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The Guitar in the History of Country Music

The acoustic guitar arrived in America with early European settlers, and gradually European guitar makers like Christian Freidrich Martin emigrated to America and began building the stringed instruments. Guitars were difficult to mass-produce, however, until the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800's. The appearance of the louder steel string guitars improved things somewhat, though the technology of brass and tungsten coating strings was still some way off; but fiddle, mandolin and banjo remained dominant among white stringbands. Black southern musicians were quicker to adopt the guitar, and it became an integral part of rural black music. White musicians noticed this and began using guitars, which started showing up more often in white stringbands by the early 1900's. Grand Ole Opry musician Sam McGee, for example learned muck about guitar picking from black railroad workers who played during their lunch breaks near his Tennessee home. As cheaply produced guitars appeared in mail order catalogs, and more high quality guitars come on the market, they gained greater favor.

As the guitar became popular in stringbands, a number of guitarists began creating their own innovative styles, such as Roy Harvey, who worked with Charley Pride, and Riley Puckett, who worked with Gid Tanner. Each created rhythmic bass runs that enhanced their bands' sounds and formed the basis for the later guitar styles of bluegrass. Jimmie Rodgers also helped sell many guitars in the late 1920's and early 1930's by his use of the instrument. He appears to have been the first country singer to have a guitar model named for him, when Weymann created their "Jimmie Rodgers Special" model in 1930. In 1932 WLS National Barn Dance singer, Arkie the Arkansas Woodchopper, had Martin guitars build him one of their large D-2 "dreadnought" guitars with a herringbone wood trim. It became the classic Martin D-28. In 1933 his fellow Barn Dance star, Gene Autry, had Martin build him a elaborate pearl inlaid version of "Arkie's" guitar that became the D-45. Sears Roebuck began marketing its inexpensive "Gene Autry" guitars in the 1930's, and these were the first guitars many young future guitar stars owned. Other musicians, including Ray Whitley, preferred Gibson acoustics (the company build their classic J-200 jumbo acoustic for Whitley in 1937).

The electric guitar had been around in varying forms since the late 1920's and Grand Ole Opry group The Vagabonds had even experimented with some sort of amplification early on. But the first real amplified guitars were steel guitars. In 1936, Gibson introduced their ES-150 electric guitars. Most southeastern country musicians rejected them, but the Western swing bands of the Southwest were quick to adopt them, most notably the Light Crust Doughboys' Muryel "Zeke" Campbell and Eldon Shamblin.

After complaints that Ernest Tubb's early acoustic Decca recordings were inaudible, Tubb had guitarist "Smitty" Smith use an electrified guitar on his 1941 "Walking The Floor Over You." It established Tubb's style and helped end the Opry's ban on electric guitars when Tubb came to the show. Still, few country singers used electrics, one exception being Floyd Tillman.

The first true guitar stylists were a varied lot. Maybelle Carter's famous "drop thumb" guitar style, epitomized by her solo work on "Wildwood Flower," inspired generations of country pickers. Karl Farr's acoustic guitar work with The Sons of the Pioneers combined country with a bit of jazz. California guitarist Porky Freeman had a huge regional hit with his amplified version of "Boogie Woogie on the Strings" in 1943. After the war, Zeb Turner used a similar style on his "Zeb's Mountain Boogie."

The syncopated Western Kentucky thumb and index finger picking style pioneered by Kennedy Jones, featuring a thumb pick, formed the basis for the picking of Ike Everly and Mose Rager, who taught the style to Merle Travis. Travis' playing over WLW in the late 30's and early 40's inspired young Chester Atkins to develop his own version of the style. Jazz guitarists like Belgian Django Reinhardt and black electric guitarist Charlie Christian also influenced country guitar players. Harold Bradley and Billy Byrd were both Christian disciples, as were Bob Wills/Spade Cooley guitarist Jimmy Wyble and pioneer Nashville studio musicians, Hank Garland and Grady Martin. Nashville guitarists, a group that included Ray Edenton and later Reggie Young, could usually play in any style required.

Though Rickenbacker had introduced a solid body model in the 1930's, it never caught on. In 1950 Leo Fender introduced the Fender broadcaster (changed to Telecaster), the first successful solid body guitar, and its success largely come from country pickers. Other gifted soloists also appeared, including Jimmy Bryant, who played dazzlingly fast country jazz and whose playing was much in demand in L.A. recording studios in the 50's, and Joe Maphis, a pioneer in flatpicking fiddle tunes on guitar, who played the first doubleneck "Mosrite" brand electric guitar made by Semie Moseley. Gretsch's Chet Atkins line and Gibson's Byrdland, designed by Billy Byrd and Hank Garland, also caught on.

But acoustic stylists hadn't stagnated during this period. Lester Flatt, building on the styles of earlier players like Roy Harvey, created a punchy guitar style combining chords and bass runs that he used with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and then with his partner, Earl Scruggs. Other fine bluegrass guitarists included The Stanley Brothers' George Shuffler, who "crosspicked" his instrument like a mandolin, as did guitarist Bill Napier. Blind guitarist Doc Watson also picked up the idea of finger picking fiddle tunes as Joe Maphis had. Hank Snow, who often soloed on his records, showed the influence of Karl Farr. Like Snow, singer Billy Grammer was another superb guitar soloist.

In the 60's, the Fender Telecaster stylings of country-rockabilly guitarist James Burton, singer Buck Owens (who played guitar on many Capitol rock and country released), Owens' lead guitarist don rich and Merle Haggard's guitarist Roy Nichols all had considerable impact, as did the nylon string playing of Jerry Reed, who expanded the Travis-Atkins style to use all the fingers of the right hand. Owens, Reed, Roy Clark and Glen Campbell were among the best known singers of the 60's who were also formidable guitarists. In the 70's, telecasters symbolized the Outlaw movement through Waylon Jennings' prominent use of the instrument. British Telecaster ace Albert Lee's work with Emmylou Harris' Hot Band had considerable influence in the late 70's, as did that of his fellow Brit Ray Flacke. In the 80's the Telecaster stylings of Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson, Jerry Donohue and Desert Rose Band guitarist John Jorgenson proved the instrument as durable as ever.

In acoustic music, Willie Nelson's gut-string guitar work, influenced equally by Django Reinhardt and Grady Martin, became a trademark of his stage and recorded performances. In bluegrass, Eddie Adcock's playing revealed the influence of Jimmy Bryant and other electric players. Tony Rice, a veteran bluegrasser, epitomized a more complex style combining jazz influences, as did Merle Haggard's young electric guitarist Clint Strong. In the 1990's, though, the technology has changed, no country guitar style, acoustic or electric, is truly out of date, and new ideas continue to flow.

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