In two previous articles, I introduced collections of works and related histories that summarized the Classical and Jazz musical traditions. In this article, I will introduce a set of works that summarize the history of the guitar, and the theory of guitar playing.
The Classical Guitar
Though there were of course similar instruments prior to the advent of the modern guitar, such as the Lute, that may even date back to antiquity, as an instrument, the modern six string guitar appears to have been invented during the middle of the 19th century, making the guitar a relatively new instrument, arriving roughly two centuries after the invention of the piano. The form of the first guitars is most similar to what is now referred to as an acoustic guitar, that is shaped like a figure eight, has six strings, and a flat top and a flat bottom. It seems at least plausible that the first modern guitars were made in Vienna, though there seems to be reasonable evidence that they were instead first made in Spain. These early instruments had strings made from the intestines of animals, though this would eventually change, giving rise to the modern Classical guitar, which has nylon strings.
Unlike the harpsichord, or chamber orchestra instruments generally, there isn’t a lot of music in the Classical canon that is written explicitly for guitar. So instead, guitarists often end up writing their own arrangements of pieces originally written for other instruments. Baroque composers are a favorite for many Classical guitar players, in particular, Domenico Scarlatti, and Johann Sebastian Bach.
The primary distinction between Classical guitar playing, and the type of guitar playing you’ll see in Pop music or Rock music, is the absence of a pick. That is, a right-handed Classical guitar player will use the fingers on their right hand to pluck the strings, much like the plectrums under the hood of a harpsichord. The lefthand will press the fretboard, which is not terribly different from what you’ll see a Rock guitarist do. However, a Rock guitarist will generally either make use of chords, or a melody, and usually not both at the same time. In contrast, a Classical guitar player will make use of what is known as counterpoint, which is a set of independent melodies, played at the same time.
Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata in B minor, K.27 (1738)
On piano, this is easy to think about, since you can imagine one melody being played by your lefthand, and another melody being played by your righthand. If the two melodies are well written, they will harmonize. On guitar, accomplishing this is non-trivial, and it’s part of what makes playing Classical guitar so impressive. This is because you have only one hand to do the plucking, unlike on piano, where you have two. This means one hand has to cover all of the melodies that you’re playing. As a practitioner, I can tell you that this is a frustrating game. In the video above, you’ll see guitarist Marcos Díaz doing a fine job, managing a sizable number of melodies all at once, despite the limitations of the human condition.
People of course have arguments about who the most important Classical guitar players are, and though I refuse to participate in these types of discussions, I can say that I am not comfortable discussing the topic of Classical guitar without discussing Andrés Segovia. Regardless of your opinions on the matter, there is no doubt that Segovia influenced generations of guitarists, including me. He is also without question a master, and a pioneer of technique, which follows necessarily from his age, having been born in 1893, in Linares, Spain, not long after the guitar was invented.
Enrique Granados, Spanish Dance No. 10 in G (“Danza Triste”) (c. 1890)
The Steel String Guitar
The earliest steel string guitars I’m certain existed are American, and were manufactured by C. F. Martin in the early 20th century, who is the founder of the well known brand of Martin & Co. Guitars, of which I am a proud owner. There is some evidence of earlier models of guitars made by Gibson, but I can’t find any primary sources that say definitively that those guitars were steel string. As the name suggests, the strings of a steel string guitar are in fact made of metal, and not catguts, or nylon. As a result, they are much higher tension than both catgut and nylon string guitars –
Just imagine how much force you need to apply to stretch a piece of steel to the point that it is taught enough to play a given note.
This places a significant amount of strain on the body of the instrument, and as a result, steel string guitars have fundamentally different constructions than Classical guitars. For example, Classical guitars are much lighter than steel string guitars, because the wood doesn’t have to be as strong, and so you can make use of more delicate woods in the body of the instrument. In contrast, a steel string guitar has to withstand the constant force exerted by six taught steel strings. This force is significant enough that many modern steel string guitars have what is called a truss rod, which is a piece of metal that runs through the neck of the guitar, which is otherwise made of wood. This ensures that the neck doesn’t bend significantly, or break as a result the force exerted by the strings.
Charles Davi, Vega (2018)
The use of a different material in the strings, different woods in the body, and different construction, ultimately cause steel string guitars to have a fundamentally different sound than a Classical guitar. However, you can still apply a Classical technique to a steel string guitar, and this is something musicians do all the time. The resultant sound is closer to what you’d hear in a Classical performance than a Folk or Rock song, but is nonetheless very distinct from the sound of a Classical guitar. Vega is a song I wrote that makes use of traditional Classical guitar playing during the verse, in counterpoint to the vocals, though the end result is clearly different than the Scarlatti piece above. The resultant difference in sound is due to more than the fact that Marcos Díaz is a much better guitar player than I am, and is instead due mostly to the brightness of a steel string, versus the more subtle sound of a nylon string, and of course the setting, which is closer to Rock music, than Classical music.
The Electric Guitar
Though people generally associate the industrial revolution with a change in means of production, it was in fact also a revolution in communication, giving rise to liquid stock markets with prices you could check on a ticker, recorded audio, recorded video, and mass publications like newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. It also led to the development of electricity. Though originally used as a means to power lighting and motion, it was quickly realized that electricity could also be used to carry information, such as sounds.
The use of an electrical signal to carry the sound generated by a musician allows you to process that sound prior to amplifying it through a speaker. This divides even a live performance of a given instrument into three separate signals: performance, processing, and amplification. This allows what you ultimately hear to be fundamentally different from the sounds generated by the physical actions of the musician. For example, if you actually listen to the sounds generated by plucking an electric guitar, without amplification, it sounds awful, and it’s barely recognizable as music. But if you listen to Led Zeppelin, you will have a fundamentally different experience.
Led Zeppelin, Heartbreaker (1970)
Guitar players in particular made heavy use of signal processing, causing the sound that is ultimately amplified during performance to be fundamentally different than the sound of any acoustic instrument. As is evident, the sound of Jimmy Page’s guitar playing is totally different from an ordinary acoustic guitar. Though I don’t know the specifics of this recording, I can say with certainty that the sound you hear is primarily the result of what’s known as distortion, where a signal is pre-amplified to the point that it generates a crunching sound. This doesn’t mean that it has to be ultimately played at a loud volume, but rather, that there is an intermediate step between the guitar and the amplifier where the signal is jacked up so high, that it becomes distorted. Just imagine turning the volume up on inexpensive speakers. This produces a familiar crunching sound, that is generally not desirable. But, Rock music has developed an aesthetic that controls this effect, and uses it as a device to create aggressive, abrasive music, like Led Zeppelin.
There are amplifiers that have built-in distortion, that you can adjust with knobs, but the classic distortion effect is implemented using what’s called a distortion pedal, which is a tiny, typically metallic box, with a button on it, that you stomp on to activate the distortion, like a Rock Star. There are a number of commercial and improvised devices, but my understanding is that the first commercially available distortion pedal was the Maestro-FZ, which is demonstrated in the video above. At a high level, the signal comes into the pedal “clean” from the guitar through a wire, and if you stomp the button, it comes out “dirty” (i.e., distorted). If you don’t stomp the button, then the input to the pedal matches the output (i.e., it’s the original signal from the guitar).
Jimi Hendrix, All Along the Watchtower (1968)
Though the primary goal in using distortion is to generate fuzz, you can process the sound even further, to generate an entirely new sound that came to be associated with electric guitar solos. This is in my mind typified by Jimi Hendrix’s opening solo in his version of Bob Dylan’s classic, All Along the Watchtower. You’ll note that his solo has a clean, melodic, and precise sound, that is in stark contrast to the bright, tinny sound of Page’s guitar playing in, Heartbreaker. The point being that distortion is a fundamental tool that can be used to achieve a wide set of outcomes in terms of the sound that is ultimately produced.
Pink Floyd, Breathe (1973)
As a result, even if a song makes use of distorted electric guitar, it doesn’t imply that the end result will be an abrasive, stadium anthem. This is because the transformation of music into an electrical signal allows for volume to be treated as an arbitrary property of the sound that can be adjusted to any scale. So for example, you can record someone shouting, but then simply turn down the volume during playback. In the case of Breathe, by Pink Floyd, you can clearly hear some distortion in David Gilmour’s guitar tone, but the net result of the song is arguably a ballad.
The device that converts the motions of a string into an electrical signal is known as a pickup. A pickup works through Faraday induction, which generates an electrical current whenever the strings above the pickup vibrate –
When a guitarist plucks a steel string, this will cause the string to vibrate, which will in turn produce an electrical signal inside the pickup, which is positioned just below the strings in the body of the guitar. This signal is then transmitted through a wire, and ultimately into an amplifier. The pickup allows one guitarist to fill an entire stadium with sound, fundamentally changing the nature of live performance, and celebrity itself, because suddenly, a single human being can simultaneously entertain tens of thousands of people.
Jimi Hendrix, Freedom (1971)
Films like Forrest Gump do a great job of conveying the stark contrast between the brutality of America’s wars abroad, with the almost childish nature of America’s Folk music scene blossoming at the same time back home. Though a Canadian, Joni Mitchell is the archetypal American Folk singer, with a wide, disarming smile, simple, yet beautiful in appearance, and enough competence on guitar and piano to make others uncomfortable. But unlike the flowery, and sheltered music of many of her piers, Joni’s lyrics often tell dark tales, albeit generally set to a charming melody.
Joni Mitchell, All I Want (1970)
In terms of guitar playing, Joni makes use of a mix of strumming, and classical-esque finger picking. Harmonically, she also makes use of sophisticated arrangements, that are certainly beyond the more mundane American Folk songs of the time, that stuck almost religiously to the open chords of a guitar.
Nick Drake, Northern Sky (1971)
The same is true of Nick Drake, who seems to have been a troubled soul, based upon his lyrics, and the fact that he reportedly overdosed on antidepressants, though I have my own theories on the repeated, magical disappearances of musicians, such as Drake, Hendrix, Cobain, Buckley, Elvis, Joplin, Mozart, Cornell, Bonham, my own friend, who was also my bass player, and even Chausson, if you want to go full tinfoil hat.
It is not unreasonable to view the guitar as an instrument on its own, that made its way into the hands of Classical, Jazz, Rock, and Folk musicians, in each case producing arguably independent cultures that of course intersect in some respects, that nonetheless gave rise to wildly distinct genres of music, using what is ultimately the same underlying instrument. This is arguably unique to the guitar as an instrument, in that it has managed to capture the attention of composers and performers from essentially every genre of Western music.
Chuck Wayne, Love for Sale (1957)
Jazz guitar playing at its highest levels is actually not terribly different from Classical guitar playing, and many Jazz guitar players are also excellent Classical guitar players. The primary distinction between Classical guitar and Jazz guitar is the use of a pick, resulting in what is referred to as a, “pick and fingers technique”. Though Classical guitar players can achieve fairly rapid picking by quickly plucking using two alternating fingers on their righthand, it is much easier to do this using a pick. As a result, Jazz guitar playing allows for greater use of rapid picking, in turn allowing Jazz guitarists to take the lead of a band, playing the melody, just like, e.g., a saxophone player.
What distinguishes Jazz guitar playing from Rock guitar playing is the absence of distortion, and, frankly, usually, Jazz guitar players are much more technically competent musicians, and generally on par with Classical guitar players in terms of the breadth of their abilities. Finally, though Jazz guitar players generally play electric guitars, they play what are known as archtop guitars, that unlike Classical and Folk acoustic guitars, do not have a flat top, but instead have a curved top, like the surface of a violin or cello. Additionally, the sound holes of an archtop guitar are generally two in number, and shaped like a cursive “f”, just like the sound holes on a violin or cello.
What is, frankly, a competence gap between Rock musicians, on one hand, and Classical and Jazz musicians, on the other, arguably begins to disappear with the advent of Fusion Rock. Like all labels, the scope of Fusion Rock is subject to debate and interpretation, but the overall concept is a genre of music that makes use of Classical, Jazz, Rock, and possibly other techniques. And this combination goes beyond just the techniques used by the performers, and instead also extends to the sounds that are in scope. This ecosystem of musicians produced its own brand of guitar player, that is often lampooned as pretentious, because some of the characters in this space really deserved it –
Some of them wore capes, put on ice-skating musicals, performed with an orchestra while dressed like a pirate, etc.
But if you can get past how weird some of these people were, you’ll find really beautiful, and astonishingly original music, that features simply incredible guitar playing.
Yes, Roundabout (1972)
As an overall guitarist, Steve Howe is probably my favorite. His Classical guitar playing is lovely, and unpretentious, and his Rock guitar playing is excellent, featuring really abrasive rhythm guitar lines, and soaring, clean leads. As a general matter, Howe demonstrates the power of the artistic freedom that Fusion Rock exemplifies, where one person can make use of an enormous range of styles and timbres, all within a single piece of music.
Frank Zappa, Eat That Question (1972)
No one pushed the boundaries of Fusion further than Frank Zappa, and his clip of production was completely mental, recording over 100 albums, despite dying at the age of 52. His style of guitar playing is really quite strange, and I can’t say I always love it, because it is truly abrasive at times, like his personality. Zappa is also unusual as a musician, in that he’s a guitarist that is also a composer. Ordinarily, composers are primarily pianists, and I think there’s more than custom at work as to why, since the piano has an enormous range, and because you can use two hands to play, you can simulate multiple instruments. Zappa had a Synclavier, so I’m not suggesting that he didn’t use a keyboard to compose, but rather, that as far as I know, the guitar was his primary instrument, though he also seems to have made occasional use of the bicycle.
Tool, Lateralus (2001)
Banging or tapping on the surface of a guitar is something flamenco guitarists are known for, ultimately using the guitar as a percussive instrument. But this can also be achieved by abstracting away from pitch, and instead using chords as percussive elements. This doesn’t require the elimination of pitch altogether, but rather bringing the pitch of an instrument closer to the pitch of a drum, where it exists, and you notice it, but the percussive aspect of the instrument is arguably paramount. This is something you’ll hear often in heavy metal, where a guitarist will mute the strings slightly, creating a staccato, distorted sound, that is by its nature, more rhythmic than melodic. This naturally causes the band to focus on percussion, and that’s why heavy metal drummers are generally significantly more talented than your average Rock drummer, since they arguably carry more of the music. This technique is in my opinion brought to its highest form by TOOL, turning what is arguably heavy metal into an intellectually soaring, existential journey through the unknown, set to sound.
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Meeting of the Spirits (1971)
Though a lot of these bands were into gurus, and spirituality, my personal opinion is that Mahavishnu Orchestra was the only band that successfully communicated this through music, creating a sound that is without question cosmic in nature, without the magical crystals and capes of some of the other bands from the era. I’ve seen videos of Billy Cobham playing in a t-shirt, and as a general matter, the focus was on the music, despite the spiritual overtones, which were delivered through the music itself, rather than “supplementary materials”. Moreover, unlike many other Fusion bands that used heavy processing and weird instruments to produce unusual sounding music, Mahavishnu Orchestra is a Rock band, with a guitar player, keyboard player, violin player, bass player, and a drummer. Nonetheless, the sound they produced is completely crazy, and doesn’t sound like anything else going at the time. The point being, that these guys used traditional elements, and produced decidedly non-traditional music, by actually altering elements of the composition.