The guitar in its various forms has to be the instrument that has made itself welcome in the most diverse array of musical styles. Its distinction is that unlike the stringed instruments of the violin family, it is fretted, meaning that very precisely pitched notes can be played without requiring millimetre-perfect fingering as the gap between the frets can be pressed almost anywhere. Skilled players can even recreate the beautiful vibrato effect by altering the pressure on the strings, and technological advances like the tremolo arm on electric guitars have extended this dynamism even further.
Another key feature of the fretted nature of the guitar is that chords can easily be made that sound true and harmonious, rather like a piano. This makes the guitar ideal for both rhythmic backing music and slow, emotional chords broken down into their distinct plucked notes.
The guitar’s ancestry is quite mysterious, with influences as far afield as India, the Middle East and northern Africa playing their part, but what is clear is that the instrument is related to the lute and the sitar, as well as younger relatives the mandolins, balalaikas, ukuleles and various cousins such as banjos. In the western mind, however, the guitar is most readily associated historically with Spain, whose charged flamenco music is enjoyed to this day.
In the 1950s, however, a revolution in guitaring happened that still shows few signs of abating. It was, of course, rock’n’roll, helped by the development of the electric guitar. As soon as the world saw Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochrane, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly strumming their stuff, and as it happened to coincide with a new-found optimism after the dreary and crippling years of war and austerity, a scene was started that would lead to a whole new music industry. The original rock’n’roll bands developed direct from blues and folk acts whose bassist would play a large, cumbersome double bass, so the development of the electric bass, an octave lower than the guitar and with only four strings, was inevitable – and with drums and vocals, it completed the classic rock line up.
Rock’n’roll would later fracture into dozens of exciting styles of music including the dizzy psychedelic sounds of the sixties; the grinding, energetic heavy metal sound; punk; indie; prog rock; protest songs; and all but the most hardcore electronic music acts would feature at least some guitar in their repertoire. Jazz and blues, not surprisingly, made excellent use of the electric guitar, too, generating new movements in those older genres. With the popularity of the electric axe came a new-found respect for the acoustic guitar; pop musicians who had learnt to play on the easier electric guitar found new expression on its elder sibling, and folk artists such as Bob Dylan made their names playing acoustic.
This is not to say that classical guitar music has faded away; far from it. The best classically trained guitarists are just as renowned crowd-pullers as are the virtuosos of violin, piano and voice and the instrument retains its important position among high-brow music aficionados. And it’s hard to imagine it going away any time soon.