The rise and rise of the guitar

`Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk," Bruce Springsteen sings on a live recording of Thunder Road, as he…

`Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk," Bruce Springsteen sings on a live recording of Thunder Road, as he lingers over a simple, arpeggiated chord of F major on his acoustic guitar. It's a moment which encapsulates much of the guitar's appeal, showing an instrument which can communicate through the most simple harmonies, and which does not demand a virtuoso's technique to make itself understood. However, this same simplicity has also proved to be a curse for the guitar over the centuries, leading to an inevitable snobbery and a sense that any instrument so accessible and easy to play could not have a serious artistic value. As far back as the early 17th century, critics were bemoaning the guitar's popularity which came at the expense of more classically "sophisticated" instruments such as the lute and vihuela: " . . . the guitar is no more than a cowbell, so easy to play that there is no stable boy who is not a musician on the guitar," observed one Spanish writer in 1611. Such snobbery effectively stifled the development of the classical guitar right up to the 20th century, when the guitar's growth as both a popular and a classical instrument has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Classical guitar design was revolutionised in the latter part of the 19th century by the brilliant luthier Antonio Torres (18171892), whose larger, more powerful instruments became the model for all modern luthiers. However, it was the invention of amplification and of the electric guitar that changed the course of popular music history. While the acoustic guitar could be very expressive and beautiful playing solo or accompanying a singer, it tended to become lost when placed into large, loud ensembles. One thinks in particular of the early jazz bands, employing loud brass instruments against which the guitar never had a chance. For this reason, some musicians opted to use the banjo instead, with its less lyrical but considerably more percussive and cutting sound. As far back as the 1920s various people were experimenting with the possibility of electronically amplifying the guitar. Eddie Durham (1908-1987), perhaps better known as a trombonist and arranger, was also a guitar pioneer, recording with an amplified instrument as early as 1929 while in Benny Moten's band. By the mid1930s he was taking regular solos with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. However, the most famous and for a long time the most influential guitarist in jazz was Charlie Christian (1916-1942). Christian played with Benny Goodman, both in the Big Band and in various smaller ensembles, and took full advantage of the guitar's new audibility. He developed a melodically sophisticated approach to the guitar which was influenced by the saxophonist Leicester Young. As a part of the jazz ensemble the guitar had come of age.

At the same time the electric guitar was making itself at home in other popular genres. Rock and Roll elevated the guitar to new heights and gave the instrument the semi-mythical status which it still holds today. However, this did not happen overnight, and it took performers some time to appreciate the power of the guitar. Chuck Berry, for instance, introduced short, dazzling guitar solos and used to ground the music with pulsing boogie-woogie fifths in the bass. But many of his early recordings are driven more than anything by Johnny Johnson's R & B piano. A similarly subsidiary role for the guitar can be observed in the Beatles' early recordings - the majority of these are dominated by heavy bass lines and pounding, crashing drums, which leave the guitar as a decidedly subdued (though significant) presence. Love Me Do and From Me To You are typical in this regard. However, push ahead a few years and it becomes clear that the guitar has taken on a whole new importance, leading rather than following and sounding out clearly over the bass and drums. Just listen to George Harrison's incisive, steely, guitar riffing which dominates on Paperback Writer.

Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other modern American folk musicians remained staunch advocates of acoustic music and the acoustic guitar, staying aloof from the cult of the electric guitar. Where Rock and Roll was quintessentially "good-time music," simple and celebratory, folk was in contrast serious and political in its orientation. The pivotal moment came in 1965 when Bob Dylan, widely regarded as a natural successor to Guthrie, released the largely electric album Highway 61 Revisited. His appearance in the same year at the Newport Festival with electric guitar and a full band was a monumental moment in music history - folkies such as Seeger and Alan Lomax considered chopping through the cables with an axe as Dylan hammered through an electric version of Maggie's Farm. Whatever damage Dylan did to folk, he opened up whole new vistas in rock, showing that folk's serious concerns could be combined with driving electric guitars. From the 1960s onward, the status of the guitar as the central vehicle of popular music has never seriously come into question. One need only look to the modern icons, such as Oasis and Nirvana, whose songs are awash with a wall of loud, distorted electric guitar sound. If artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the underrated Robbie Krieger (from the Doors) expanded considerably the vocabulary of the guitar in the late 1960s, these modern bands have opted more for sheer power than for any great levels of technical accomplishment. But for better or for worse, the guitar is still king of popular music.


The classical guitar, by way of complete contrast, inhabits a much less dramatic world, but has quietly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Its history in Europe up to the 20th century has been characterised by brief periods of enormous popularity, followed by much longer periods out in the cold. One simple anecdote serves to illustrate just how fickle musical fashions could be. For a short period in the mid-18th century, the guitar came to be the dominant instrument of the English court and of the upper classes generally. Ladies were auctioning off their harpsichords to buy guitars in a process that threatened to put the harpsichord makers out of business. One such maker recognised this, and a contemporary account describes how he purchased " . . . some cheap guitars and made a present to several girls in milliners' shops, and to ballad singers, which soon made the ladies ashamed of their frivolous and vulgar taste, and return to the harpsichord."

Due largely to these fluctuations of fashion, the classical guitar was bypassed by all the great composers of history: the guitar did not have a Bach, a Mozart, or a Beethoven, but instead had to make do with much lesser figures, such as Fernando Sor and Dionisio Aguado.

The Spanish guitarist Andris Segovia (1893-1987) is largely responsible for the instrument's revitalisation in the 20th century. He achieved this partly by building up a significant repertoire, commissioning leading Spanish and Latin American composers to write for him. (Amazingly, however, Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez from 1939, the single most famous piece in the modern guitar repertoire, was written for and premiered by another guitarist and was never subsequently performed by Segovia.) He also turned to earlier music and produced transcriptions, most significantly of J.S. Bach's music. Of course, all of this could only succeed because Segovia was a brilliant musician and interpreter, capable of performing all this new music with conviction and of showing the guitar in a whole new light as a classical instrument. However, while some major record labels and record shops would have us believe that he, along with his immediate successors John Williams and Julian Bream, are still the only guitarists in the world, there are now dozens of world-class performers who have cultivated a small but nevertheless devoted audience. In retrospect, it's amazing how quickly the classical guitar has established itself, particularly when one remembers that as recently as the 1950s, Julian Bream was unable to receive guitar tuition in any of the London music colleges. The popular and the classical guitar are finally able to exist side by side, without the former threatening to undermine the latter.

Dublin Guitar Week begins tomorrow with recitals by Alan Grundy (Ireland) and Laszlo Deak Sarosi (Hungary), and continues until Sunday week, featuring recitals by Irish guitarists and guitarists from the UK, Mexico, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. Phone the Instituto Cervantes on 01-6682024 for information, or consult Saturday's classical listings.

Alex Moffat is a critic and a classical guitarist.