Steel-Strings For Different Styles, Part I

George Gruhn
Guitar Player, March 1979
THE ACOUSTIC STEEL-STRING guitar is a remarkably versatile instrument. It can be flatpicked, fingerpicked, or played with a bottleneck or slide and sound good in almost any kind of music from bluegrass to pop. Many acoustic guitarists today play several different styles, and these folks frequently ask me what kind of guitar will suit everything they do. Unfortunately, I don't know of any steel-string that works equally well for a wide variety of styles and techniques. In my opinion, at least, a single guitar that's genuinely all-purpose simply doesn't exist, although builders and manufacturers have made numerous attempts to develop such an instrument. The individual who plans to buy a steel-string should bear this in mind and select the type that best meets the requirements of his or her particular repertoire.

Some players will find that they need two or more different kinds of guitars to get the most out of the styles they play. We'll take a look at several kinds of music and the demands they make on a guitar. We'll also see how various features of construction--size, shape, type of wood, etc.--affect the ability to meet these demands.

For bluegrass and acoustic country-style playing, the general consensus of opinion seems to be that Martin D, or dreadnought, models work best. Bluegrass rhythm or backup usually consists of bass runs played in the first position using many open strings, and a capo is generally employed to obtain the open-string sound in any key. For this style (which is often underestimated and is far more difficult than it appears), you need a guitar with four very powerful, good sounding bottom strings. The sound of the B and high E strings isn't terribly important, and the guitar's action and intonation beyond the 5th fret are almost irrelevant.

For bluegrass rhythm most people prefer guitars with rosewood backs and sides (like the Martin D-28) because they tend to have a booming, resonant bass. On the other hand, people who play complex bluegrass and country leads such as Tony Rice and Doc Watson often like mahogany guitars like the Martin D-18, because they tend to produce a somewhat thinner, clearer tone with more treble response than rosewood guitars.

Although Martin dreadnoughts are widely recognized as excellent sounding bluegrass and acoustic country guitars, many people today complain that they're difficult to play. Martin necks were designed for traditional first-position country rhythm playing and often don't suit modern hot lead players who demand comfortable action and precise intonation anywhere on the fingerboard. This is undoubtedly one reason why a growing number of bluegrass and country players are switching from Martins to guitars of similar design with more up-to-date necks. Many good quality guitars of this type are currently available and are gaining considerable acceptance, even among hard-core traditionalists. (The readers should bear in mind that a guitar should not be judged by how well it's set up; the action and intonation of many guitars can be vastly improved when they're set up properly or have needed repairs such as neck sets.)

Blues playing encompasses so many styles that no single guitar could be ideal for all of them. Generally speaking, blues players want a guitar with a strong treble even at the expense of bass, but beyond this their requirements vary widely. A number of Gibson flat-tops from the small LG models to the dreadnought-size J-45 and J-50 on up to the extra large J-200 are probably the most popular guitars for blues, but many players use Epiphones, Guilds, or Martins of various sizes.

A few people have discovered the little known Maurer guitars made in Chicago around the turn of the century, which are fantastic blues instruments. For Delta blues, particularly bottleneck, many players want a funky sounding guitar and prefer some of the old Stellas to any Gibson or Martin. It's rather ironic that many excellent blues musicians want a sound that's almost diametrically opposed to what most luthiers spend their lives trying to achieve; this points up the fact that evaluating tone is a highly subjective matter.

Guitarists such as GP columnist Stefan Grossman who play a variety of fingerpicking styles usually want a guitar with good tonal balance between the bass and treble, good volume, and good action and intonation all the way up the neck. Many of these folks use instruments smaller than dreadnoughts, such as the Martin OOO and OO models. Maurer guitars, which I mentioned previously, and those produced by Maurer under different names such as Euphonon, are among the finest fingerpicking guitars ever made. Although they're quite rare and can be fairly expensive, they're well worth the fingerpicker's attention.

Acoustic steel-string guitar has so many applications in jazz--from playing rhythm in a big band to playing solo in a club--that instruments that sound very different may be considered equally good for jazz. While almost all the most popular jazz guitars are carved arch-tops (such as the Epiphone's Triumph, Broadway, Deluxe and Emperor models) and many Gibsons are braced with only a bass bar and treble bar. These tend to have considerable volume and power with very little sustain. Their 'barking' sound makes them especially good for orchestral rhythm playing.

Strombergs are considered to be some of the finest orchestral rhythm guitars ever built. The larger models in particular, such as the Master 400 (which is 19" across), are loud enough to cut through a 19-piece brass band, but they are often bass-heavy and can sound almost irritating when played softly by themselves. They were designed for rhythm playing, and in my opinion they are usually not too good for soloing or recording. The best Strombergs were made in the late '40s and '50s and have only one diagonal brace on the underside at the top, while earlier models from the 30s have a bass bar, treble bar. and several transverse braces.

Some arch-tops such as the Gibson L-10s from the '30s, a few of the Gibson L-5s and Super 400s made in the 30s, the Gibson Johnny Smith models, and most of D'Angelico's later guitars built during the '40s and '50s all have X bracing. Arch-tops with X bracing tend to have less power but more sustain and flatter or more equal response than those with other types of bracing. D'Angelicos, for example, usually have extremely good balance with very even response from the nut to the last fret. While they may not be particularly loud, they have a very smooth, mellow sound and usually record especially well.

Ever since Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young appeared onstage, acoustic guitar has been used fairly often by contemporary rock and pop players. Since most or these folks do little more than strum their acoustic guitars, it's hard to generalize about the ideal acoustic for pop or rock. I can say, however, that most rockers I deal with want acoustic guitars with considerable sustain as well as good balance and intonation. Sustain is a quality that can be described fairly well in physical terms--a guitar produces a certain amount of string vibration that can he drained quickly or slowly depending on how it's built. The faster the string vibration is drained, the more volume and less sustain a guitar will have. When string vibration is drained more slowly, the sound will be sustained for a longer period; there will be less volume, however, since less energy is being converted to sound at any one time. As a general rule, therefore, acoustic guitars with good sustain aren't quite as loud as those that produce one short burst.

It's worth noting that a guitar can actually have too much sustain, especially for styles such as bluegrass and orchestral rhythm. The right balance of volume and sustain for the type of music to be played is an important consideration in selecting an acoustic instrument.

As we've seen, different playing styles make different demands on a guitar, and steel-strings of similar quality can have vastly different playing characteristics. It may be helpful to take a brief look at how some of the major structural features of a guitar affect qualities such as tone, volume, balance, and sustain, and that's what we'll do in next month's article.