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The History of the Guitar
Transcript of The History of the Guitar
Watch the video of a 16th century piece played on a reproduction of a period instrument.
The Baroque Guitar
Check out video clips for performances of pieces by Baroque guitar composer Gaspar Sanz and a J.S. Bach lute piece arranged for guitar.
In the 1700's, the guitar was featured less prominently. This was the era of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Beethoven. The guitar fell out of favor for professionals and amateurs alike, as they were attracted to the louder and more versatile instruments such as the harpsichord, violin and cello.
However, in Spain the guitar never lost its popularity, and in the second half of the century the guitar went through some radical changes. A sixth course was added, the neck was lengthened, and a change to wire wound strings and metal frets developed.
One of four guitars built by renowned luthier Antonio Stradivari, whose violins have been sold for millions of dollars.
Below right, a mid-1800's guitar built by Antonio Torres Jurado. By this point the guitar had evolved into the design and dimensions typically seen in modern guitars. On the left is an early example of a guitar built by the C. F. Martin company.
Guitar music in the 1800's, often called the "Romantic" period, exploded with dozens of composers writing brilliant music for the instrument. The most famous composers were from Italy and Spain, including Matteo Carcassi, Fernando Sor, and Francisco Tarrega.
One of the most famous pieces for classical guitar is Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra." Note the brilliant "tremelo" technique in which the player rapidly repeats a note by alternating three of the right hand fingers.
Due to the increasing popularity of the instrument, emerging styles like blues, jazz, and folk music embraced the guitar in the early 20th century....
Andres Segovia- classical guitar master
Woody Guthrie- American folk legend
Charlie Christian- electric jazz guitar pioneer
Django Reinhart-Gypsy jazz phenom
Robert Johnson- king of the delta blues
Click to hear Charlie Christian's "Swing to Bop." Christian is generally recognized as the person who popularized the electric guitar (although not the first) and who changed everyone's thinking about how jazz could be played on it.
In the 40's and early 50's the solid body electric guitar and amplification were developed. Two of the most important figures in their development were Les Paul and Leo Fender.
Les Paul 1915-2009
Leo Fender 1909-1991
Les Paul was one of the pioneers of the solid-body electric guitar, which made the sound of rock and roll possible. The Gibson Les Paul (seen below) is a solid body electric guitar that was first sold in 1952. The Les Paul was designed by Ted McCarty in collaboration with Les Paul, whom Gibson enlisted to endorse the new model.
Leo Fender was an American inventor who founded Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, or "Fender" for short. The guitars, bass guitars, and amplifiers he designed from the 1940s on are still relevant: the Fender Telecaster (1950) was the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar; the Fender Stratocaster (1954, seen below) is among the world's most iconic electric guitars. The Stratocaster featured a vibrato arm or "whammy bar."
In the United States in the 1950's, guitar wielding performers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry introduced Rock and Roll. Then in the 60's British groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones made guitar based music a world wide phenomenon!
Elvis Presley- the original King of Rock and Roll
Listen to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" to hear the quintessential early rock guitar lick!
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones playing a Fender Telecaster
The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, watched by over 73,000,000 viewers. At the time it was the largest television audience ever- mostly screaming teenagers. The age of the guitar group had officially begun... click to watch.
Sound Innovators and Virtuosos
From the late 60's until the end of the century the guitar's palette expanded to include a variety of new sounds and techniques, with ever increasing displays of technical achievement. Jimi Hendrix pioneered many new approaches to electric guitar performance and recording...
Jimi Hendrix used extreme volume, feedback, "divebomb" whammy-bar, wah-wah pedal, and tremelo picking in this legendary performance of "The Star Spangled Banner." This was performed at the Woodstock Festival, attended by almost a half of a million people in 1969.
Meanwhile, a triumvirate of British guitar players were establishing their place in guitar legend. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck each got their humble beginnings in the British rock group The Yardbirds. Clapton would update the blues of his heroes Robert Johnson and B.B. King. Page explored guitar "orchestration" and mixing folk and rock in epic arrangements with his band Led Zeppelin. Beck worked in primarily instrumental settings pushing the boundaries of expressive phrasing.
The "Big Three" of British Guitar
Edward Van Halen
Edward Van Halen took rock guitar virtuosity to a new level. Using harmonics, whammy bar, and an innovative technique called "tapping" with two hands on the fretboard (seen below), Van Halen's instrumental showcase "Eruption" inspired a generation of young guitar players.
Click to hear Van Halen's "Eruption," from his 1978 debut album.
While many players in the late 20th century continued along the paths blazed by Hendrix, Van Halen, and the "Big Three" British guitarists, some went in search of new sounds. In the 80's Ireland's "The Edge" of U2 crafted a minimalistic and textural style of playing using ambient effects and non traditional chords. In the 90's Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine used a unique arsenal of sounds inspired by hip hop, DJ, and industrial music. Meanwhile Kurt Cobain single-handedly ended the Eddie Van Halen school of guitar by returning guitar-based rock to a punk-inspired aesthetic in the early 90's.
The Edge tests out his guitar equipment in this clip, going through several of his signature sounds.
In this interview clip, Morello demonstrates several of his unique, DJ inspired special effects.
Guitar in the Digital Age
Continuing the tradition...
In the 21st century guitar continues to make a significant impact on popular music, even if it isn't quite as central as it was in the heyday of the classic rock era. Several of today's players have revitalized and updated familiar approaches.
Jack White, above, combines a primitive blues based style with modern sound explorations. Derek Trucks, left, takes the slide guitar style of his forebears Duane Allman and Ry Cooder and adds a sophisticated sense of melodic improvisation inspired by Eastern Indian music.
Like everything else in contemporary culture, guitar, and music in general, has been swept up in the digital revolution. More and more these days guitars come with computer interfaces built in. Virtual guitars, amplification, and effects are readily available on mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone. People perform, rehearse, record and teach lessons in virtual online settings. We'll have to wait and see where it all goes from here...
No "Stairway"? How about on an iPad?
Modern design established:
The guitar has many ancestors, including the oud , or lute. The name probably comes from the Persian "chartar," which the Spanish renamed the "quitarra." The early guitar was narrower and deeper than the modern guitar, with a less pronounced waist. It was closely related to the vihuela, the guitar-shaped instrument played in Spain in place of the lute. The guitar originally had four or five courses of strings.
The Baroque Guitar:
In this period the guitar became accepted as a more serious instrument than previously was the case, and many fine composers began writing for it. The typical Baroque guitar now had five courses, the first being single and the others double. Court musicians in the employ of royal families made a large contribution to the guitar's widening appeal during the Baroque period.
"Canarios" by Gaspar Sanz
"Bouree" by J.S. Bach
Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana