The guitar is undoubtedly the most popular musical instrument in the world. In terms of design and construction it is also the most varied, with a history going back over 500 years. It would be more accurate to describe the ‘guitar’ not as one instrument, but as a family of many types ..... such as steel-string acoustic, electric, classical and flamenco. There are also various derivatives, such as the lap steel guitar and the Dobro. As well as having a distinct cultural history, each type tends to be associated with a particular style of music.
For any person wanting to play music, there are very good reasons why the guitar is an obvious first choice. The wide range of sounds obtainable make it adaptable to almost any kind of music, and its polyphonic nature (enabling the combination of harmony with melody) allows the performance of complex material, as well as making it an ideal instrument for songwriters. Yet, in spite of its vast potential, the guitar is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play in a simple way that can still be very rewarding and enjoyable. And ... it also comes in a size and weight that makes it easy to carry around. There is simply nothing not to like about the guitar!
There are basically two types of guitar in common use today. These are the Spanish type using nylon strings, and the American type using steel strings. Electric (amplified) guitars were developed from archtop steel-string jazz guitars, and paved the way for the solid-body electric guitars such as the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster.
One can only generalise when it comes to which styles of playing these basic (and very different) types are intended for. But what is more certain is that they were all created by visionary craftsmen from experimentation, and have continued to evolve over time in response to the changing needs of the players and their audiences. For example, the modern ‘Spanish’ guitar, developed by Antonio Torres in the 1850’s, fulfilled the need for greater volume and tonal quality for the European classical players of the time. In a similar way, the first electric guitars of the 1920’s enabled guitarists to showcase their talents more prominently in the early days of American jazz.
But things have also worked the other way round, where a particular type of instrument has actually influenced the creation of a new type of music altogether. Take the solid-body electric guitar, for example. The Gibson Les Paul came into existence thanks to a guitarist (Les Paul!) who was a virtuoso in pop, jazz and country music in the USA during the 1940’s and 50’s. He could quite happily play those styles on guitars that were already available, so the obvious question at the time might have been: ‘What is the problem that the solid guitar is intended to solve?’
The emphatic answer came a decade later in the 1960’s with the birth of Rock music. Pioneering British bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones started the revolution, later followed by others such as The Kinks, The Who and The Yardbirds, to name just three. We in the UK can rightly claim Rock music as one of our many great British inventions (along with railways, football, the jet engine and the internet) that have changed the world. Some might even argue that it’s Britain’s greatest contribution to the arts since Shakespeare.
It wasn’t long before American bands caught up, but it definitely started here, folks! Leading guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix (discovered and adopted by Britain) fused together elements of pop, soul and blues into an irresistible, hard-driving new genre that took the sound of the guitar (and popular music) to a whole new level .... and all in the space of about five years! Les Paul and Leo Fender had no way of knowing back in the early 50’s, but there’s no denying that Rock music would simply be unimaginable without the unique sounds (and high volume) achievable with their revolutionary solid-body electric guitars.
What greets us today in the 21st century is a huge array of guitar types, as well as ways to play them. All the major styles such as jazz, blues, folk, flamenco etc. have become split into sub-divisions such as ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. This trend is sure to continue over time and, no doubt, new styles are destined to be created in the future. How about a bit of ‘technogalactic folk’, for example! You never know. Whatever happens, today’s guitarists have never been more spoiled for choice.