Steel-String Guitar Evolution: 1930-1940

George Gruhn
Guitar Player, October 1981
IN MY LAST THREE columns, I discussed the evolution of the acoustic steel-string guitar in the U.S. from the mid-1800's to about 1930. Momentous strides in design and construction were made during that period; by 1940 both the arch-top and the flat-top guitar had evolved into thoroughly modern instruments. Surprisingly, this was almost entirely due to the work of just two companies--Martin and Gibson. Let me begin this month's column with a brief overview of my last three installments followed by a look at acoustic steel-string evolution from 1930 to 1940.

Probably the leading creative force in American guitar building before the turn of the century was C.F. Martin, Sr. Applying his own ideas to the traditional German style guitars of the early 1800s, he evolved design concepts that profoundly influenced the course of guitar evolution in this country and eventually led to the development of the modern flat-top guitar. During the 19th century, the Martin Company was very small, making less than 200 guitars per year, while a number of its competitors such as Ditson (Bay State brand guitars), Lyon & Healy (Washburn brand guitars), and Bruno were turning out instruments by the thousands. However, almost all these guitars were Martin copies, and almost all of them were inferior to Martin in quality. These companies had virtually no influence upon guitar evolution--although some of them such as the highly ornamented Washburns have a certain value as collector's items today.

From the turn of the century through 1930, there were tremendous changes in the American guitar scene. Emerging as a major force in the industry, the Gibson Company basically evolved the entire concept of the archtop, f-hole guitar, and by 1930 had developed a relatively modern version of this instrument. Martin, on the other hand, remained committed to the flat-top, but went from making gut-string guitars to making steel-string instruments almost exclusively. Martin also added a 14-fret neck with a solid headstock to its existing line.

Whereas Ditson, Bruno, and Lyon & Healy had previously dominated the market in student-grade guitars, Chicago-based firms such as Harmony, Kay, and Regal began to assert themselves in this market during the period. Maurer, also in Chicago, was one of the few companies other than Martin and Gibson to produce high quality guitars at this time. Many Maurer instruments, which were also made under the Euphonon and Prairie State brand names, were of very high quality, with gorgeous ornamentation and innovative features such as laminated necks and braces. Despite their virtues, however, Maurer instruments really didn't have much impact on the evolution of the modern steel-string guitar. and they are relatively unknown today except among collectors and musicians.

The years 1930 to 1940 was also a period of great significance in guitar evolution. Gibson continued to develop its arch-top guitars, introducing bigger bodies, more elaborate ornamentation, Art Deco-style inlay patterns, x-bracing (on models such as the Super 400 and the Advanced L-5), and finally, around 1939, the cutaway and a natural finish. At the beginning of the decade, Gibson also came out with several flat-top models, which were largely takeoffs on Martin designs with a somewhat lower price and of somewhat less quality. The best-sellers for Gibson in terms of flat-tops during this era were those guitars priced below $50, and while most pre-War Gibson flat-tops are good instruments, they do not appear to have had much evolutionary impact (and certainly were not as influential as were the company's arch-tops).

Meanwhile, Martin became more firmly committed to the 14-fret neck and solid headstock, and added the dreadnought-size guitar as well as the D-28 to its line. The popularity of orchestral guitars at this time prompted Martin to try arch-top construction, but their models were actually flat-top bodies with carved tops, and they weren't successful. Fortunately, country music was also becoming popular, and that helped sustain the sale of Martin flat-tops through the decade.

While Gibson and Martin remained in the forefront of instrument building throughout the '30s, there were several other makers on the scene producing high quality guitars that are still popular and influential today. Epiphone made arch-tops designed for hard driving rhythm playing, and while the company was smaller than either Gibson or Martin, it was able to make enough good instruments to remain competitive. From an evolutionary point of view, Epiphone guitars had a profound influence on other guitars of this period, particularly the Stromberg. The Stromberg Company, an intimate family concern operated by Charles (who made drums) and son Elmer (who built arch-top guitars) Stromberg, made instruments similar to Epiphones in size and shape.

John D'Angelico was another very important arch-top builder who first appeared on the scene at this time. In decided contrast to instruments made by Stromberg, his guitars had X-bracing and a very refined, almost Gibson-type of tone. Both D'Angelico and Stromberg had small shops--and thus didn't produce enough guitars to significantly influence market trends--but today both makers' guitars are highly regarded and continue to make substantial contributions to the evolution of the arch-top guitar.

Next month I'll continue with a look at the development of acoustic steel-strings from 1940 until the mid-'60s.