Getting in tune with guitars…

The modern acoustic guitar shape we know and love today can be traced back to Spanish luthiers in around 1850.

                     Modern Acoustic Guitar

It was primarily a rhythm instrument. No one in 1850-1930s was playing face melting guitar solos just yet! Most guitarists were bluesmen, jazz players, or members of bluegrass bands. At the time, the guitar’s popularity was overshadowed by that of the horn section and even the banjo. Acoustic guitars are very simple. You pluck a string and the vibrations travel down to where they meet the body of the guitar (under those little white buttons pictured above), there they resonate inside the large hollow chamber of the guitar and back out of the sound-hole for us to hear. The guitar above is the most popular body style made, called the “Dreadnought”. The original inventor of this style was an Englishman who thought the name of the largest Naval warships of his time would be appropriate for his guitar.

Modern Electric Guitar (Explorer Style)
        Modern Electric Guitar (Explorer Style)

As styles changed and venues got bigger, musicians needed to be heard! They needed volume and clarity, and according to Popular Mechanics, the first playable version of the electric guitar was invented in 1931. The first usable design was called the “Frying-Pan”, due to its shape. It was the first commercial guitar to use a pickup and amplifier. A guitar pickup is essentially magnetic coil of copper wire. When a conductor, like the metal strings of a guitar, moves inside a magnetic field, like that of the pickup, it creates an electric current. Using a cable, the current travels into a guitar amplifier. The amplifier, just like it’s name says, amplifies that signal, and projects it through a speaker. Amplifiers can be extremely complex, therefore I won’t cover that in this blog unless requested.

JTM45 Guitar Amplifier
                      JTM45 Guitar Amplifier

Louder guitars are exactly what these musicians got. And they discovered when these new amplifiers were turned up too loud, they made the guitar sound different! This is called distortion, and is the keystone to guitar based music from the early 60s to present day. Distortion occurs when a signal is being amplified so much, that the amp can no longer maintain its integrity, and it begins to break up. This sound would be of paramount usefulness to players such as Pete Townshend (The Who), Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix himself was known to burst amps into flame mid performance due to the power strain on them.

The guitar is potentially the most influential piece musical equipment of the last century. Today, in this digital age, performers still use it live and in recording studios. My quest in this blog is to discover more about this history, and the histories of those who play them and made guitar their living. Are they becoming antiquated? How is the industry changing to remain relevant? And are they still “In Tune” with the times?


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