The Birth of Steel Guitar, 1885
Portuguese sailors and Mexican cowboys introduced the Spanish guitar to the Hawaiian Islands around 1830. In the mid-1860s, gut strings gave way to steel strings, which native musicians preferred for their “slack key” open tunings. In 1885, an 11-year-old Hawaiian guitarist named Joseph Kekuku ran a railroad spike along his steel strings and fell in love with the mysterious sound. He made a steel tone bar at his school’s machine shop, raised his flat-top’s strings, and pioneered lap-slide technique. By the 1920s, “Hawaiian” acoustic guitar was entrenched on the mainland, often played on hollowneck instruments. By the mid ’30s, most tone-bar players had migrated to resonator guitars or electric lap-steels.
Harmony Company Founded, 1892
When Wilhelm Schultz started the Harmony Company in 1892, his first sale was two guitars. Fifty years later, Harmony—which made guitars under the Stella, Silvertone, Sovereign, Monterey, and Valencia names, among others—accounted for more than half of the 250,000 guitars produced annually in America. Along the way, just about every future guitar hero and guitar geek—as well as just about every blues player—cradled his or her fingers around a Harmony at one time or another.
Kru Sailors Introduce Guitars to West Africa, 1900
By the early 20th Century, Kru sailors from Liberia had gained a reputation as fine guitarists, and they brought guitars (originally obtained from the Portuguese) with them while trading along Africa’s west coast. Guitars were quickly assimilated into African culture, where they were used to play numerous styles. The guitar increasingly dominated West African popular music, beginning with acoustic groups such as Sam’s Trio and the Akan Trio in the 1930s, and eventually leading to highlife bands sporting multiple electric guitarists, such as those lead by I.K. Dairo, Ebenezer Obey, and King Sunny Ade.
Andres Segovia Plays First Gig, 1908
When 15-year-old Andres Segovia made his performing debut at the Centro Artistica in Grenada, Spain, no one could have known he would eventually reinvent the way the guitar is played. Segovia’s amazing technique—all the more incredible given that he was self-taught—emphasized tone and expression, and he was the first classical guitarist to explore the different timbres and range of dynamics produced by one’s fingers. He would also expand the guitar’s repertoire and single-handedly elevate the instrument to a place of respect and prominence.
The First Singing Cowboy, 1925
Hollywood’s singing cowboy was perhaps the prototype for early rock stars, as he made women swoon and enticed men to adopt his fashions and cool, courtly demeanor. The character also exposed the guitar to hundreds of thousands of filmgoers, as well as future guitarists and singer/songwriters. Carl T. Sprague was the first in a line of singing trailblazers that grew to include Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and others when his “When the Work’s All Done This Fall” sold 900,000 copies in 1925 (no mean feat for that time).
Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang’s Inter-racial Duets, 1927
Using the pseudonym “Blind Willie Dunn,” white jazz-guitar pioneer Eddie Lang recorded a number of duets with virtuoso black blues guitarist Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson in New York City between 1927 and 1929. Tunes such as “Have to Change Keys (to Play These Blues)” and “Guitar Blues” were some of the most widely admired recordings of the time, and they continued to affect the evolution of jazz guitar for decades, influencing Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and nearly everyone else.
The Resonator is Born, 1928
Before the dawn of the electric guitar, John Dopyera and his brothers developed a way to mechanically amplify an acoustic. By attaching its bridge to a speaker-like aluminum cone (originally three cones), Dopyera dramatically increased the volume and projection of the guitar’s vibrating strings. Three companies—National, Dobro, and Regal—produced most of the early resonator guitars, while two groups of musicians embraced resonator tone: Delta bluesmen (who played bottleneck slide on roundneck, metal-body guitars held in the traditional “Spanish” position) and bluegrass pickers (who used a tone bar to play acoustic steel on squareneck, wood-body instruments). The Dopyeras’ ingenious invention has survived decades of shifting musical trends to become an iconic sound in American music.
Martin Develops the Modern Flat-Top, 1934
To coax more volume and bass from a steel-string guitar, C.F. Martin developed a radically wide, deep body style that was dubbed “dreadnought.” Built for a Boston firm, and bearing the Ditson label, Martin’s first dreadnought-shaped guitars appeared in the 1920s. In 1931, Martin introduced its own dreadnoughts, identified by a “D” in the model name. Boasting a 155555 y8" width and X-bracing, the mahogany D-18 and rosewood D-28 allowed bluegrass flatpickers to sonically compete with banjos, mandolins, and Dobros. Initially, Martin dreadnoughts had a 12-fret neck joint and slotted headstock. When the company switched to a 14-fret neck and solid headstock in 1934, the modern flat-top was born.
Gibson Debuts Its Guitar/Amp Package, 1936
Gibson may not have been the first to put guitars and amplifiers together, but its introduction of the pickup-equipped ES-150 in 1936 put electric guitar on the map for two reasons. First, Gibson’s status as an industry leader automatically made everybody take note of this important innovation. And second, the ES-150 and its companion EH-150 “suitcase” amplifier were the choice of guitarist Charlie Christian, who went on to legitimize and popularize electric guitar after joining Benny Goodman’s band in 1939.
Gibson Introduces the Cutaway, 1939
Gibson’s L-5 was a revolutionary instrument when it debuted in late 1922, being the first American guitar to sport both a 14-fret neck joint and an adjustable trussrod. The L-5 had already set the standard for other premium archtop makers—such as D’Angelico, Epiphone, and Stromberg—when, in 1939, Gibson raised the bar again by introducing its “Premiere” single-cutaway body for both the L-5 and Super 400. Finally, players could reach the high frets comfortably.The Birth of Steel Guitar, 1885
Gibson’s L-5 was a revolutionary instrument when it debuted in late 1922, being the first American guitar to sport both a 14-fret neck joint and an adjustable trussrod. The L-5 had already set the standard for other premium archtop makers—such as D’Angelico, Epiphone, and Stromberg—when, in 1939, Gibson raised the bar again by introducing its “Premiere” single-cutaway body for both the L-5 and Super 400. Finally, players could reach the high frets comfortably.
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