From Cowboy Companion To Alpha Instrument

Musical instruments have been around roughly since the first human discovered that you could make a sound by utilizing an object. It is speculated that the first musical instrument was a drum, at least in the sense that the first instrument made a sound when you struck it and was audible because it had a surface which could vibrate the air. I would surmise that this is probably correct, just by virtue of the fact that most people, somewhere in their early childhood, create sound by striking an object rhythmically.

It’s a toss up as to what the second musical instrument was; either something you blew air into to create sound, or something that allowed you to pluck a vibrating element to create sound. The first could be as simple as a folded leaf held between the thumbs, the second could be as simple as a slender branch that vibrated when bumped into. There’s no way to know, but I think it’s a safe assumption that after creating the drum, that first human probably became a player of both wind instruments and stringed instruments, even if these were primitive and restricted to only one pitch.

With relatively few intermediate steps, that second branch of instruments evolved directly into the electric guitar, which is exceptionally popular and all but dominates music. But it has not always been so. The guitar is, at best, a relative newcomer to centerstage.

The reasons behind this date back to the earliest days of music and have a profound effect upon the development of music itself, the musical ensemble and have shaped both the teaching and performance of music dating back to time immemorial.

You Can’t Appreciate What You Cannot Hear

Volume is a problem for all musical instruments. There’s either too much or too little; at least in most cases.When more than one type of musical instrument is being played in an ensemble the problem can become nearly intractable.

One way of dealing with this problem is to use sheer numbers. If one wanted the flutes to be heard in an orchestra setting, it would require that a number of flutes would be playing the exact same line simultaneously. It would probably require more flutes in an orchestra than it would, for instance, bass drums, because drums are quite loud and flutes are only moderately loud. Throughout the ages, musical ensembles were created to give a natural balance between instruments and all of the participants had to (literally) be on the same page; playing a tightly constructed score.

Guitars, and similar instruments tend not to be all that loud. Whereas a bowed instrument, such as a violin, receives continual energy to the string from the drag of the bow, with a guitar the string is struck and the energy decreases from that point.Each note is like a baby snake, which fends for itself soon after its life begins. Several approaches were used to deal with the baby snake dilemma. The banjo is basically a stringed instrument combined with a drum, which serves as a very efficient soundboard. Banjos were popular in the 19th century, in part, because they could be used as rhythm instruments that would cut through and give the music a percussive beat.

In the early 20th century banjos continued to be used, but the gentler sound of the guitar was desirable for some of the musical developments of the time. Rhythm guitars came of age in the early 20th century and soon thereafter, huge guitars of 18″ to 19″ lower bout width were used to create the volumes required to cut through in a big band. Then the audio amplifier came along and changed everything.

The electric guitar allowed the total control of volume. It also allowed the guitar to increase its role to include single line solos which allow the guitar to play improvised solos like a horn player. Charlie Christian was considered by many to be the prototype electric guitarist, playing solos as part of his role in Benny Goodman’s band in the late thirties.

With an unfortunate interruption because of WW II, the guitar grew quickly in its role. After WW II, amplification created the small combo. An electric guitar, and an electric bass allowed a band to have fewer members and to carry a smaller amount of equipment. A double bass all but requires a station wagon in order to be transported, while an electric bass can be quite compact.

The ability of the electric guitar soon spawned new approaches to music. The masterful chord work of the tenor banjoists and the rhythm guitarists was melded with melody lines to create some very tasteful guitar playing which would have been all but impossible to hear before the era of the electric guitar. Chet Atkins came along in the early ’50s and expanded the guitar’s capabilities far beyond what most could have ever imagined. The lead guitarist came into existence bringing the era of the guitar hero. Duane Eddy, was probably the first guitar hero, playing reverb-laden lead guitar lines with tastes and finesse.

As a small child, in the late fifties, I remember hearing Grady Martin playing the guitar part on Marty Robbins’ El Paso and I was smitten. Thereafter I heard Duane Eddy, the music of the Surf guitar era, the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens, George Harrison and Chet Atkins. Guitar was a common element of the music of my youth. It has affected my life profoundly ever since.

As I write this I am listening to the soundtrack of a movie DVD and mixed in with the orchestral arrangement is the occasional electric guitar solo. The electric guitar has risen to great prominence in music during its relatively short lifespan and it has influenced much of the music created ever since. Rock guitar sounds are used like a saxophone or trumpet would have been used in the past, and is frequently used as a uniquely modern contribution to orchestral arrangements, lending an indentafiably modern touch.

While there are plenty of other important instruments, the electric guitar has become an alpha instrument, if not the alpha instrument.

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