Despitesome of its challenges preceding the 20th century, the guitar hasovercome the negative assessments of its critics and become the most globallyubiquitous string instrument of contemporary times. The success of the guitar owesto various factors such as its portability, availability, inexpensive nature,and in particular: its versatility, which enabled the instrument to quicklybecome a part of, and later represent, local cultures upon exposure. The aim ofthis essay is to discuss some of these factors that contributed to the vast popularityand usage of the guitar with reference to its development in three differentmusical cultures. Asignificant factor that contributed to the popularity of the guitar inpost-twentieth century Europe was the modification of the Spanish guitar inSpain itself. The reception of the guitar in the early 19th centuryEurope was both disappointing and harsh: critics often found fault with thelegitimacy of the guitar as a concert instrument, due to its weak volume andgender-specific nature that appealed “first and foremost” to women as a”domestic amateur instrument”.1 Whilst the soft volume ofthe small-bodied 19th century guitar allowed for its popularityamongst Parisians as being romantic and fashionable2, it impeded its potentialto be heard in concerts when performed in the company of other instruments.3 It was the development ofa larger-bodied guitar with a wider fingerboard by the Spanish luthier Antoniode Torres at the end of the 19th century, together with the techniquesdeveloped by the Spanish virtuoso guitarist Francisco Tárrega to suit this newversion of the instrument, that allowed for its amplified use as a concertinstrument.
4Tárrega also produced transcriptions of fine music by great composers such asBach, Beethoven and Mozart; adding to the surge of interest in the classicalguitar and its newly attained potential for public performance.5 The 20thcentury Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia is also an important figure in thepromotion of the guitar as a global phenomenon, and is known for his dedicationin establishing the guitar in concert to international audiences.6 Theportability of the guitar meant that early settlers and travellers contributedgreatly to its worldwide propagation. Moreover, the exposure to many differentcultures allowed for a sense of dynamic versatility to be achieved, which meantthat the instrument was able to attain the unique characteristic of being’glocal’; that is, globally standardised, yet constantly evolving due to the”dynamic interplay of the local and the global”.
7 Such was the case inlate 19th century Hawaii, where the Spanish guitar was modified tocreate the steel guitar: an adaptation which appropriately reflected theintegration of the Ancient Hawaiian and Western music cultures.8 The use of a steel bar overthe strings allowed for the imitation of vocal devices, such as vibrato, thatwere used in Ancient Hawaiian chants. Such “singing qualities” of the Hawaiiansteel guitar, which were combined with the Western musical framework, createdan ideal accompanying instrument to songs with traditional Hawaiian vocals andEnglish lyrics. Such songs were received with explosive popularity, and led tothe mass exportation of steel guitars to the United States. Mass commercialmanufacturing of the steel guitar inevitably became of great interest soonthereafter, allowing for its ubiquitous distribution in contemporary America.9 Uponits arrival in the southern United States at the end of the 19thcentury, the Hawaiian steel guitar was received with enthusiasm by the bluestradition – a deep-rooted, pre-existing African American musical culture.10 The African Americansput their own local spin to the culturally mobile, ever-evolving instrument;creating the blues slide guitar, which soon gave way to the rise of theelectric guitar and rhythm ‘n’ bluesin northern US cities such as Chicago.11 Furthermore, theAfrican American blues were greatly influential to young white Britishguitarists during the post-World War II British ‘blues bloom’ in the 1960s.
12 Through the rising ofstars such as Eric Clapton and the Beatles during this period, the guitar’spopularity further heightened and pervaded across the Atlantic. Indeed,the versatility of the guitar to be moulded by different cultures and eras hasshown to be a primary factor in its worldwide success. Not only is the guitarportable and inexpensive, but it also provides as a medium for presenting the ever-evolvingflux between global and local musical cultures. Whilst the fundamentalstructure of the guitar has been retained itself across the globe, culturalvariations have led to various forms such as the steel guitar, classical guitarand electric guitar; appealing to many different types of cultures. Therefore, the’glocal’ nature of the guitar compares to the formality and static nature ofother classical string instruments: setting the guitar apart in its unique positionas a global phenomenon of contemporary times.13