Richard Johnston, co-founder of the venerable Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, CA, was recently interviewed by The Collectors Weekly web site.
Johnston has earned a reputation as a luthier, and particularly as an historian and appraiser of vintage acoustic instruments. He is seen on episodes of the popular PBS show, Antiques Roadshow, and is a contributing editor at Acoustic Guitar magazine.
The Collectors Weekly interview is an in-depth discussion, covering the history of acoustic guitars in the United States, focusing primarily on Martin and Gibson. The audience for this article seems to be interested collectors without a deep knowledge of the vintage instrument market, so much of the information will be familiar to serious students of acoustic guitar, but it serves as an excellent introduction for those seeking to understand this realm.
From the beginning instrument makers sought ways to make their guitars louder. These guitars were strung with gut strings similar to violin strings, but longer. A small gut-string guitar isn’t very loud compared to the instruments it might accompany such as the mandolin—which was always strung with steel strings—the piano, the violin, horns, and woodwinds. It’s a highly portable instrument, extremely versatile, comparatively easy to learn to play, but it just wasn’t loud enough to hold its own, especially outdoors.
So there was an immediate push to make bigger guitars, string them with steel, and make them louder. The quest for volume dominates guitar development from the 1880s to around the 1930s, when they figured out how to make resonator devices—a mechanical diaphragm that vibrated in a metal body and amplified the sound—for what became Dobro and National brand guitars. Of course, magnetic pickups eventually came along, and the search for volume has primarily been in that direction ever since.
Since both the guitar and mandolin were so portable, it was very easy for two people to travel around and entertain in almost any situation. In fact, two Martin brothers performed on mandolin and guitar shortly after the turn of the 20th century, as did many others, sometimes with a vocalist. Around the same time, it was popular for people to write songs and record them. Of course it’s much easier to sing with accompaniment. And if you can accompany yourself on guitar, then the money doesn’t have to be split two ways.
Interesting stuff. Read the complete interview at www.collectorsweekly.com.