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The Evolution of the Guitar

By James Whitfield

Acoustic Guitar
No one is exactly sure when the guitar was invented, but historians say there is not much evidence of guitars before the 15th century. These guitars looked drastically different than the instruments used today. Unlike modern guitars, which use six single strings, these guitars used four courses of two or three strings. The original four courses where later replaced by a five course guitar. In the early 19th century many unusual designs surfaced such as the lyre guitar and the English guitar. These odd designs eventually gave way to what we now call the classical guitar. In the late 1800s a man named Christian Frederick Martin started his own acoustic guitar company. This company produced many interesting designs, such as the X-brace. This wooden brace goes on the underside of the guitar top, gives the guitar a quality tone. The design worked so well that Martin and many other guitar companies still make acoustic guitars using the X-brace technique now. Another company which made high quality acoustic guitars was Gibson. Founded by Orville Gibson in the late 1800s, the company uses a unique arch-top design on their guitars. Originally these guitars had one central sound hole, which was later by two violin-style f-holes. The new f-hole design first appeared on the Gibson L-5, which was designed by Lloyd Loar, who also designed an electromagnetic pickup that could be fitted to the front of an acoustic guitar. But Gibson was not impress with his design, so Loar, who also designed left Gibson and formed his own company, Vivitone. Vivitone produced pickups which could be mounted to the guitar. Another attempt to solve the problem of the guitar volume was the ampliphonic resonator guitar. These guitars used the principle that an aluminum cone inside the body would greatly amplify the sound. These guitars were originally made by National and Dobro.
The Electric Guitar
No one person invented the electric guitar, but in the early 30s Rickenbacker launched the first mass produced electric guitar. This guitar was name the Electro Spanish and used an electromagnetic “horseshoe” pickup. The concept behind this pickup design is relatively simple; two horseshoe shaped magnets covering an electromagnetic coil produce a magnetic field, which causes the pickup to send an electric signal out of the guitar into an amplifier. The pickup used on the Electro Spanish was also used on an earlier lap steel instrument nicknamed the “Frying Pan”. But, due to problems with the hollow body of the guitar, such as feedback, a new design was needed. This new type of guitar came almost twenty years later. In 1950, a man named Leo Fender built a guitar called the Broadcaster. This guitar had no sound holes, and a completely solid wood body. The solid body cut down on feedback, making guitar amplification a much easier task. However, Fender was forced to change the name from Broadcaster to Telecaster when the company Gretsch told him that they made Broadcaster drums. Not long after the Telecaster was launched, Gibson, which made hollow-body electric guitars, released the Les Paul standard. This guitar was developed with and named after Country-jazz singer Les Paul, who ironically had tried to sell Gibson his idea for a solid-body guitar, and they had rejected his idea. The Les Paul standard was produced from 1952 to 1961.

After the Les Paul Standard, Gibson started production of the Les Paul SG. But since Les Paul didn’t like the design, Gibson changed the name to SG. The Les Paul standard was brought back into production in 1975, and has remained in production ever since. However, the Fender Telecaster has stayed in production since it was well be the most recognizable guitar ever. But, not much after Leo Fender sold the company to CBS in 1975. Many years later Leo Fender started another company, G&L music sales. In the 1980s, Japanese copies became a problem for the western companies. Originally these Japanese copies were of such poor quality they posed little threat to the western companies. But when companies like Fender and Gibson were forced to use multi-tiered systems, manufacturing guitars in places like Mexico and Korea and then importing them into the United States. However, Japan did not always make copies of the western guitars. In the 50s and early 60s, Japan build their own designs. These designs were influenced by the western guitars of that time, but they were still their own designs. Many people have tried to come up with new designs for the guitar, but it seems musicians are content with the guitar the way it is. Why? Probably because companies like Fender and Gibson got it right the first time.


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