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Guitar as Cultural Icon

May 16, 2019 at History Essays

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Nowadays, guitar is the most popular musical instrument all over the world. The amount of people who play the guitar, at least at the level of few chords, is much greater than the amount of those who play other instruments. Probably, there is an even greater amount of those who would like to learn playing it. Besides, studies show that the guitar is the most widespread musical instrument. It is played on all continents, including even Antarctica. The guitar has visited space. Perhaps, other musical instruments will be there with time, but the priority is given to the guitar. The classical guitar as is known today has 150 years of history, but its relatives, i.e. all string plucked instruments, are nearly 4000 years old. At certain periods of time, the guitar was very popular almost in every country, from China to Spain. Guitar music is an important part of the cultural heritage of every nation. It has passed a long historical way and now the guitar has become a peculiar cultural icon. What is the reason of its amazing popularity? Current paper describes and discloses milestones of formation of the classical guitar as a cultural icon and musicians participating in this process.

Guitar is a Queen

Without a doubt, the guitar is a queen of stringed plucked instruments. The history of their development has its roots deep in the ancient times. Stringed instruments appeared everywhere where human life began. “Their bodies were hollowed out from the solid pieces of wood, made of the tortoise shell or the dried gourd and cushioned with the sheepskin. The strings were made from ox’s veins and pulled and fastened to the neck” (Fetherolf 34). In Egypt, archeologists found the first drawings, which depicted stringed musical instruments with the hollow body and the neck. The instruments on these pictures were very similar to guitar. Ancient Egyptians enjoyed the guitar’s music, which was called "noblat" and "zither". As deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics showed, a written image of the noblat symbolized the good. This fact in itself gives a clear idea about an important role that music played in ancient Egyptians’ life. Researchers found the evidence of existence of similar musical instruments in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Phoenicia, India, and Babylonia.

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The guitar was very popular among ancient Arabs so that it is not surprising that in the 13th century this instrument became well-known at the Arabian territories, which belonged to Spain. It spread rapidly among the Spanish population. The very name of the guitar has Arabic roots. In comparison with modern guitars, the ancient ones were smaller and had an oblong shape. The guitar acquired the current structure only in the 19th century. Since that time, it is considered as the best and has not changed for more than a century and a half. Besides, the height of sound and the setting from the first to the sixth string have become standard. The Spanish gotten the guitar from the Arabs and shared it with their European neighbors. They brought it to America where it became one of the most favorite musical instruments. Why did the guitar become so popular wherever it appeared? Most likely, this happens because of its versatility and variety of its musical applications. The guitar can act as a single solo instrument, as well as it can be used as accompaniment. Regarding the accompaniment, the guitar has a very wide range because its sound can be combined with sounds of many other instruments. Its duets with bow instruments (violin, viola, cello) are very harmonious. It can also be successfully combined with some wind instruments such as clarinet and flute. Besides, the guitar plays a great role in vocal music. A huge amount of songs, romances, and serenades have been created for the voice with the accompaniment of the guitar. It sounds great, not only in chamber ensembles, but also in large orchestras.

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One can trace five expressive periods in the history of formation of the guitar as a cultural icon. Conditionally, they can be called: formation, stagnation, revival, decline, and heyday. The first stage of formation lasted for near a century and a half till the middle of the 14th century. During this time, the guitar displaced some primitive stringed instruments. It took possession of a very simple, but its own repertoire, becoming one of the most favorite folk instruments in Spain and gradually penetrating into other European countries. The period of stagnation was characterized by the appearance of a lute. It wiped out the guitar and suspended its development for four centuries. In the period of revival, musicians who dedicated themselves to the guitar gave it a new life. At the beginning of 19th century, the guitar became an iconic instrument and since that time it has never stopped being such. Technical and expressive possibilities of the guitar have increased and, as a result, during the first decades of the century the guitar becomes an object of a general passion. The entire Europe is covered by "the guitar fever". Amateurs admire it, while virtuosos are touring Europe with concerts, receiving standing ovation of the enthusiastic audience. Brilliant artists have achieved worldwide recognition. For the most part, they come from Spain or Italy, being forced to leave the country because of the wars. Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado, Ferdinando Carulli, Mauro Dzhulani, and Matteo Carcassi composed for guitar and educated both amateurs and professionals. As a consequence, a large number of schools, teaching aids, exercise books, and theoretical works have appeared. Niccol? Paganini played the guitar masterfully. "I am the king of the violin, - he said - and the guitar is my queen" (Chapman and Clapton 67). Paganini wrote many songs, sonatas, and variations for the guitar. He included the guitar into the quartet with violin, viola, and cello. These musicians have managed to pick up the guitar to the level of the professional instruments. It has become the most popular musical instrument in Europe.

The period of decline for the guitar began at the middle of the 19th century. After many improvements, a grand piano became the main instrument of concert halls. The violin firmly held its place, too. Performances of guitarists attracted fewer listeners. The public opinion changed dramatically: to go to a concert of guitarist meant to show a bad taste. Fortunately, the period of decline lasted only for few decades. Then, the rapid heyday began. The beginning of the period of heyday is connected with the name of the Spanish guitarist Francisco Tarrega. He became famous as a great musician and a brilliant composer. He helped the guitar to found the interested audience and become a concert instrument again. Besides, Andres Segovia gave the guitar the second life. He was a great guitar virtuoso. He traveled around European countries and Russia with the tour and revived interest in this musical instrument. Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century the public attitude considered the guitar as one of the most expressive folk instruments. A new period of popularity of guitar began, and, as a result, a number of exceptionally gifted guitar virtuoso appeared. They perfected the art of playing the guitar and put it on a par with other traditional solo instruments. “In 20th century the guitar became an object of adoration for music lovers all over the world. Because of its universality, the guitar sounded gorgeous in classical and popular music at the same time” (Westbrook 45).

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Although at the academic stage the guitar has lost its popularity from time to time, in everyday life it has never been forgotten. If considering the guitar in the context of the folk arts, it can be definitely said that it is high on the list of instruments, which formed the folk musical heritage. Flamenco is the clearest example of it. However, flamenco is not just guitar music. It is also a song and a dance. The birthplace of flamenco is the southern province of Spain. Many music historians believe that Spanish gypsies have strongly influenced formation of flamenco. The manner of the Roma women and the Spanish style of performance have mixed, mutual borrowing and processing of melodies have occurred and, as a result, a very special and independent art has been born. Flamenco on the guitar, in fact, is a melody with alternating chords. Melodies are so fast that most other musical instruments cannot play them. Flamenco is often an improvisation. Two or three guitarists can come together and immediately, without any rehearsal start playing a very complicated composition that has never been recorded on music paper. If they are asked to repeat, they will do it, but differently than at the first time because the music was born at runtime. The guitar can be considered as an iconic musical instrument of the folk culture. A Spaniard Paco Luc?a is one of the most famous flamenco guitarists. Flamenco guitarists rarely act separately from the choir. Paco Luc?a started feeling closed within the limits of accompaniment to songs and dances. He left and started performing independently. His skills have grown to extraordinary virtuosity and opened doors of famous concert halls to him.

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The guitar has been perceived as an especial musical instrument, which confidently holds the first place among other solo instruments. When the guitar was combined with the electric equipment, another kind of guitars appeared. It was an electric guitar. At first, it was not apprehended by performers of classical music and accompanists of ancient songs. However, it has found its place and perfectly played its role in the vocal-instrumental ensemble and some kinds of jazz. In the 20th century, there were a number of great guitarists playing electric guitars in rock bands. Their popularity was amazing. They had a huge amount of fans and admirers who delighted their excellence of playing the guitar and tried to follow their suit.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix holds a special place on this list. He is considered to be one of the most daring and inventive virtuoso guitarists in the history of rock music. James Marshall Hendrix, an Indian left-handed self-taught player, has created a unique and innovative style of playing, connecting virtuoso technique, equilibristic accuracy, and crystal-clear sound in his music. He was called a great guitar player, a phenomenon, and a genius because he was able to look at the electric guitar in a new light. Hendrix boarded new horizons of excellence and opened the way for many young guitarists. Unfortunately, his life ended tragically early.

The Beatles

The Beatles is an iconic British rock band from Liverpool. The group is considered to be the greatest rock band in the history. The Beatles made a tremendous contribution to the development of guitar music. Their appearance, demeanor, and beliefs of musicians had a significant influence on the cultural and social revolution of the 1960s. Lennon-McCartney duet became one of the most influential and successful author unions in the history of modern music. Without a doubt, the phenomenon of Beatlemania strongly contributed to the formation of the public opinion about the guitar as the most popular musical instrument.

Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley

There were many musicians who did not play the guitar masterfully, but contributed a lot to the increasing popularity of the guitar. Their undoubted talent and charisma allowed them to inspire a huge amount of their fans to learn playing the guitar. For instance, Janis Joplin was a wonderful singer-songwriter. Although she was a multi-instrumentalist, Janis loved performing solo, accompanying herself on the guitar. Besides, Elvis Presley is a person who was an iconic musician himself and made the guitar such. Singing and playing the guitar, he gathered hundreds of people who admired him and his musical excellence. All these and other amazing guitarists are the legends of the guitar music and the guitar in their arms has become a legendary instrument.

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The guitar has passed a long way to become a cultural icon. Nowadays, it is the most popular musical instrument in the world. People of all ages play the guitar. Its repertoire is extremely rich. Uncomplicated songs can be played on it, as well as works of the world classics. A layer of popular culture is linked with the guitar. This instrument is resorted constantly by the most eminent and talented people of many creative professions directly or indirectly related to music. Presumably, the way of the development of the guitar is not completed yet and there will be many talented musicians who will dedicate themselves to this great instrument and develop the guitar music in future.

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