A member of the family of musical instruments called chordophones, the guitar is a stringed instrument with which sound is produced by "plucking" a series of strings running along the instrument's body. While the strings are plucked with one hand, they are simultaneously fingered with the other hand against frets, which are metal strips located on the instrument's neck. The subsequent sound is amplified through a resonating body. There are four general categories of acoustic (non-electric) guitars: flat-top steel-stringed, arched top, classic, and flamenco.
References to guitar-like instruments date back many centuries, and virtually every society throughout history has been found to have used a variation of the instrument. The forerunner of today's guitars were single-string bows developed during early human history. In sections of Asia and Africa, bows of this type have been unearthed in archaeological digs of ancient civilizations. Interestingly, one of these discoveries included an ancient Hittite carving—dating back more than 3,000 years—that depicted an instrument bearing many of the same features of today's guitar: the curves of the body, a flat top with an incurred arc of five sound holes on either side, and a long fretted neck that ran the entire length of the body.
As music technology developed, more strings were added to the early guitars. A four-string variety (named guitarra latina) existed in Spain in the late thirteenth century. The guitarra latina closely resembled the ancient Hittite carving except that the instrument now included a bridge that held the strings as they passed over the soundhole. When a fifth string was added in the early sixteenth century, the guitar's popularity exploded. A sixth string (bass E) was added near the end of 1700s, an evolution that brought the instrument closer to its present day functioning. The Carulli guitar of 1810 was one of the first to have six single strings tuned to notes in the present arrangement: E A D G B E.
Guitar technology finally made its way to the United States in the early nineteenth century, with Charles Friedrich Martin, a German guitar maker who emigrated to New York in 1833, leading the way. In the early 1900s, the Martin Company—now located in Nazareth, Pennsylvania—produced larger guitars that still adhered to the design of the classic models, especially the Spanish guitar. Another company, the Gibson company, followed suit and began to produce large steel-string guitars with arched fronts and backs. Known as the cello guitar, this brand of instrument produced a sound more suited for jazz and dance clubs. Another major innovation of the early 1900s was the use of magnetic pickups fitted beneath the strings by which sound traveled through a wire into an amplifier. These instruments would later evolve into electric guitars.
The guitar industry is in virtual agreement on the woods used for the various parts of the instrument. The back and sides of the guitar's body are usually built with East Indian or Brazilian rosewood. Historically, Brazilian rosewood has been the choice of connoisseurs. However, in an attempt to preserve the wood's dwindling supply, the Brazilian government
The top (or soundboard) of the guitar is traditionally constructed of Alpine spruce, although American Sika spruce has become popular among U.S. manufacturers. Cedar and redwood are often substituted for spruce, although these woods are soft and easily damaged during construction.
The neck, which must resist distortion by the pull of the strings and changes in temperature and humidity, is constructed from mahogany and joins the body between the fourteenth and twelfth frets. Ideally, the fingerboard is made of ebony, but rosewood is often used as a less expensive alternative. Most modern guitars use strings made of some type of metal (usually steel).
The first and most important step in guitar construction is wood selection. The choice of wood will directly affect the sound quality of the finished product. The wood must be free of flaws and have a straight, vertical grain. Since each section of the guitar uses different types of woods, the construction process varies from section to section. Following is a description of the manufacture of a typical acoustic guitar.
A separate but closely related group of guitars is the electric guitar, which uses a device known as a pickup —a magnet surrounded by wire—to convert the energy from string vibrations into an electrical signal. The signal is sent to an amplifier, where it is boosted thousands of times. The body of an electric guitar has little impact on the quality of sound produced, as the amplifier controls both the quality and loudness of the sound. Acoustic guitars can also be fitted with electric pickups, and there are some models available today that already have the pickup built into the body.
Most guitar manufacturers are small, highly personal companies that stress detail and quality. Each company does its own research and testing, which virtually insure the customer of a flawless guitar. During the past few decades, the guitar industry has become more mechanized, allowing for greater speed, higher consistency and lower pricing. Although purists resist mechanization, a well-trained workman using machine tools can usually produce a higher-quality instrument than a craftsman working alone. The final testing procedures at most manufactures are quite stringent; only the best guitars leave the plant, and more than one person makes the final determination as to which instruments are shipped out and which are rejected.
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— Jim Acton