For our first three articles in this Music section of the magazine, we’ve focussed on the piano. Which is the chosen instrument of most composers and songwriters today and across the decades. However, if there’s a second most popular instrument for songwriting, it would definitely be the guitar.
Recently used popularly by artists such as Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, the guitar was originally a Spanish instrument used during the 16th century. There had been similar instruments previously, which were also described as guitars, but this was the earliest that any bared close resemblance to modern acoustic guitars. The guitar has since been a major part of a variety of different musical movements, styles and genres through time. The acoustic guitar was famously played by Bob Dylan and is important in the singer-songwriter, folk and country styles, while electric guitars were popularised by rock and roll music, before they were claimed by more modern rock musicians such as Slash, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. This shows how versatile a single instrument can be, with various different types of guitar suited to different artists and genres.
The acoustic guitar is made up of a hollow body, which makes the sound resonate, increasing the guitar volume, tuning pegs, which tighten the strings, and a neck with various frets on it. Each fret relates to a specific note on the guitar. When the strings are tightened, plucking the strings makes a higher sound, and when loosened a lower sound. Each string is also of a different thickness. The thicker the string, the lower the sound. The thickness of the string, the tightness of the string, and which fret it is held at determine the note that is played. Each string is generally tuned so that when it is not being held down at a fret, it plays a particular note. The lowest note is an E, which is when the top string is played without holding down a fret. The highest note is also an E, which is when the bottom string is played, holding it at the 12th fret. These Es are however 3 octaves apart in pitch. There are various different types of tuning for which this won’t apply, but standard tuning, where the untouched strings play EADGBE is the most commonly used.
The electric guitar first started to become popular during the rock and roll movement of the 50s. These did not have the larger hollow body of the acoustic guitar, but were instead made of a thinner block of solid wood. Because of this, they needed another mechanism of making the sound resonate, so pick-ups were used. Pick-ups are like small microphones which record the sound of the string being played so that when plugged into an amplifier, the sound can be played back much louder. Because of this, when playing electric guitar, the amplifier used is just as important in the final sound as the guitar itself is. There are various other effects that can be applied to electric guitar sounds through the amplifier, giving it a more unique sound, and many of these can be heard in classic rock songs. The electro-acoustic guitar is now becoming popular. This is an acoustic guitar that also features pick-ups to amplify the sound, so that when plugged in to an amp, the acoustic guitar sound can be amplified, and there is also the possibility of giving the guitar a slightly more metallic sound like that of an electric guitar, and applying those effects typically only used on electric guitars. While guitars usually have 6 strings, there are also guitars with a greater number, which can increase the playable range, or sometimes can be used to give the music a different sound.
While this article has been a brief introduction to the differences in the design of guitars, in the next article I’m going to look at some reasons why the guitar may be a popular choice for songwriters, some techniques used when playing the guitar, and I’ll consider how it works so well with so many different styles of music.
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