A Whole World of Guitar
by Daniel Brooks
For much of the past century, the guitar has held a starring role in Western popular music. It is such a primary element of (almost) every variety of Folk, Blues, R &B, Country, Reggae, and countless self-identified sub-genres of Rock and Roll from Pop to Punk to Metal to Psychedelia to whatever-core, that it might be a little too easy to see it as a entirely modern, Western instrument. But, of course, the guitar predates all of this by centuries, and, today, is used around the world to create a greater variety of music than any one guitarist is likely to know well enough to master.
The most basic design elements of the guitar are illustrated in a work of art from prehistoric Anatolia, what is now modern Turkey, where a 3,300 year-old stone carving shows a human figure playing a multi-stringed instrument with a long, fretted neck and a flat-topped sound box. Similar finds, and even a few instruments themselves, have been unearthed in Egyptian burial sites from 1,500 BCE, and it is believed that these instruments descended from even older designs from Persia and India that date back some 4,000 years. The defining features of these instruments appear throughout history in ever-evolving form. The unfretted, egg-shaped Oud was (and still is) a popular Arabic instrument introduced to Medieval Spain by the Moors and the Renaissance Lute was well-regarded enough to have its own extensive repertoire of pieces by the finest composers of its day.
Since the beginning of the Renaissance, numerous predecessors to the modern guitar have appeared in abundant variations, typically with a long, thin body and three, four or five courses, or tuned pairs of strings. The legendary Violin-maker Antonio Stradavarius created an 18 fret, five course guitar in 1680, and six course guitars began to appear in Italy by the end of the 17th century, eventually giving way to the six single-string instruments we now recognize as the immediate precursor to the today’s guitar.
5-course guitar by Antonio Stradivarius, 1680
While the guitar had always been popular enough to foster continuous development, the inherent limitations of its size, shape and construction hindered it from ever being loud enough to be a concert instrument. This began to change in the mid 19th century when Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres Jurado introduced a larger body with a fan-braced top that projected a greater volume of sound with improved tone. His innovations have remained to this day to define the standard classical guitar. With this versatile new instrument, Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia performed compositions by Sor and Torrega, and began to transpose the music of J.S. Bach for solo performances, elevating the guitar from its somewhat peasant folk status to a legitimate classical instrument. Throughout his 94-year life, Segovia continued to innovate in search of ways to improve the tone and volume of the guitar, his advocacy for the use of nylon strings over the traditional gut strings led to the final standardization of the classical guitar in its modern form.
Guitar by Antonio de Torres Jurado, 1859
The influence of the Spanish and other European folk traditions can certainly be heard in the folk music of the New World. From the moment Europeans arrived, the confluence of Native, African and imported musical elements led to a rich variety of new traditions, many the result and shining examples of the versatility of the guitar. The variety and depth of Brazilian guitar music alone is more than just merely impressive, from Choro, Samba and the Bossa Nova heard in João Gilberto’s “Girl From Ipanema,” to the innovative classical compositions Heitor Villa-Lobos to the much more modern sounds of Gilberto Gil and the utterly unique psychedelia of Os Mutantes, the range of creativity is staggering. When we stop to consider the full range of other New World traditions that rely on the guitar, from Bluegrass to Mariachi to Reggae and many others, the effect is awe inspiring.
But of course, the World is much bigger, both musically and otherwise, than just Europe and the Americas.
Africa has a rich musical tradition that is as ancient and varied as humanity itself. With its own array of traditional fretted stringed instruments, such as the Banjo, the Bolon, the Ngoni and the Kora, made famous by the sublime musical gifts of Toumani Diabate, one might be surprised to find the guitar has found a distinctively African voice and a highly respected place in African Music. But the guitar’s versatility lends itself well to the creative needs of many African musicians. The late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure was recognized worldwide as a master musician, and his son, Vieux Farka Toure, has been called the “Hendrix of the Sahara” for his powerful, soulful guitar. Africa has yielded a surprising vitality of truly great guitar-oriented music, from the hypnotic call and response Malian desert music of Tinariwen, Toumast and Etran Finatawa to the funky, multicultural Afrobeat of Fela Kuti to the politically and spiritually charged Reggae of Alpha Blondy.
As is the case with most aspects of its culture, India’s musical tradition easily absorbs all influences to create a definitive Indian expression, and a cultural force as popular and pervasive as Indian film music certainly puts the guitar voice to good use. But the Guitar’s versatility is pushed beyond any previously imaginable creative limits by the Indian genius Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. In Bhatt’s hands, the guitar is transformed into an exotic Indian classical instrument that is simply sublime and distinct from any of its Western incarnations.
Of course, there is a whole world of guitar to be explored and appreciated. We are looking forward to hearing of your travels.