Stringed instruments have been around for thousands of years, and their legend is evident in both their existence as cultural artifacts and the mythologies that surround their players; Orpheus playing his lyre to Charon in the Underworld and Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads are two that come to mind. Guitars of all shapes and sizes have been the world’s most popular stringed instrument for quite a while, and the advent of electrically-powered guitars and basses in the 1940s and 50s by Leo Fender and a number of other inventors only sought to enhance their auditory reach. Beyond that, however, there is near-endless fascination available for both experts and amateurs in the visual design of a guitar.
By gazing within the hollow body of this acoustic guitar (fig. 2)—the space that provides its clear, resonant sound—you can see the name of the company that manufactured it (St. Laurent, Etude), the Model Number (FG-910N), and the country in which it was made (Korea). To an expert eye, these details might help decipher what year the guitar was made in, or how rare it is.
Running across the hollow body are six strings of varying thickness that enable the acoustic guitar to make sound; no matter how nice a guitar is, it can’t make sound without strings. These strings run up the length of the fretboard to the ‘head’ of the guitar, whereupon they are wound through six different tuners and pitched according to the guitarist’s preference. The standard tuning, from the lowest to the highest string, consists of the notes EADGBe, though there are well over a hundred different tunings. Upon closer inspection of the ‘head’ of the guitar (fig. 3), there is a fair amount of dust beneath the strings, indicating that the guitar has not been restrung and cleaned in quite some time.
There are a series of white dots that run along the fretboard that help to indicate what note is being played; the two white dots on the twelfth fret indicate an octave, whereupon the scale begins again. Although it is often difficult to decipherthe position of a note on each string and each fret, the tuning of an open string provides a reference point: for example, because the lowest string when played open is an ‘E’ note, ‘E’ will also be on the ‘D’ string at the second fret, the ‘A’ string on the seventh fret, and the ‘E’ string on the twelfth fret. Within musical theory, there are a number of scales and ‘modes’ that can be played upon the acoustic guitar, as well as a tabulature system that indicates finger positions upon the strings—a system of musical language that differs from sheet music.
How does playing the guitar make one feel? It can often be very frustrating, and sometimes painful due to the hardness of the steel strings—it takes a while for one’s fingers to develop callouses—although one can find a simple, present beauty in strumming through just a few notes and chords. Most guitarsare very expensive—older ones can fetch tens of thousands of dollars in collectors’ markets—but there is a certain ‘sense’ one develops after playing a guitar of their own for a considerable amount of time akin to a companionship.