The first incarnation of the modern guitar appeared during the early 19th century. Its long, fretted neck with six strings distinguished it from its forebears, which usually had 4 or 5 strings. One could argue that its roots were formed over 5000 years earlier, when stringed instruments such as the tanbur and the bowl harp first appeared in the modern record. The acoustic guitar as we know it today came from the development of bracing, which allowed for the production of larger, more robust bodies, techniques which saw major advances throughout the 19th century. Steel strings first made an appearance on the scene around the beginning of the 20th century; previously strings had been made out of hair or animal intestines (gut strings). The modern equivalents of gut strings are made of nylon.
The guitar’s popularity grew, and by the 1920s there was increasing demand to make it louder. This just so happened at a time when advances in electronic circuitry were taking place — particularly through the use of tubes, or “thermionic valves” as the British called them — leading to the development of early amplification. George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker invented the first pickup around 1931, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The electric guitar was an immediate success, and players from all genres took to it. Nashville guitarists played an important part in the evolution of not only the style of playing and techniques utilized with electric guitars, but also the sonic landscapes that can be created by playing an electric guitar through an amplifier. Some of these early contributors lived at Mom Upchurch’s, which is profiled at length in the companion piece to our cover feature.
The time frame from invention to ubiquity is a relatively short one if you think about it. From 1931 to February 9, 1961 — the date The Beatles made their debut under that name at The Cavern Club in Liverpool — is only 30 years. The ’60s saw the guitarist move from sideman to cultural icon, and spawned a generation of guitar-driven garage bands.
Today there are dozens, if not hundreds, of boutique guitar manufactures, amp makers, pedal builders, and so on. Tones for this and tones for that and whatever. But if you ask any of the players featured here, to a person they’ll tell you none of that really matters at the end of the day. Great playing comes from the heart. Period. End of story.
In pulling this issue together, I didn’t have a “hierarchy” of whom to include or whom not to include. To cover all the players on the Eastside — much less Nashville — worthy of recognition would take far more space than we have. I’ve known or known of most of these guys for years. I felt like the best approach would be to focus on the essence — what is it that inspired this very diverse group of individuals to start playing the guitar, and how has that shaped their playing and their lives.
I’d like to thank all the players for being involved — without hesitation I might add, and the writers for “getting it” and helping to keep this thing on track.
I especially want to thank Jay Joyce for his down-to-earth, no-bullshit encouragement; Eric England for hanging in there as my spiritual visualizer; and Stacie Huckeba for a killer cover shot.