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Acoustic Guitar Notes #2

Lightly Built Guitars, Heavy Gauge Strings...
A footnote to the development of the American guitar
by Eric Schoenberg

An extremely important technological development took place in the early 1940's, and it had a profound effect on guitar playing and design as we know it: the invention of light gauge strings. This innovation came, possibly, from John D'Addario, Sr. However, the new strings didn't catch on right away. Heavy gauge was ubiquitous from the 30's to the 50's and remained the standard for longer than that. I remember, as a kid in the mid-Sixties, going into my neighborhood music shop for strings and being sold heavy ones. They bent the neck of my '56 D-21 and I couldn't begin to make music with them. In fact, a lot of the music made today would have a tough time existing on heavy strings. Heavy strings? In "the old days", to bend a note, you used a bottleneck. Slide playing almost requires heavy strings, and may have developed because of them. Arch-tops were built for heavies, because the acoustic guitars of players like Eddie Lang had to compete with the sound level of big bands.

An Interesting Twist of Fate

Pre-1940's flattop guitars were built very lightly, having recently derived from gut-strung instruments. But Martin, Gibson and other makers needed to accommodate the hefty strings guitar players were using and so, ironically, they started beefing up their bracing in the early-to-mid 40's, just when lighter strings were being developed. It took around 20 more years for lighter strings to enter fully into use, and by then most guitars were built too heavily to work properly with them, especially for us modern finger-pickers.

Modern History

This is why I, and others like me, have been devoted to pre-40's Martins. There's nothing like a 1930 OM-28 with light gauge strings. The whole raison-d'etre of Schoenberg Guitars is to make available once again the best of that era, specifically OM's and 12-fret 000's and 00's. We have tried to do this with taste and excellence, and there is evidence that we've succeeded. There's no better compliment than imitation. I just received a new Martin 000 cutaway, and to my surprise (and pleasure - because it's a great improvement) they've changed their cutaway shape to an exact reproduction of the Schoenberg Soloist (also their neck shape, peghead shape and their whole "vintage" line concept). Schoenberg Guitars has always been innovative, even if the innovations have been backwards-looking. Starting with a batch of 6 OM-28s ordered from Martin in 1969, it's been our one-track obsession to learn from and grow towards the past. Virtually every other maker has since jumped on the bandwagon, including Martin, but still, no one is doing it like we are.