The guitar changed the world … but how did the world change the guitar?

Such is the ubiquity of the guitar that its popularity can be taken for granted, its history overlooked. The period between the 1890s and 1940s was crucial to the instrument’s evolution. 

By Dr Ken Murray, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

The guitar may be the most widely-played instrument in the world, an active component in musical styles from all corners of the globe. It’s well known that the guitar played a key role in the music of the post-second-world-war era but what is less well documented is the trajectory of the guitar during the period from the 1890s to the 1940s.

The current Instrument of Change exhibition (until 31 August) at the Grainger Museum in Melbourne takes a fascinating approach to those overlooked years of the guitar and illustrates how the instrument was played and enjoyed by both amateur and professional musicians during that period.

It also includes photographs, musical scores and artworks by iconic Australian artists such as Tom Roberts and Russell Drysdale.

Instrument of Change at the Grainger Museum. Picture: Peter Casamento.

In the 19th century the guitar played an important role in instrumental groups such as the Spanish Estudiantina, where it accompanied steel strung bandurrias and lauds. These Spanish groups had great success touring the world in the 1880s and 1890s, helping to disseminate the Spanish guitar internationally. The exhibition features a beautiful early flamenco instrument, notable for dimensions similar to a 19th-century parlor guitar.

Instrument of Change at the Grainger Museum. Picture: Peter Casamento
Instrument of Change at the Grainger Museum. Flamenco guitar. Picture: Peter Casamento.

The formation of banjo, mandolin and guitar clubs and societies (known as the BMG movement) saw the guitar competing with a new range of instruments that were mass-produced and promoted through magazines and mail-order catalogues. In this context, the guitar was prized for its historical associations and sophisticated repertoire.

Instrument of Change also focuses on Percy Grainger’s intersections with the guitar.

Grainger, linked mainly in the public imagination to his piano performances and compositions, engaged with the guitar as both performer and composer over many decades, from his first works in the early 1900s, to experiments with the instrument in London in the 1910s, to performances with the American experimental composer Henry Cowell in the 1940s. Grainger appreciated and embraced amateur guitar and mandolin ensembles and included guitars in numerous pieces and arrangements.

Through the use of open tunings and plectrum-style strumming, Grainger was an early advocate of massed guitars in the concert hall. The Instrument of Change exhibition features scores, instruments and photos from the Grainger Museum archives.

Instrument of Change at the Grainger Museum. Picture: Peter Casamento.

The guitar surpassed the popularity of other instruments in this period through ingenious evolutionary changes of shape, design and function. With the arrival of new instruments, such as the Gibson harp guitar and early arch-top instruments, design features derived from both the mandolin and banjo were successfully adapted in a quest for greater volume and relevance.

Instrument of Change at the Grainger Museum. Picture: Peter Casamento.

A range of other related instruments are featured in the exhibition, such as ukuleles and the Hawaiian steel guitar, which added new waves of interest to this scene in the 1920s.

While many of the trends influencing the guitar were global, Australian performers and makers were involved in these developments and their contribution is recognised in the exhibition.

Italian makers the Cera brothers emigrated to Australia in the 1920s and continued making their amazing harp guitars and mandolins into the 1970s. The burgeoning classical guitar scene of the 1930s and 40s found an advocate in Len Williams (father of classical guitarist John Williams) who helped to build a classical guitar community in Melbourne.

Instrument of Change at the Grainger Museum. Len Williams. Picture: Peter Casamento

The exhibition ends with the Maton guitar company, one of the most recognisable and enduring Australian musical brands, established in 1946. The founder, Bill May, played double bass and guitar in dance bands and Hawaiian groups and made his first guitar as a teenager in 1932. He began with flat-top acoustic guitars and later diversified with archtop instruments and an extensive range of electric guitars.

May was keenly aware of the diversity of guitar activities. In an advertisement from the early 1950s he stated that there were Maton models to cover a range of styles including “radio, orchestra, solo, hillbilly and Hawaiian”.

Instrument of Change at the Grainger Museum. Maton. Picture: Peter Casamento

While American instruments were his examples, May was committed to making an Australian product that could compete with the best in the world. His vision of an Australian guitar with international impact was formed during the seminal period of 1920–1946 when the guitar became a truly global instrument.

Instrument of Change: Visions of the Guitar in the Early 20th Century is at the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, until 31 August 2017. The exhibition was curated by Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Associate Professor Michael Christoforidis and Dr Ken Murray.