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Tracking The Steel-String Guitar's Evolution, Pt. 1

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Tracking The Steel-String Guitar's Evolution, Pt. 1
Almost everybody knows that a steel-string guitar has metal strings, as opposed to classical guitars, which are strung with nylon. But many people don’t know anything else about the steel-string’s construction, parts, materials, or origins. Guitarists often associate the name Martin with steel-string guitars, but that’s pretty much it. In this three-part series, we’ll explore the genesis of the steel-string and look at the evolution of this versatile and intriguing stringed instrument over the last century.

Guitarists often ask, “Why does the guitar have six strings?” Guitars in the 17th and 18th centuries had five strings, or sometimes five pairs of strings. These were used to play music that was fairly simple, often comprising single-note melodies and two- and three-note chords. And these instruments had all replaced earlier, 4-string guitars that were developed to play even simpler, monophonic music.

Luthiers and musicians found that adding a sixth, lower string made the guitar a much more versatile and expressive instrument. A 6-string could play a wider and more complex range of music. Equally important, expanding the bass register made the music sound richer. Today, with the exception of a few 8- or 10-string guitars, which are used to play extended-range compositions, virtually all acoustic guitars have six strings (or six pairs of strings). This arrangement works best to express almost all music today.

The technology for making metal strings developed late. The first guitars were strung with gut—as were violins and early bowed and plucked instruments. But early gut strings were problematic. They were usually uneven in thickness, changed tuning with the weather, and frayed and broke easily. Producing thin, strong gut strings of even thicknesses was made possible by adapting rope-making technology (the braiding of many thin fibers into strands, and then twisting or cabling the strands into ropes) to other uses. Gut strings were thus improved, but quite expensive.

It’s worth noting that the technology for making a lot of rope got a mighty boost in the 1500s. As European nations entered the age of navies and armadas, they needed ships for wars, conquest, commerce, exploration, and empire building, and large ships used more than a mile of rope each. The demand for plentiful, durable rope was irresistible, and ultimately this technology benefited stringed-instrument builders.

The steel-string guitar developed within a few decades of the Spanish guitar. However, it did not come out of any of the guitar-making centers of Europe. Instead, it developed in the United States. And it did so in response to the growing musical needs of a rapidly expanding population that wanted entertainment. And this coincided, once again, with technological advances that made it possible to produce plentiful, cheap wire. This occurred hand-in-hand with the astonishingly fast conquest and subdivision of the American landmass by hordes of settlers who needed inexpensive wire fencing to mark land boundaries and keep cattle from wandering onto neighbors’ lands. As wire for fences was produced in massive quantities, so could wire strings be made for guitars.

Those early metal-strung guitars were made simply, cheaply, and in large quantities in the factories and production shops of the day. The guitar’s appeal was that one could learn to play it more easily than a violin or piano. It made chordal harmonies that were pleasant to listen to, and it could be used to accompany singing, which made it a social instrument. Moreover, metal strings would last a long time compared to gut ones, and they were much cheaper. With the advent of metal strings, the guitar became an accessible, affordable, popular, and successful folk instrument.

Nylon strings were developed in the 1940s after the DuPont company accidentally discovered nylon in 1930. Some practical uses for it turned out to be in nylon stockings (silk ran too easily) and nylon monofilament for fishing lines. In fact, the first musicians to put nylon fishing line on their guitars (in lieu of the more expensive gut) were the fishermen-musicians of the Spanish Mediterranean seaports. We owe these practical and hardy individuals a debt of gratitude, for without them, the classical guitar would today be the province of a very limited enclave of enthusiasts and pretty much out of financial reach of almost everyone else.

One of the first guitar makers to establish himself in the United States was a transplanted German woodworker, C.F. Martin, whose great-grandson now presides over the Martin factories. While there have been many steel-string guitar makers and innumerable steel-string models, it has been the Martin brand more than any other—and especially the Martin dreadnought guitar—that really put the steel-string flattop on the map, just as Henry Ford put the early automobile on the map. The Martin dreadnought is easily the most recognized and copied steel-string in the world.

In my next column, we’ll continue investigating the history and evolution of the steel-string. I hope you’ll join me then!


Ervin Somogyi
A professional luthier since the early 1970s, Ervin Somogyi is one of the world’s most respected acoustic-guitar builders and rosette designers. To learn more about Somogyi, his instruments, or his rosette and inlay artwork, visit esomogyi.com.
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