The Guitar in America
The acoustic guitar came to America in the 1850s, thanks mainly to immigrants
from Eastern Europe. Guitar maker Christian Friedrich (C. F.) Martin left his native
Germany because of dissatisfaction with the restrictive guilds that oversaw all
instrument making back home. Meanwhile, factories were built to turn out inexpensive
guitars by the dozens, and mail order catalogs like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery
Ward began selling five-dollar instruments.
In the nineteenth century the guitar was promoted as a parlor instrument for
young ladies to play. In the time before phonographs and radio, music-making was
a favorite amateur activity. Young women were especially encouraged to learn music
as an important social skill. While the piano was large and ungainly, the guitar
was small and sweet-voiced; at the time, most guitars were far smaller than today’s
jumbo models, and they were all strung with gut strings in the classical style.
Because of this, the guitar was thought to be an ideal instrument for young ladies,
and it soon became popular.
As stage performers began taking up the guitar in the early twentieth century,
they clamored for louder instruments that could fill a concert hall. Guitar makers
responded by making bigger guitars; others began experimenting with different shapes
for the guitar’s body to improve bass response and volume. The Martin company made
an important contribution in the teens with the introduction of their so-called
D or Dreadnought guitar. With a wider lower bout (or half of the body), and with
construction strong enough to withstand the newly introduced steel strings, the
instrument was immediately popular for its loud bass volume and carrying power.
In the twenties and thirties, guitars began replacing banjos as the instrument
of choice in jazz bands. Jazz players needed guitars that were louder still. The
Gibson company introduced jumbo-sized instruments with carved tops and f-holes that
were ideally suited to the new jazz music. Soloists like Eddie Lang helped popularize
the guitar in jazz, although it took a French gypsy musician named Django Reinhardt
to really show the jazz potential of the guitar.
The search for louder guitars led to some odd hybrids, including all-steel-bodied
guitars with built-in, cone-shaped resonators. But it was the experiments of player
Les Paul that led to the biggest innovation of them all: an electric guitar featuring
a solid wood body. Instrument maker Leo Fender was quick to pick up on Paul’s lead,
introducing three solid-body models in the 1950s: the Broadcaster, the Telecaster,
and the Stratocaster. The latter two instruments are still made today and remain
favorites of rock players everywhere.