Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Guitar in America

The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age

Jeffrey J. Noonan
Copyright Date: 2008
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Guitar in America
    Book Description:

    The Guitar in Americaoffers a history of the instrument from America\'s late Victorian period to the Jazz Age. The narrative traces America\'s BMG (banjo, mandolin, and guitar) community, a late nineteenth-century musical and com-mercial movement dedicated to introducing these instru-ments into America\'s elite musical establishments.

    Using surviving BMG magazines, the author details an almost unknown history of the guitar during the movement\'s heyday, tracing the guitar\'s transformation from a refined parlor instrument to a mainstay in jazz and popular music. In the process, he not only introduces musicians (including numerous women guitarists) who led the movement, but also examines new techniques and instruments. Chapters consider the BMG movement\'s impact on jazz and popular music, the use of the guitar to promote attitudes towards women and minorities, and the challenges foreign guitarists such as Miguel Llobet and Andres Segovia presented to America\'s musicians.

    This volume opens a new chapter on the guitar in America, considering its cultivated past and documenting how banjoists and mandolinists aligned their instruments to it in an effort to raise social and cultural standing. At the same time, the book considers the BMG community within America\'s larger musical scene, examining its efforts as manifestations of this country\'s uneasy coupling of musical art and commerce.

    Jeffrey J. Noonan, associate professor of music at Southeast Missouri State University, has performed professionally on classical guitar, Renaissance lute, Baroque guitar, and theorbo for over twenty-five years. His articles have appeared inSoundboardandNYlon Review.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-302-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-6)

    In the second half of the twentieth century, the guitar became America’s instrument. In the hands of innovators like Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Merle Travis, Jimi Hendrix, and a host of other players, the instrument helped define—and was in turn defined by—America’s music: country, blues, jazz, and rock in all its varieties. These players and their music did not develop in a vacuum. They had predecessors, they were heirs to traditions; and, if we do our homework or our fieldwork, we can find their roots, discovering stylistic bloodlines. In Maybelle Carter’s “Wildwood Flower” we hear the hillbilly roots...

  5. Chapter One THE GUITAR IN AMERICA TO 1880
    (pp. 7-20)

    Histories of musical instruments, with rare exceptions, document their organological evolution, repertoires, or significant and innovative performers. In most cases, the histories of the guitar in America favor the organological approach, primarily because the physical instruments themselves have weathered the past two hundred years better than the music and reputations of American guitar composers and players. These studies focus primarily on the guitar’s design and construction, with particular emphasis on brand names and instrument types. Prices for historic and “collectable” American guitars soared in the late twentieth century, contributing to an interest in old instruments as much for their investment...

  6. Chapter Two INTERLUDE: The BMG Movement—The Sources
    (pp. 21-40)

    Beginning in the early 1880s, the guitar entered a new period of popularity, this time in the carefully orchestrated company of the banjo and, eventually, the mandolin. Highlighting the similarity of playing techniques, instrument manufacturers and music publishers created a fictional family of plucked instruments, identifying them as the “trio” or “plectral” instruments. By the early years of the twentieth century, these businessmen identified themselves, their customers, and others devoted to the plectral instruments as the banjo, mandolin, and guitar (BMG) movement.¹

    Although dedicated in principle to musical instruments and music-making, the BMG movement—reflecting the values of America’s musical...

  7. Chapter Three THE GUITAR IN THE BMG MOVEMENT 1880–1900
    (pp. 41-60)

    The BMG movement instigated by S. S. Stewart grew out of the two great themes of his life—unstinting devotion to the banjo and an unrelenting desire to make money. Given this dedication to the banjo and to business, later readers should recognize that the guitar’s appearance inS. S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journalserved principally to support the publisher’s goals. Stewart himself implied as much when guitarists requested more articles about their instrument in his magazine. He reminded them that his periodical was “published on the one hand as an advertising medium for our business; and on the...

  8. Chapter Four INTERLUDE: A New Generation of Guitarists
    (pp. 61-76)

    The history of the guitar in America remains largely a history of players. Before the late twentieth century no important American composer wrote for the guitar and no American guitarist achieved any lasting reputation as a composer. Although the guitar had enjoyed some popularity in this country before 1850, only after the 1870s did American-born guitarists begin to garner attention as teachers, performers, and composers. Some of them achieved sufficient technical polish and sophistication, in fact, to warrant inclusion in Philip Bone’s influential, international, and encyclopedicGuitar and Mandolin: Biographies of Celebrated Players and Composers, first published in 1914. Despite...

  9. Chapter five TRANSITIONS: From the Parlor to the Concert Hall
    (pp. 77-95)

    Following S. S. Stewart’s unexpected death in 1898, his heirs and business partners succeeded in keeping the business, including hisJournal, afloat for several years into the new century. But conflicts arose among the different parties (at one point leading to the publication of both a New York and a PhiladelphiaStewart’s Journal), and the business and periodical eventually expired. In some ways,Stewart’shad outlived its original purpose, for beginning in the early 1890s the BMG community underwent a dramatic change in its musical and commercial focus.

    By the turn of the new century, the mandolin had replaced the...

  10. Chapter Six INTERLUDE: The Guitar as Icon
    (pp. 96-116)

    In recent years cultural historians have expended considerable energy “reading” the guitar, especially the electric guitar, for its symbolic value. By examining not just the instrument’s sounds, but its appearance, its uses, and what is said or written about it, observers have interpreted the guitar as an icon capable of conveying important cultural information. As a result, scholars and social critics have identified the guitar in the second half of the twentieth century as a conveyor of authenticity and sincerity (through the acoustic steel-string guitar of the rural bluesman or urban folkie), youthful rebellion (in the solid-body electric played by...

  11. Chapter Seven A NEW INSTRUMENT
    (pp. 117-137)

    The nineteenth century witnessed important changes in the construction of musical instruments as growing audiences for public concerts in Europe and America filled larger and larger venues. These larger halls created a need for more powerful instruments, leading to the development of reconfigured bowed instruments capable of carrying higher-tension strings, more powerful winds and brass, as well as larger pianos built around larger, heavier, and stiffer steel frames. The guitar, too, underwent alterations in this period, but proved more difficult to update than most other instruments. As a result, for most of the century, the guitar remained an intimate instrument...

  12. Chapter Eight INTERLUDE: The Wizard and The Grand Lady
    (pp. 138-154)

    Since the 1960s popular guitar players have regularly become cultural icons, with musicians such as Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton achieving the status of pop music divinities. As seen in chapter 4, the BMG movement also had its share of acclaimed guitarists, some of whom achieved local and regional distinction, while others including Johnson Bane, Jennie Durkee, and C. W. F. Jansen became national figures. None, however, garnered the notoriety heaped on Vahdah Olcott-Bickford and William Foden as performers, teachers, composer/arrangers, historians, and musical authorities. And while their acclaim seems miniscule when compared to that given later pop figures, these...

    (pp. 155-171)

    For much of the BMG era, players had prided themselves on their ability to play several (if not many) of the plectral instruments, but through the teens other BMG promoters followed Vahdah Olcott-Bickford’s lead, encouraging musicians to focus their energies on one instrument.¹ This specialization eventually extended to the multiple forms of the guitar, and although some American guitarists played both classical and plectrum guitar, by the mid-1920s the two instruments and their repertoires were recognized within the BMG community as distinct. This divide between plectrum players with steel-strung guitars and fingerpicking classical guitarists with gut-strung instruments mirrored the growing...

    (pp. 172-178)

    Crescendocelebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1933. A number of guitar-related articles appeared in the magazine that year, including a full-page biography of William Foden, a testimonial to the instrument and Segovia by a French correspondent, and ongoing reports by Vahdah Olcott-Bickford about her activities with the American Guitar Society. Enthusiastic articles and reviews documented the American premiere of the young Viennese virtuoso Louise Walker and announced a new American tour by Segovia. The magazine reported the death of jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, continued to address readers’ questions about the Hawaiian guitar and plectrum guitar techniques, and noted the many...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 179-214)
    (pp. 215-222)
    (pp. 223-226)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 227-239)