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History of the Acoustic Guitar

Kevin Ott
acoustic guitar close-up

Two kinds of acoustic guitars exist: nylon string (or classical) and steel-string guitar. When a musician uses the term "acoustic guitar," she is almost always referring to a steel-string acoustic guitar, not a nylon classical. The distinction is crucial: while the classical guitar's history goes back to ancient civilizations, the steel-string acoustic is a more recent historical development.

Timeline of the Acoustic Guitar

The acoustic guitar has a long and storied history.

  • 1796: Christian Fredrich Martin is born in Mark Neukirchen, Germany. He apprentices with guitar maker Johann Stauffer and works on the craft in Mark Neukirchen for over two decades.
  • 1832: After a dispute between Martin's Violinmakers' Guild and the local cabinetmakers over the rights of who can commercially build and sell guitars, Martin is weary of it and decides to move to New York City in America to pursue a better market for his skills. He opens a music shop shortly after arriving in America.
  • 1839: Life in New York is hard. After his shop fails, Martin sells it and buys land in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where a large community of German immigrants live. As the guitar market brings new pressures and demands, Martin begins to change his guitar building approach and abandons much of the tradition he learned from Stauffer.
  • 1840s: As Martin evolves in his craft, he either discovers from German immigrants or invents--it's not clear from history which--the X-brace, a wooden brace system that supports the guitar frame under the sound board. His new feature in guitar design, completely unique to America, is a critical first step toward the steel-string acoustic, though Martin does not know it yet.
  • 1850s: The X-brace proves to have a successful commercial impact on the American guitar market. It yields a sturdier guitar with a simpler, quick-to-build design, and it becomes a popular instrument in America's rugged environment that was not forgiving to the older, less sturdy design of guitars.
  • 1850s-1890s: Concurrent to this American guitar evolution, the Spanish guitar design by Torres is revolutionizing the nylon classical guitar. Martin's guitar also uses nylon strings, but it is not used solely to play classical music. In rural America where Martin lives, barn dance folk music and loud instruments like the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle are popular. American guitars cannot compete with these instruments in volume, which is a problem for Martin.
  • 1898: Orville Gibson, the founder of Gibson guitars, creates the arch-top acoustic guitar with its rounded, swelled body and hollowed f-shaped holes on some models. This style grows popular with blues, country, and rock guitarists in the early decades of the 20th century and still remains a popular style of acoustic guitar construction.

Steel Strings

Guitar makers solve earlier volume problems with steel strings.

  • 1900: Steel strings become available for guitars. Their loudness is the solution to the volume problem that has dogged Martin except there's one problem: the steel strings produce great tension, and they break guitars that use the Spanish approach to building. Martin's X-brace, however, has already solved the problem before it even existed. The X-brace gives the guitar more than enough support to handle the steel strings, and this X-brace/steel-string combination births the steel-string acoustic.
  • 1900s-1920s: The X-brace steel-string acoustic design spreads far and wide and is an industry standard by 1920.
  • Circa 1925: The first resonator guitar, an early attempt to make the acoustic guitar louder using a built-in aluminum cone, is built by John Dopyera. This version of the steel-string acoustic eventually becomes a popular instrument in bluegrass, country, blues, jazz, and southern-tinged rock.
  • 1920s-1930s: Black blues guitarists like the legendary Robert Johnson discover the steel-string guitar and embrace it enthusiastically for its loudness and the way its steel strings make blues techniques, such as string bends, more powerful and emotive.
  • 1920s-1950s: The early folk and country music communities, comprised of rural folk music traditions from the South and western cowboy songs developed by ranchers and settlers in the western states, also embrace the steel-string acoustic guitar. Its sharp twang and loud volume makes it a fitting companion to other loud country instruments like the fiddle and banjo. The Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams all make the steel-string acoustic the centerpiece of the fast-growing early folk and country music industry.
  • 1950s-early 1960s: The steel-string acoustic becomes a centerpiece in another popular new genre: modern folk music. Artists, such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and many others, turn the image of the lone songwriter singing with a steel-string acoustic on stage into the iconic symbol of a generation.
  • 1960s: As folk goes electric in the mid-sixties and turns into folk rock, and as the popularity of the electric guitar takes hold, the steel-string acoustic becomes more of a supporting player in American music.
  • 1974: Taylor Guitars is formed, which becomes renowned for making exceptional quality guitars that combine high level craft with modernized building methods.
  • 1970s-present: Despite the dominance of the electric guitar, thanks to the ongoing high quality products of Martin, Taylor, and others, the acoustic remains a popular instrument, and it retains an active presence in most genres, from the rock ballad to modern country, and the emergence of the singer-songwriter genre, modern Americana, and new folk artists of the 2000s and 2010s keeps the steel-string firmly planted in the popular consciousness.

The Future of the Acoustic Guitar

While the steel-string acoustic guitar remains true to its objective--to create a natural sounding acoustic instrument--and for this reason may not dramatically change in sound in the years to come, the instrument will surely see transformative innovations in the way this beautiful steel acoustic sound is achieved. The following two examples already provide a glimpse.

  • The Yamaha TransAcoustic Guitar: This guitar does something truly amazing: using an actuator that traps the vibrations of the strings and naturally distributes them across the wood surface and air of the guitar, the TransAcoustic magically produces reverb and chorus effect out of the soundhole without any effect processing, electronics, gadgets, or pedals. You can take the guitar anywhere, to the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, and it still produces lush reverb or chorus at the turn of a knob.
  • The Ridgewing Guitar (that looks like a prop from the sci-fi film Blade Runner): This stunning instrument is the first acoustic guitar that is completely modular and portable, meaning you can disassemble and reassemble it in minutes. In fact, it is meant to be taken apart and stored in a small briefcase when you're not using it or when you're traveling. Guitar Player believes it might very well become the standard design for all guitars in the future.

The Symbol of the Acoustic Guitar

No matter what the acoustic guitar becomes, whether it can magically produce sci-fi sound effects without electronics or be stored in your coat pocket, it has already become an iconic symbol of modern music thanks to its rich, varied history.

History of the Acoustic Guitar