History series #2: The Acoustic Guitar

In this series of articles, I will give a concise overview of an instrument – how did it develop, what influence did it have on music and what where the most defining models, players and performances. An interesting summary with just enough information to sound like an expert when talking with other musicians.

Spanish guitar
A typical Spanish (classical) guitar

Last time we talked about the piano, but today it’s time for the most popular instrument of the 20th century: the guitar. Because so much can be said about the guitar, I will focus on the acoustic guitar only. A second part on the electric guitar will follow soon!

Development

There have been many different types of guitars in history, and there is no clear development from one to the other – they are rather different varieties on the same concept. A soundboard with a long fretted neck with strings, also known as a chordophone. The oldest chordophone we know is from 1300 BC, but doesn’t look and sound like a guitar we know now.

The first classical guitar – with strings made of catgut – appeared in the Renaissance, albeit with only 5 strings. Three centuries later, in the 19th century, a guitar builder named Antonio de Torres designed a guitar with 6 strings which had nylon strings and is the model we know today as the classical guitar.

13th century BC First chordophone; 16th century First classical guitar (5-string, gut); 19th century First modern classical guitar (6-string, nylon); 1900 First steel-string acoustic guitar; 1931 First electric guitar by George BeauchampOne of the downsides of a classical guitar is its inability to play loud. Some Americans found a solution: When they used strings made of steel, the sound was much louder. A consequence was that the construction of the guitar had to be adjusted because of the extra tension. For example by adding a truss rod, which is a metal bar inside the neck. A new type of guitar was born: the steel-string acoustic guitar.

The volume of a steel-string is much louder, but still not enough for stage performances with multiple instruments like brass and drums. Early attempts to attach little microphones inside or onto the body failed to capture the full tone. George Beauchamp was the first to design a guitar that could capture the vibration of the strings by using pickups: an electric guitar.

Models

Modern guitars can be divided into three categories: classical, steel-string and electric. Except for their form, what are the differences?

ClassicalSteel-stringElectric
StringsNylonSteelSteel
TensionLowHighAverage
AmplificationNoneVia microphone or piezo pickupVia pickups
Strings66 or 126
Average weight1.5kg (3.3 lbs)2.3 kg (5 lbs)3.6kg (8 lbs)

Lower bout, Upper bout, WaistThe biggest difference between different models is the shape and size of the body. The classical guitar is shaped as what we like to think of as the default for a guitar. It is commonly called 00, and the slightly larger version is known as 000. The dreadnought has an even bigger lower bout, but a smaller upper bout. The biggest type is called a jumbo. A larger guitar means more volume, but it comes at the cost of being harder to play.

Next to the flattops there are archtop guitars with bodies that are slightly bent outward. It allows the body to be created with less braces and splices inside which affect tone negatively. The shape has influence on the sound as well. A cutaway may make it easier to reach the high notes, but it affects the volume and overall tone.

Comparison of different acoustic guitar types like the oo, ooo, dreadnought and jumbo

There are some variations in number of strings, most notably a 12-string guitar. This is a steel-string guitar with 6 pairs of 2 strings where the lower 3 pairs are tuned one octave apart and the upper 2 pairs are in unison. This produces a richer, louder and more spatial sound. The downside is that it is harder to play and pretty much unsuitable for fingerpicking.

6 string guitar vs 12 string guitar open notes
The left notes are the open notes of a standard tuned 6 string guitar. The right notes are added when using a 12 string guitar.

Brands

It’s the favourite debate of many guitar players: Which manufacturer sounds best, and what are the individual characteristics that make them special. But there is more than just Gibson vs. Fender. The next list comes from www.thetoptens.com and is based on user votes.

  • Martin & Co.
  • Gibson
  • Taylor
  • Washburn
  • Epiphone
  • Fender
  • Ovation
  • Yamaha
  • Gretsch
  • Seagull
  • Ibanez

Influence on music

The influence of the acoustic guitar on music has been very small during the classical period. But it had a huge influence on modern music. How is that possible? It may sound silly, but the fact that a guitar used to be so hard to amplify plays a big role. When this became possible in the early twentieth century, the guitar made its way to concert halls. It’s also an instrument that is easier to carry than a piano. So with the increased mobility of modern times, the guitar was a more conventient instrument to travel with.

And so the singer-songwriter became a genre that was characterized by a singer that accompanies himself by acoustic guitar. The other main genres where the acoustic guitar has a big role are Folk, Country and Pop. Nevertheless, the influence is still not comparable with the electric guitar. Electric guitars have played a lead role in many more genres like Rock, Funk and Pop music and all of their sub-genres.

Trivia to win quizzes

  • On the acoustic guitar you are not supposed to use the thumb of your left hand to stop strings from above. It’s okay on electric guitars because the neck is smaller
  • Francisco Tárrega (1852 – 1909) is considered the father of modern classical guitar playing. Why? Because he transcribed many classical pieces written for piano (the most popular instrument at the time) to guitar, which made the guitar more popular as a recital instrument
  • Because strings are directly plucked, finger shape and touch have an immense influence on tone. That’s why guitarists are very attentive to the shape of their fingernails
  • Quality of sound is mostly determined by the top of the body (usually made of mahogany, maple or rosewood)
  • A guitar is exactly twice as large as the violin – this allowed the same string thickness to be used for both instruments (a violin is one octave higher)
  • Do old guitars sound better? Subjective, but can be true. Various chemical processes in the wood can change its tonal properties over time

Do you like these short fact-based articles? Let me know, I’m planning to do a lot more of these, on history of instruments and maybe other music topics as well.

History series #1: The Piano

In this series of articles, I will give a concise overview of an instrument – how did it develop, what influence did it have on music and what where the most defining models, players and performances. An interesting summary with just enough information to sound like an expert when talking with other musicians.

I couldn’t find a better candidate to start with than my favorite instrument, the one I’ve been playing for 15 years: The Piano.

grand piano

Development

The piano was not the first keyboard instrument:

  • 9th century  Pipe organ
  • 14th century Clavichord / harpsichord
  • 18th century Piano

The key defining element of a Piano, especially with respect to its predecessors, is the ability to express dynamics: the weight or force applied to the key changes the dynamics and tone. This works because pressing a key causes a hammer to hit a string for a short period of time: this makes the string vibrate and keep vibrating. Releasing the key causes a damper to silent the string. Except for when the sustain pedal is depressed. That one holds all dampers back so they won’t hit the string. Pretty neat eh?

You can see this mechanism of hammer and damper in this wonderful animation made by YouTube user swifterik:

A piano can have up to three pedals. From right to left:

  • Sustain pedal
    This pedal raises the dampers to stay off the strings, so notes are sustained even after the key is released.
  • Una-corda pedal
    In grand pianos, it shifts the hammers sideways so they hit only 1 string (una corda) instead of 2 or 3.
    In upright pianos, it makes the hammers come closer to the strings.
    The result in both cases is that the sound will be softer.
  • Sostenuto pedal
    Originally this pedal caused to sustain only those notes which were already depressed. However, in many pianos this pedal is replaced by a study pedal:
    A rail of felt is lowered between the hammers and the strings, so the sound is much softer. This allows the pianist to study quietly.

Less expensive pianos might only have the sustain pedal. This is the most important pedal and many songs are unable to be played without it.

Models

Pianos can be divided into two categories: upright and grand pianos. Except for their looks, what are the differences?

UprightGrand
StringsVerticalHorizontal
Hammer positionIn front of strings, uses springs to returnUnder strings, uses gravity to return
InharmonicityLargeSmall
Cost & space requirementsSmallLarge
Average weight140 kg480 kg

So the obvious benefits of uprights are their cost, weight and space efficiency. The hammers of an upright use springs to return to their initial position. This has two disadvantages. First, it takes more time before the pianst can hit the key again – you can not play the same note fast on an upright. And secondly, these springs degrade over time which is the main reason why grand pianos last longer.

But the real reason why you will always see a grand at concerts is inharmonicity: when a string instrument is plucked or struck (as in case of the piano), some of the overtones deviate from their perfect frequency because of the natural resonance of the string. Longer and thinner strings expose less inharmonicity, hence a grand piano sounds better. Less out of tune, you could even say.

Why is a piano so heavy? The strings of a grand easily pull an enormous force of 20 tons of tension on the framework. Therefore, they have to be attached to a heavy cast iron plate, which is in turn attached to a hardwood sound board.

Brands

The violin has the Stradivarius, but the piano doesn’t have one particular well-known brand that is far better than all the others. This list shows the four most well-known and high quality piano makers along with famous pianists that used those brands for composing and performing:

  • Bechstein (Grieg, Ravel)
  • Bösendorfer (Richter, Stravinsky)
  • Blüthner (Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Rachmaninoff)
  • Steinway (Rubinstein, Gershwin, Horowitz, Lang lang)
fortepiano, the predecessor of the piano
A fortepiano

Are you missing Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn in this list? That’s right, they didn’t compose or perform on pianos. They used the fortepiano, one of the direct predecessors of the grand piano. An excellent example of how a fortepiano sounds can be found in the video on this page. Not too different from a modern piano, but it has a characteristic tone and you should realize this is the instrument where Mozart and Beethoven composed for.

The brands listed are high-end. A well-known piano maker such as Yamaha makes instruments which are generally geared towards a lower market segment.

Influence on music

It’s very hard to imagine the world of music if the piano would have never been invented. It became the de facto instrument for composers, because of its wide range – it spans a full orchestra – and ability to express dynamics. You can play songs for nearly any instrument on a piano. It quickly became the primary instrument for the general public. The inexpensive new methods to print sheet music and the general welfare of people in the 19th century caused a large number of families to buy a piano and have one of the members study the instrument.

The piano wouldn’t stay the most popular instrument indefinitely – somewhere in the 1950s the guitar took over, being more portable and more adequate for radio friendly music. Since then, the electric piano’s and synthesizer keyboards pretty much succeeded the piano and the instrument became more generally associated with classical music.

Trivia to win quizzes

  • Bartolomeo Cristofori from Italy has invented the piano, around 1700.
  • A standard piano has 88 keys
  • The keys are made of wood, covered with plastic – though they used to be made from real ivory
  • Piano means soft in Italian, referring to the characterizing ability to play soft and loud

Do you like these short fact-based articles? Let me know, I’m planning to do a lot more of these, on history of instruments and maybe other music topics as well.