The Evolution of the North American Guitar

Topics: Guitar, Blues, Steel-string acoustic guitar Pages: 6 (2372 words) Published: June 1, 2013
The Performer, the Instrument Maker, and the instrument |
The Evolution of the North American Steel String Guitar; Meeting the Needs of and Helping to Fuel the Creative Process of African American Musicians.| |
Bob Shields|


For: Professor Robert Witmer
Class: 5140, 2012F; African American Music
Student Number: 210232338

Often the creative product of an individual within a musical framework reflects not only his or her own creative behavior but the creative expression afforded by the instrument and the facilitation of that creativity contributed by the instrument maker. This is certainly the case when one looks at the early African American rural blues and songster musicians and the luthiers that developed the North American steel string guitar that functioned as the primary vehicle of instrumental artistic expression in those art forms. This paper will explore the connection between the performer, instrument maker, and the instrument, and the creative product that resulted in an expression of the African American experience. I will also highlight parts of the creative process in the evolution of the steel string guitar in America that may benefit educators and students in terms of leading them to look beyond the familiar when inspired, in order to facilitate their creative needs. If you were to listen to the music of early 20th century African American rural blues players and songsters played on steel string guitars and juxtapose it with guitar music of European tradition played by the white middle class players of the Spanish classical guitar, many differences would be immediately audible. The steel string guitar was louder, brighter sounding, and provided the player with increased ability to sustain notes, bend pitches, and add more percussive qualities. The Steel string guitar was also played with a new technique that evolved to help express the new music being played on it. Understanding the evolution of the Steel String guitar and the music it facilitated means understanding at least some brief facts about early guitar history in North America. The popular Spanish (classical) gut string guitar had been first been brought to North America in the sixteen hundreds and was an instrument that was used by the white middle class. Its popularity rose the 1830s when “white middle class Americans still influenced by what cultural trends were happening in London eagerly adopted an English fad for the guitar” (Bradford 2009). “The most popular professional guitarists in America during the 1830s and 1840s, such as G.E. Bini, John Coupa and Dolores Nevares de Goni, were European musicians performing in the prevailing European style” (Bradford 2009). An article from Washington, D.C. Daily National Journal in 1831 noted the “extraordinary fascination and currency this favourite instrument has acquired in fashionable circles” (Bradford 2009). By the 1840’s middle class blacks were also adopting the guitar. “A monograph on the black middle class from 1841 notes ‘It is rarely that the Visitor in the different families where there are 2 or 3 ladies will not find one or more of them competent to perform on the pianoforte, guitar or some other appropriate musical instrument’”(Bradford 2009). There is some evidence, however, “that the guitar was also being played by at least some working class African Americans in the south as early as the 1830’s, although it did not surge in popularity until the 1880’s” (Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues, London, 1969, 13). Over time, sophisticated urban musicians began displacing the European repertoire and began playing American ‘roots’ music (Bradford 2009). By the 1850s, guitarists were featured with many leading blackface minstrel troupes (Bradford 2009). Middle class African-Americans, like their white counterparts, had been swept up in the European craze for the guitar that seized America in the 1830s. Following the lead of the middle class, the...
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