Early Southern Guitar Sounds: A Brief History of the Guitar and Its Travel South

June 2016
Mike Seeger

By Mike Seeger, ed. Carla Borden

To learn more and read the rest of the liner notes for Early Southern Guitar Styles, click here


A Brief History of the Guitar and Its Travel South

At guitar-teaching sessions back in the 1960s, many of us were curious about how this instrument came into use amongst Southern workers and rural dwellers. Our guesses were often "I don't know," with some of us wondering whether it came up through New Orleans or Mexico. Although that may be a possibility for the Southwest, for most of the country the guitar came from the makers, importers, and factories in the North and Midwest.

We know quite a bit more now, mostly through published histories of several guitar makers such as Martin, Ashborn, Lyon and Healey, Gibson, Stella, and a few others. Very few of these books touch on the history of the less expensive guitars that the majority, the working-class people, played. How the guitar came into widespread use in the South is a subject not much written about as far as I know, but I'll try to present a story based on known facts with some possibilities. I'll do my best to be clear as to fact and speculation.

The guitar is related to a variety of European string instruments, including the lute, cittern, and vihuela, with roots that may go back to the Roman cithara or Arabic oud. By about 1800 it had become standardized with six strings, often tuned as it is today. It became a popular parlor instrument in Europe by the late 18th century, and its popularity later spread to cities and towns in the new United States. Guitars and a few teacher/performers and makers came from Europe, along with working-class immigrants who helped make the instruments and played them. C.F. Martin, who emigrated from Germany in the 1830s, is the best known of these early makers, and his company is still thriving in Pennsylvania. In those early days makers like Martin turned out only a few guitars a year, perhaps twenty or thirty, and they were expensive, costing about as much as an average worker would earn in a month. In the late 1840s an Englishman, James Ashborn, established a small guitar factory in Connecticut, apparently using some of the methods from the then-developing industrial revolution. For about fifteen years he could turn out as many as 1,000 well-made, practically identical guitars each year, mostly marketed through New York City music stores whose names were stamped inside. They weren't usually as fancy or expensive as the Martins.

An Ashborn or Martin, like many of the imported guitars of the 1840s and 1850s, was small by today's standards, about the size of a Martin style 3. (That's six sizes smaller than today's standard "Dreadnought" guitar.) They were very light, used gut and wound strings (no steel), and had either straight-through wooden friction pegs or geared pegs and the old-style cone-shaped heel. Many had the old fan-shaped bracing under the top. Their tone was warm and well balanced, and they were responsive to finger picking, typically thumb and two or three fingers at that time. They weren't as loud as today's instruments.

Most of these guitars were intended for use in parlor music learned from written manuscripts and teaching manuals. When you see drawings or photographs of guitar players of this period, they're often women, and they're usually in a middle- or upper-class parlor setting, even if they're socializing or partying. Of course, drawing or photographing such scenes would have been most likely a parlor activity. I assume that these parlors were generally in cities or small towns throughout the relatively settled parts of our young country.

Guitars also turned up occasionally in minstrel shows of the mid-19th century. We know very little about the use of the guitar by everyday working-class or farming people.

The last quarter of the 19th century saw some fundamental changes in America, all of which furthered the democratization of the guitar.

The turmoil following the Civil War was transforming Southern life. Industrialization was beginning, leading to urbanization and giving former rural dwellers money in their pockets. For those who remained on the farm, cash crops established their part of the dollar economy.

Traveling salesmen and general stores were becoming active in small towns. Towards the end of the century, railroads and a postal system made possible mail order of almost anything, including guitars.

Emancipation gave African Americans some measure of freedom of movement and livelihood for the first time. It freed black musical creativity. General consciousness of black music and singing could be less subject to white interpretation than in the heyday of the minstrel shows. Songsmiths had been turning out American songs that would often more appropriately be accompanied by guitar than banjo. (The Carter Family and other old-time musicians would record a lot of these songs in the 1920s and 1930s.) Community-made music continued to be popular in rural areas, especially throughout the South.

Musical tastes were evolving.

Over the coming decades the guitar would prove itself the most versatile, expressive, portable, affordable, and accessible musical instrument for both amateurs and the most adventurous professional musicians.

The guitar itself had been increasing in size for a while, and its durability was being improved as well. The contemporary heel design replaced the weak "cone" style, which eventually made steel stringing more feasible. Fan bracing of the top was abandoned in favor of the Martin "X" bracing or the "ladder" bracing of most inexpensive guitars. And due to about fifty years of enormous advances in the making of steel wire, inexpensive steel guitar strings became available by the 1890s.

Although guitar makers in small shops continued their work, guitar factories were established, possibly following Ashborn's success at industrializing American guitar production. The Ditson Company of Boston was a very influential early leader with the Tilton and Haynes brands. It also helped establish the eventually mammoth Lyon and Healey Music Company in the Chicago area with its Washburn and countless other brands. Later, also in Chicago, Harmony and Regal produced huge numbers of inexpensive instruments. And of course around the turn of the century in the Jersey City and New York City areas the Oscar Schmidt Company built equally huge numbers of mostly inexpensive instruments under a variety of names: the fabled Stella, also Sovereign, some that bore the Galiano name, and others.

Factory production made possible the very inexpensive guitars that were offered by mail order houses and furniture or music stores from about 1890 onward. The advent of the three-dollar guitar put the instrument into the hands of a player for the equivalent of three or four days' wages rather than the month's required for a Martin or Haynes. These instruments were made for the most part in large factories, sometimes supplied by small makers of parts in areas near the main factory. They were made simply of cheap, plentiful domestic woods such as birch and oak, and by 1900 or so had steel strings, simple "ladder" bracing, and sometimes rudimentary paint finish either to look like more expensive woods or for decoration. Ladder bracing, inexpensive woods, and especially steel strings also gave the guitar a brasher sound that could compete and mix with a banjo or fiddle; it was no longer a shy, quiet, refined instrument for "well-trained ladies."

It's generally thought that many of the factory workers were European immigrants; after all, we were a country of immigrants, especially then. Some were production-line workers, and others were experienced woodworkers and could make some pretty fancy, reasonably priced instruments, marketed by the same manufacturers. We can wonder about who designed these influential mass-produced instruments; we know little about guitar and string manufacturing of this period. At present there's no reliable estimate of the number of guitars sold by these early factories- they were just doing business- but the numbers, possibly in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfed the small output of pre-1890s makers, and the accessibility of the instrument made possible momentous musical developments.

Evidence of working-class playing of these guitars is sparse during this period. I cam across one intriguing, reliable report by writer Lafcadio Hearn describing an African American string band consisting of "a cracked violin, a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol" at a lively 1875 waterfront square dance in Cincinnati. (On another occasion a band there consisted of fiddle, banjo, and bass viol.) I think it's significant that this combination of instruments appeared at an African American dance only a decade after emancipation. Such a band would have likely also played for European American dances. This suggests that the guitar was beginning to enter Southern working-class music by that time, at least in some commercial river towns. It's hard to imagine, though, how one of those little guitars, almost certainly with gut strings, would fare during a whole night of spirited dance music. A complete set of steel strings for guitars or banjos would have been extremely unlikely then.

Although we have reports and photos of guitar players in the late 19th century, they can only suggest the musical story. A photo of formally dressed European American mandolin and guitar players in a parlor setting suggests formal written music; a three-piece group (also formally dressed) of African American musicians- fiddler, banjoist, and guitar player- at an 1895 outing in the Virginia mountains suggests a more rural style. A group of Ohio Civil War-period soldiers, posed for a photograph in a field with instruments that included guitar, violin, banjo, triangle, and bones, probably played minstrel-based music, but we can barely imagine their sound.

We can only wonder why the banjo maintained such popularity from about 1840 into the beginning of the following century, overshadowing the guitar, especially in the rural areas. Was it the brash otherness, the minstrel shows, its ease of playing? Certainly in the country the banjo could be homemade, especially since it required no frets. And it had been around in the South for a long time as an African American instrument. The 19th-century guitar was more expensive, fragile, and needed to be professionally made. Perhaps for a while it was a matter of fashion and preference, especially in the Southern countryside.

The guitar's journey from a literate parlor instrument to a "by ear," working-class instrument was slow but gained momentum after 1900, within a continuing story of industrialization and urbanization. The efforts to increase loudness led to changes in the instrument. Sizes increased further, some makers experimenting briefly with enormous, unwieldy guitars such as Lyon and Healey's "Monster Guitar," more than six inches larger at the lower bout than today's typical Dreadnought. The same company designed and advertised its "Lakeside Jumbo" with dimensions practically identical to the first Ditson Dreadnaughts (that's the old Martin spelling) built several years later (in 1916) by Martin. Eventually, in the early 1930s, Martin joined in the competition, building the instrument under its own name which after about 1950 became the standard guitar size. The arch-top guitar evolved around 1900, produced mostly by the Gibson Company in Michigan. The resophonic guitars, Dobro and National, were invented in the late 1920s, and they became popular as both Hawaiian-style and regular fretted models. Steel strings became the standard around 1900 for most mass-produced inexpensive guitars, the kind that most old-time music was played on. As guitar sizes increased and steel strings became the norm, picks (which had been around for a while) became more necessary, especially to move the bigger pieces of wood. Southerners enthusiastically embraced many of these developments and the increasing availabiltiy of guitars to create new forms of music.

Around the turn of the century within the African American community, the guitar was being adapted to ragtime and jazz in the towns and cities and playing a critical role in the creation of the blues in the deep South. The Hawaiian-style guitar music fad of the mid-1910s spread throughout the country into Southern music and has been a part of it ever since. The guitar was gradually taking the place of both the melody playing of the fiddle and the rhythm accompaniment of the banjo. The electronic microphone, which was developed in the mid-1920s, made successful recording as well as radio broadcast of the guitar possible, and then popular. By the 1930s the fiddle or fiddle-banjo ensemble sound was giving way to the guitar or sometimes mandolin melody playing, always with guitar accompaniment. The guitar was becoming people's favorite instrument from home to stage.