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