugged into a Marshall amp.
I don't expect everyone to agree with me about guitars being the bread-and-butter or the mirror of society for the past 400 years, but the fact that they are still around and giving so much pleasure must mean there's something about them.
And they're lovely!