Instruments called “guitar” are relatively new additions to the musical instrument world. The closest relatives to the 20th century guitar are only a few hundred years old and bear only a slight resemblance to today’s acoustic guitar. Understanding Taylor Guitars’ breakthrough designs and explosive 21st century popularity, is to understand why the guitar itself suddenly became so popular. 

What changed inside the guitar that caused it to rocket to America’s most popular instrument? 

400 Years of Acoustic Flattop Guitar Evolution: The Cliff Notes Version

Baroque Era Guitar (Europe; Early 1600s to mid-1700s): A 10 gut string (two courses of 5 strings) instrument. This small, peanut shaped Guitar is constructed much like the bowl back mandolin. Low volume and short sustain. They are seldom played or manufactured today.

Romantic Era Guitar (Europe; Late 1770s to mid-1800s): Slightly wider and louder than the Baroque era guitar. The Romantic guitar is often referred to as “peanut shaped”. A narrower neck width led to the first single course 6-string guitar. It is sometimes used to aid in composing. The Romantic era guitar began to gain uniformity and is held and tuned like a guitar of today. Some truly fine guitars were made in this era by names like Stauffer and young apprentice, C.F. Martin. The guitar started gaining popularity, raising the ire of, and becoming a threat to, the Violin Maker’s Guild. The environment was unfriendly enough to cause C.F. Martin to pack up shop and immigrate to America. Some things haven’t changed – the guitar was born a “bad boy.”

The Torres “Modern Spanish Classical” (Spain; 1850-1900): Antonio Torres is widely considered the father of the modern guitar. Torres realized the top wood or soundboard of the guitar was the key element of the guitar’s tone. Setting out to make a world class instrument, the Torres model had a larger body, and a more musical-sounding ‘fan braced’ soundboard. Fan bracing was a technological leap at the time, adding sustain, projection, and balance. The guitar was no longer a novelty or portable composition tool – it was a force to be reckoned with. Players like Master Andréas Segovia made the classical guitar a world-renowned instrument. The Torres style is the template for all “Spanish Style classical” guitars that followed.

The American Cowboy and Parlor Guitar (America; Early 1800s-1920s): Most gut-stringed cowboy guitars of the 1800s in America used a top bracing system called “Ladder Style.” Ladder bracing looks just like it sounds – like parallel runners of a ladder. It was strong enough to keep a small, gut string guitar’s top from splitting, warping, or falling apart due to the string’s tension. Ladder braced guitar tops did not allow much flexibility. As a result, the early American guitar was not loud enough to be useful outside the home (and sometimes the lone prairie). Americans called these pre-radio, family music makers “Parlor” or “Cowboy” guitars. Sometime in the 1840s, C.F. Martin contributed the brilliantly engineered “X-Style” top bracing system; a technical milestone in guitar design that improved tone and volume.

20th Century Acoustic Guitars

New Technology today generally conjures visions of the latest cell phone, computer, or electric car. You don’t need to be very old to remember when a paper map or atlas was your GPS. Cutting edge tech, before the computer and microchip assisted devices, don’t feel like high tech advancements in our modern world — but simple hands on tech literally built the world we live in. Try to imagine a world without indoor plumbing, roadways, or canned chili. A perfect storm of technology brought the American Guitar out of the Parlor, into the forefront of America’s melting pot of people, music, and culture.

The Age of Steel Strings: The Acoustic Flattop Guitars Internal Evolution

Late 1800s: Silk strings with steel wrapping became available.

1903: Orville Gibson uses a type of hybrid string for his new style mandolin, arched top acoustic guitars, and Harp guitars. The result is a marked improvement in volume and tone.

1900: “Monel” brand steel strings are now made with an alloy wrap, over steel core. Banjo, violin, and mandolin makers adapted the Monel strings with magnificent results. The floating bridge/end-block mounted tail piece could easily handle the extra tension of steel strings.

The Acoustic flat-top guitar with its “fixed to the soundboard ‘pin bridge’ construction,” would not be as easy to adapt to heavy tension steel strings. Simply beefing up the ladder, fan or H-style braces, will dampen the sound of the guitar. Lighter bracing will cause the guitar to implode. The acoustic flat-top will have to stay in the parlor just a little while longer.

1919: Gibson develops a steel reinforced neck, to aid in steel stringed instruments neck strength.

1922: C.F. Martin begins overhauling its X-braced design guitars for steel strings.

The Acoustic Flattop “Grows”

The stronger framework of the steel string guitar allows larger, louder guitar construction.

Parlor-sized guitars are seldom built. L, 0, 00, sizes are mostly abandoned in favor of larger 000, OM, dreadnought, and jumbo sizes.

1929: C.F. Martin unveils the 14-fret, steel string large body ‘Orchestra Model’ OM-28 – the first completely modern steel string flattop.

1931: C.F. Martin unveils the world’s first Dreadnought (Steel string, 12 fret D-18 and D-28)

1934: The Dreadnaught body design is now in its modern 14-fret style.

1934: Gibson unveils the X-braced, 14-fret ‘Jumbo’ model, and ‘Advanced Jumbo.’

1938: Gibson unveils the colossal 17” double X-braced Super Jumbo, the SJ-200.

The Acoustic Guitar Rises

The 1930s bore witness to the guitar’s rise to dominance. The American adaptation of the guitar has been embraced by players of all styles and sub-genres of music around the globe. Understanding that the primary source of volume, sustain, and sound quality comes from the acoustic guitars soundboard or “top,” is the key to building a guitar with the desired results. Tech has a funny way of turning the world around in the blink of an eye. Steel strings, remodeled X-bracing, and the large body dreadnought, OM, 000, Jumbo and Super Jumbo-sized flattop are the technical advancements that changed the guitar’s usefulness and popularity forever. The guitar now had volume and tone sweet enough to play along with the fiddle, mandolin, and voice. The guitar also has the ability to sustain chords much longer than the sharp, percussive banjo. Nearly overnight the Flattop guitar was America’s new instrument of choice. Most flattop enthusiasts agree the 20th century acoustic flattop reached its zenith of design and technical advancement in pre-WWII era designs.

The dovetail, X-brace system served as a template for nearly all acoustic guitars of the 20th century. What will the 21st century bring, Mr. Taylor?

What’s Inside the New 20th Century Sensation?

A set of steel strings puts about 175 pounds of force on a 24-26 inch modern scale length guitar. X-bracing was used with great success on small gut string guitars, but needed a design overhaul to work with a full-sized steel string “pin-bridge” soundboard. The soundboard needs to be flexible and resonant, yet needs to be strong enough to support the vastly increased tension of steel strings. The internal structure and its subtle and not so subtle factors are as decisive to the overall sound of the guitar, as its outwardly visible tone woods and size. A complete understanding of flattop construction is a lifetime’s work. However, understanding the basics is fairly easy. Stick with me on this “technical” part. Think of it as that old song “Dem Dry Bones.”

At a basic level, X-bracing is shockingly simple: tall wooden strips called braces are crossed like an X, with lots of smaller braces strategically placed all around it. This pattern snugly surrounds the sound hole on the upper portion of the X. The “heart of the guitar” (its inner bridge plate) is supported by the lower section of the X-shape braces. The neck is glued into the body like two puzzle pieces called a dovetail joint. The top frets on the fingerboard are glued to the guitar’s top and supported by special bracing inside. Steel strings can’t be tied on like old style gut or nylon strings. A ball on the end of the steel string is held into a new style bridge called a “pin-bridge” (todays Ball-end, Bridge, and Bridge Pins).

The back has parallel running “ladder braces” to help support it. Notched ribbing helps keep the top and back held together, and transfers resonance from the back and sides of the sound box. The entire guitar resonates and vibrates. This interconnected system amplifies the strings and creates the flattop tone. So…sing along! The string is connected to “bridge/bridge-plate.” The bridgeplate is connected to the “X-brace.” The X-brace is connected to the “soundboard.” Got it, kinda?  

If Most Guitars are X-braced, Why Don’t They All Sound the Same?

Experienced flattop players will tell you with certainty, that no two solid-wood, 20th century acoustics will sound identical. Guitars of the same make and model, made on the same day will not sound exactly the same. Any change in construction methods or materials will have an even more profound effect. Guitars of this era age like people. The tone changes and matures and structural strength will begin to weaken and fail, without proper care and the occasional major surgery.

Moving On

From then until now, the history of the acoustic has brought us beautiful sounds, feelings, and experiences. Some of the deepest works of musicality where composed solely and simply from an acoustic guitar and an individual voice. While the construction and design of the acoustic haven’t changed too drastically lately—and probably won’t too much in the future either, the works of art that it facilitates will outlast us all.

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.